Creativity as a system
Seeing creativity as a system simplifies the creative process & allows for better management of creative energy over time.
As a creative, I’ve devoted the past seven years to mastering my craft, which I find endlessly rewarding. However, maintaining a steady flow of inspiration and output can be a challenge. This has been especially true during the last couple of years with all the turbulence and chaos in the world. Throughout this journey, I’ve pondered the concept of sustained creative energy and how to make it a constant in my life and work.
Creativity is a mysterious and often elusive concept, but also one that is essential for progress in a variety of fields. From art and design to business and technology, creativity is a driving force behind innovation, change, and beauty in the world.
The traditional view of creativity is that it is a matter of chance or talent, something that can’t be studied or understood.
I think it’s something we develop through our actions over time.
Through experimentation and reflection, I’ve discovered what I believe to be a powerful framework: creativity as a system. This perspective demystifies the creative process and makes it easier to manage creative energy. Put simply, the idea is that creativity has inputs, processes, and outputs like any system. When the system is optimized, we produce and share higher quality work and inch closer to mastery.
This essay will delve into this idea in detail. The idea is a bit abstract and logical, but the hope is to provide a valuable framework for understanding and managing creative energy. Of course, it’s worth noting that creativity is subjective and everyone’s creative process is different. There is no single framework that can distill this complex topic. Still, I hope you can to apply some of this to your own creativity. Onward.
Creativity as a System
A basic understanding of systems thinking will help you understand the rest of this essay, so I’ll try my best to give you the gist of the concept. If you’re interested in going deeper, Donella Meadows wrote a great book that explains systems thinking far better than I can.
What is a system?
A system is a set of interconnected elements that work together to achieve a common goal or purpose. In any system, there are inputs, stocks, processes, and outputs. For example, a plant is a system that uses inputs such as sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce an output, which is the food and growth it gets through the process of photosynthesis. The roots, stem, leaves, and flowers are all parts of the system that work together to make the plant grow.
In the context of creativity, we can think of a system as the various components that come together to create new ideas and solutions. A creative system is confined by boundaries (e.g. a specific creative context) and has inputs, stocks, processes, outputs, and feedback loops. All of these components interact with each other to influence the overall state of the creative system, and in turn your sustained creative energy over time.
Understanding the interplay between these components is crucial for understanding how creativity works and how to harness it effectively. Obviously, creativity can be composed of multiple sub-systems and can also be a part of a larger system, but for simplicity, this essay will keep things high level.
Components of a Creative System:
- Creative context: The over-arching context that you are creating within (i.e. a creative medium, project, or career).
- Inputs: Creative knowledge, physical energy, and psychological energy are all inputs fuel the creative energy stock. More on these below.
- Creative energy stock: Inputs in the form of above before outflows, plus tacit domain knowledge from being in the field and from feedback over time. All are stored within the system as fuel, like a charge on a battery.
- Processes: The actions that transform creative stock into outputs.
- Outputs: Final products of the creative processes.
- Feedback loops: Feedback from the world on the outputs. Acts as mechanism to inform, regulate, and optimize the creative process.
Let’s discuss each in detail.
Creative context refers to the domain or arena you play within. Understanding the creative context is crucial for creating impactful work, as it influences the inputs we choose to use, and the outputs we create. This context also gives constraint to specialized knowledge and in turn shapes the creative process. It generally includes the current trends, history, problem or goal, audience, opportunities, and the constraints that influence decisions during the creative process.
For example, in product design, the creative context may include current trends in technology, user needs, and device constraints. A product designer working within this context may use inputs such as inspiration from other designs, knowledge of human factors and materials, and prototyping software.
In architecture, the creative context may include knowledge of building codes, zoning regulations, and the needs and preferences of the client. Architects working within this context may use inputs such as inspiration from other architects, knowledge of building materials and construction techniques, and software for 3D modelling and visualization.
Establishing a sense of creative context is an important aspect of the creative system as it shapes the inputs and outputs of the system. It allows creators to make informed decisions and produce impactful work within their respective domains.
Creative knowledge in this case is a broad term that includes all inspiration, expertise, information, resources, and tools that aid in the creative process. This knowledge is converted into creative energy stock. Creative knowledge inputs vary depending on the specific creative context.
For example, in the field of music, the creative context would require different knowledge inputs for a classical composer and a hip-hop producer. The classical composer would need knowledge of classical music theory and history, while the hip-hop producer would need knowledge of current trends in hip-hop and electronic music production.
In the field of art, the creative context would also require different inputs for a painter and a graphic designer. A painter would need knowledge of art techniques, composition and colour theory. A graphic designer would need knowledge of design principles, typography, layout, and colour theory.
In both examples, creative context shapes the inputs needed for the creative process, and how it can vary depending on the domain and the specific creative task at hand.
Physical energy is not specific to a creative context but is an important input to creative energy stock. It includes adequate nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hydration. These form the baseline for your body to run well, and in turn sustains creative energy and enhances our ability to generate new ideas. A lack of physical energy can hinder the creative process and affect the quality of the outputs.
When we have good nutrition, we provide our body and brain with the necessary nutrients to function properly. Getting enough sleep ensures that we are well-rested and our brain is able to process information effectively. Exercise helps to increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, promoting better cognitive function. Hydration is also important, as it helps to regulate body temperature, digestion, and cognitive function.
All these elements work together to provide physical energy and allow the brain to work at its optimal level. This translates into an increase in creative energy stock. Without adequate physical energy, the creative process may be hindered, and the quality of the outputs may be affected.
Psychological energy is related the creative context, but also includes a general consideration of emotional well-being. It includes curiosity, creative confidence, and mastery — all of which impact our emotions as creatives. When you’re working on things aligned with our creative vocation, you should see an increase in psychological energy, and in turn, creative energy stock.
Curiosity is the drive to learn and explore, it is an important input as it fuels the desire to discover new ideas and perspectives in a creative context. Creative confidence is the belief in one’s ability to generate new ideas and solutions, it develops over time as we go deeper in a domain. Mastery is craft excellence. The pursuit of mastery drives us to apply skills and knowledge to each creative task at hand with the intention of improving.
We get positive emotions when we are pursuing our curiosities, developing creative confidence, and moving down the path of mastery. These contribute to our emotional well-being. Things like self-awareness, stress management, and resilience, are all also important for maintaining a positive mindset and the ability to cope with challenges of creative work.
All these elements work together to provide psychological energy and enable the brain to work at an optimal level. Over time, this contributes to an inflow of energy into creative energy stock.
Creative energy stock
Creative energy stock is the accumulation of all inputs above before outflows. It is both a form of consciousness and energy. That is to say, stored creative knowledge, physical energy, curiosity, creative confidence, mastery — all of these give us the perspective and the energy needed to solve problems and create amazing things. Creative energy stock is necessary to sustain the creativity over time.
Creative energy stock is like a battery charge. Just like a battery needs to be charged in order to function, the creative energy stock needs to be filled with the necessary inputs in order to sustain and drive creativity. You will generate new ideas and solutions as long as the creative energy stock has a charge. When the battery is low, it needs to be recharged.
Processes are the actions that transform creative stock into outputs. There are many types of creative processes, but let’s focus on the most high level, discipline agnostic, version of these as they pertain to outflows from creative energy stock. They are: low-risk practice, deep work practice, and entropy.
Low-risk practice refers to small, time boxed activities that force us to use some creative energy stock to try new things and explore or play. These activities are low-risk in the sense that they do not have high stakes or heavy consequences, and they allow us to experiment and generate new ideas. Examples of low-risk practice include doodling, brainstorming, sketching, writing, or playing around with a new tool or software.
These activities can help get the wheels turning, and can also lead to output and growing your body of work. Ideally, you should be engaging in low-risk practice daily so you can continuously improve your craft while getting used to shipping your creative work.
You’ll see benefits with this process. Over time, your skill will compound and your creative confidence will improve (thus fuelling creative energy stock). Also, low-risk practice can often be a catalyst to deep work (see next section).
Deep work practice
Deep work practice refers to flow — a state where we’re immensely focused on the task and hand and unlocking deep value in our work. This type of practice is characterized by deep concentration, and it allows us to create high-quality outputs that have significant value. But in doing so, we leverage a large amount of creative energy stock (which needs to be replenished). Examples of deep work practice include writing a novel, or sculpting a piece of art.
Deep work is required to make great things. Ideally, you should be engaging in deep work daily so you can make progress and ultimately ship things of real value to the world. It is not the case that you will necessarily ship daily — a lot of projects take longer than a day to be ready to share. The point is about the daily process of engaging in deep work, and the state of flow that it brings. Overtime this will lead to an increase in both the quality and quantity of your output.
Entropy leads to creative energy decay. It is an automatic process that happens if we do not engage in low-risk or deep work practice. Unlike the other two processes, entropy does not lead to any valuable output. Entropy instead leads to the gradual decay of our energy. When creative energy is not expended, it can become stagnant, and the potential for new ideas and solutions is lost. To avoid entropy, it is important to engage in low-risk practice and deep work practice regularly, to keep the creative energy stock flowing and to generate new ideas and outputs.
Outputs are the final products of the creative process, they are the results or the tangible or intangible things that come out of the creative process. These outputs can be physical objects such as a painting, a sculpture, a song, or they can be abstract concepts such as software, a new business model, or a new scientific theory. Outputs are the end goal of the creative system. They are what the system was designed to produce.
The quality and quantity of the outputs are a reflection of the effectiveness of your creative system. They are also a measure of the success. High quality output demonstrates an effective management of your creative inputs, creative energy stock, and the processes to produce creative work. Low quality work is a signal that something in your creative system needs to be improved.
When we share creative outputs, we get feedback from the world. Feedback can come in the form of appreciation for the work, or constructive criticism. Seen with a positive lens, both are valuable in regulating and optimizing our creative systems. Both types of feedback are essential to provide a way to improve the quality and effectiveness of of craft over time.
Positive feedback can feed into psychological energy by providing a sense of accomplishment and validation when the feedback is positive, and can increase creative confidence. On the other hand, constructive feedback can be used as an opportunity to learn and improve the next time, acting as a form of creative knowledge and an input back into our creative energy stock.
We need both types to optimize our creative system and reach our full potential.
Idea in practice
If you’re still reading this, hopefully you’ve kept up with this idea so far. Here’s how to take this abstract concept and employ it to achieve long-term sustained creative energy.
1.0 – Establish your creative context: Understand and define the arena you’re playing in so you can focus. You may already have a sense of this from your vocation, your medium of creativity, a project, or your field. An understanding of your context helps you optimize your inputs and have a sense of aspirations, constraints, and standards within your context.
2.0 – Schedule time for your inputs: On a weekly basis, spend time and focus on creative knowledge gathering, and managing your physical and psychological energy.
2.1 – Gather creative knowledge: Block off time for creative knowledge absorption. For example, set a timer for 30 mins of inspiration gathering on Pinterest, watching videos, or reading related to your creative context. Ideally make a habit of doing this every day so you have a constant stream of information, inspiration, and resources flowing in.
2.2 – Maximize physical energy — Prioritize maintaining good exercise, sleep, hydration, and nutrition throughout the week. 150+ mins of exercise per week, 7–9 hours of sleep per night, 2L of water per day, and no bad eating. This is non-negotiable to run your body well and will fuel your creative energy stock.
2.3 – Maximize psychological energy: Less easy to control since its inputs are more subjective and emotional. That said, on a weekly basis, a great activity to manage psychological energy is journalling. Document your curiosities, reflect on progress towards mastery over time, and write for self-awareness and emotional well-being. Also, do things that bring you joy in life.
3.0 – Block off time for your output processes: Scheduling time for output is less easy than input due to the randomness of creative motivation — sometimes you get a burst of energy at 2:00 AM. That said, adopt a maker schedule and block off chunks of time for low-risk practice and deep work. The point is to have calendar time scheduled for output. By ensuring you allocate time to these low-risk and deep work practice, you can avoid creative energy entropy.
3.1 – Low-risk practice: Ideally, this is a daily 30 minute activity. The point of this is to block off a short amount of time to do some low-risk creative work, and gain momentum for the day. These are things to have fun with and play with. It is low risk in the fact that the point is to tap some of that creative energy stock to get the wheels turning. Examples include sketching, writing, brainstorming, etc. Whatever it is, do it distraction free, and focus on shipping the work.
3.2 – Deep work practice: Deep work allows you to achieve a state of flow, get fully immersed in a task, and produce valuable outputs. Deep work requires longer periods of uninterrupted time — e.g. 2–4 hour blocks. The longer duration and intensity is crucial for deep creativity. Strive to have daily blocks of deep work. These blocks must be distraction free.
4.0 – Share the work and get feedback: Commit to sharing the outputs of your low-risk and deep work practice with the audience of your creative context. Try to establish a cadence of sharing work with your audience — e.g. daily, weekly, monthly. This is an important step to get feedback on your work. Positive feedback will confirm your progress towards mastery, fuelling psychological energy (and in turn creative energy stock). Constructive feedback will act as a form of creative knowledge — giving you inputs on how and where to improve your outputs. And even if there is no feedback, you still shipped and grew your body of work.
5.0 – Recalibrate weekly: Timelines for creative work vary depending on your creative context, but the idea here is to figure out a cadence of system recalibration that works for you. I believe the basic cycle of the creative system happens on a weekly basis. That is, the week is the basic unit of time to extract energy from inputs, fill creative energy stock, use processes to produce output, and ideally get feedback (if you’re shipping your work to the world). Within the constraint of a week, consider the daily time you’ll spend on inputs and outputs.
In conclusion, understanding creativity as a system allows us to approach it in a more structured and effective way. By defining a creative context and making time for inputs, we can maximize creative energy stock. By committing to regular low-risk and deep work practice, we can avoid entropy, push the boundaries of our creativity, develop creative confidence, and build a body of work. My hope is that this model can act as a blueprint for producing higher quality outputs and ultimately reaching mastery in your craft.
The thinking in this essay was influenced by the following books:
- The Practice by Seth Godin
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
- Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday
I wholeheartedly recommend all of these if you want to go deeper on creativity and systems thinking!