People talk a lot about creativity in the agency and marketing world. It’s generally considered to be a good thing but often conflated with craft, especially in agencies that have a department called ‘creative.’
When we speak and consult on creativity, we clarify that we don’t mean art, (or only art) and that we believe everyone is creative, or has the potential to be. It’s not a talent, it’s a way of operating, to paraphrase John Cleese.
Art is both tangible and abstract, which makes it a convenient medium to explain how creativity works, but it’s not the sort of thing most of us do everyday. Most people, regardless of their job title, are looking to solve some kind of problem in order to make money from other people.
Our friend Noah Brier mapped the various tasks you might have to do inside a company across a spectrum of variance .
Some kinds of things that happen at companies need to be done the same way every time. Manufacturing or any repetitive thing. Those jobs are the most likely to be done by robots at some point because they will be better at it (and people don’t really like those kind of jobs anyway.)
Some things that happen at companies need to be different every time, things like R&D and marketing and innovation and anything that involves messy unpredictable humanity. Creativity is the ability to solve new problems, or old problems in new ways.
Nothing comes from nothing. The more inputs you put into your head, the larger the set of possible ideas you can have. Ideas are new combinations, so one cannot invent with inventory. This is also why originality is an unhelpful myth. Our company is called Genius Steals because great ideas are those that are stolen from the most diverse set of inspiration.
“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” T.S. Elliot
People who operate at the edge of different social groups and dabble in different intellectual areas are more likely to have better ideas. “Hang out with weird and though shalt become more weird” as Tom Peters likes to say.
Dating someone from a different country can make you more creative. Professor Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School studies the link between creativity and foreign cultures and found that people who had lived abroad were better at solving challenges. He also found that “participants who dated individuals from other cultures exhibited superior creative performance.”
We talk about experiencing new cultures along a familiarity wave. When you first get to a new country, everything seems different. Then, one level of novelty falls away, and you begin to see the similarities, the same patterns, the analogue of your preferred supermarket, the same Starbucks. If you spend a few weeks somewhere, you move further along the wave, past those superficial similarities, and begin to come up against the subtle underlying differences in culture, the unspoken assumptions and social rules. And so on — until you stop paying attention and thus don’t see anything at all.
That is also the challenge of routine, commuting, offices and so on. Habituation makes us blind. Various studies suggest that 25 minutes in nature boosts creativity. Ruth Ann Atchley, department chair and associate professor of cognitive/clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, says:
“Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses. Therefore, we have resources left over — to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve — that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.”
Paying attention is key to creativity, absorbing inspiration and abstracting the patterns. You need a healthy amount of novelty in your life to keep your idea engine firing on all cylinders.
You also need time, because productivity is the enemy of creativity. If you are busy-busy-busy all the time, you don’t give your brain any time to switch into the default mode network. That’s when diverse areas of your brain exhibit more interactivity and thus you are more inclined to think laterally. You need to give your brainchildren time to incubate, which means you need to get bored. If you keep forcing your brain at a problem it can get stuck in a rut. If you do hard thinking then give it a rest, you get Eureka moments from your unconscious.
You don’t need to go nomad to take advantage of what we know about your brain to have better ideas. You can talk a different route to work, or do a solo scavenger hunt looking for one legged pigeons, or keep track of the colors as you commute. You could just not look at your phone and see what happens. Spend your lunch break in a park, go to museums, talk to strangers, read an unfamiliar magazine and remember to allocate a certain amount of time to doing nothing every day.
Your brain needs time and space and inputs to be creative, regardless of what you do. If you give it the right ingredients and conditions, it will do the ideas for you.
Work is not the most important thing you do, it is just work. Work can simply be the way you make money. It’s important but there’s a case to be made that the most important challenge every single person faces in their life is how to live it. How you spend your days is how you spend your life — and there is an obvious tension between now and the future constantly balancing on the fulcrum of your decisions. Some things, once missed, can never be repeated. Life is short and precious and the most important project to apply your creativity to is yours. You probably won’t end up a nomad, but whatever you do, make your life your life’s work.
We have a delightful newsletter, Strands of [Stolen] Genius which provides brief bits of inspiration in your inbox that many attractive and creative people enjoy each week.