3 things anyone should know about creativity

Originally published at www.linkedin.com.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s one of the questions we hear most often.

For some, what they want to do when they grow up is crisp and clear. “I want to be a doctor. Programmer. Architect. Engineer.”

And then you have people who have only a vague idea of what they want to do when they grow up. I belong in that category. The answer I’d give to this particular question was something along the lines: “Oh, I don’t know, but I would like to do something creative.”

Looking back, saying that I want to do something creative is very much like people saying they want to be happy in life. Too broad a word, much too loose a meaning.

Truth is, I didn’t understand much about creativity back then. At that time, being creative meant (97% artistic) ideas that come (seemingly) out of nowhere. (I should mention that it was the heyday of advertising, with classic gems likeBudweiser’s Whatssup?)

In time, I learned that artistic is just one of the many faces of creativity.

I also learned that creativity means something different for each and every one of us, depending on the life we want to live and on the impact we want to have. What’s creative for, let’s say, a designer might be useless and meaningless for a product manager. For me, personally, being creative is more about novelty, creating value, being different and better at the same time.

What’s more, there are some things that stand true regardless of what creativity means to you.

1. Creativity needs a purpose

One thing can be agreed upon: creativity is about bringing about something new. But you need to decide what you want to be creative about, where you want to turn things around or what you’re passionate about.

Creativity cannot and does not exist in and of itself. Like I said, saying that you want to be creative is like saying you want to be happy in life. And happiness as a goal in itself often fails.

Likewise, studying all the ways in which you can be more creative — and there is no shortage of information in that area — will ultimately not add up to much if you don’t have anything to apply that information to.

And it’s not about wearing your clothes differently, or doing things differently for the sake of being perceived as creative. Creativity is about pushing forward new things in all areas of life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi mentioned in “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention” two types of creativity: creativity with a lowercase “c” and Creativity with a capital “c”. The first one is when you just do things randomly for the fun of it, like wearing clothes differently or doing something totally upside down. Creativity with a capital C” is when you’re actually making progress on something more meaningful, when you bring about some change or solve a problem in an new and improved way.

On the side note, it might pay off to do something different each day as it helps you shift your frame of mind and it puts you in a position where you’re more likely to get ideas. But don’t rely on that to call yourself creative as a person.

2. The more you know, the more creative you’ll be

Good, original ideas don’t come about by chance and require input. Every day, details, people, places, conversations, bits of information spark new connections that lead to new ideas. Sometimes the more uncommon the better.

Inspiration does exist, but it takes the form of knowledge. The more you know, the easier it is to get inspired. The more you know, the more ideas and dots you can connect to put together a new concept, idea, product, plan or story.

So learn as much as you can, read as much as you can, look up the things that you’re curious about. Research projects when beginning to work on them, know them inside out. Don’t be afraid to experiment with (apparently) odd techniques, concepts, ideas — you never know what sparks an insight.

3. To be creative, you need to be confident

This one might be one of the most tricky of them all. And it’s not what David Kelley refers to in his TED talk. It’s not about believing that you can be creative.

It’s about knowing that whatever happens, you have a safety net, something to fall back on.

Being creative involves taking a chance, doing things that you’re not 100% sure it’s going to work. It’s exploring, experimenting, trial and error, new approaches. Ed Catmull puts it nicely in Creativity, Inc when he mentions that when you’re doing something creative, you never know what’s on the other side, where or what you’re going to end up with. (Usually, very far fetched from the original concept or idea.)

Unless you develop some confidence, you won’t have the courage to put any truly original ideas forward. Mostly because you won’t come up with them in the first place.

If you don’t have some sort of confidence — in yourself or in someone else or some higher force if you will, you’ll always play it safe without knowing it. That confidence gives you the courage to take a chance and be open to all sorts of new possibilities, however crazy they might seem at first.

For me, these set the ground for being creative. Of course you could add to the list things like perseverance, passion and dedication.

But those are qualities you need with anything you want to achieve in life, not only for being creative.