Think. Think. Think. Come ooooon… be creative!
Have you ever sat in a brainstorming session and stared at a blank Post-It? All eyes are on you to fill it with your earth-shattering, never-before-seen ideas. And yet, all you can do in is stare blankly at the 3x3 square. The “blank canvas” taunting you to generate ideas. It’s in moments like these that it seems hardest to be creative.
This challenge has followed me throughout my career as a designer, design director, and even now as a Senior Social Innovation Specialist at Design Impact, a social innovation firm. Trying to tap into your creativity (and coming up short) in order to develop new ideas, approaches, or design layouts is not unique to creative agencies and design professionals. I often see the same creative block when we’re having residents and social service providers tap into their creativity to address challenges in their communities. As a “creative” professional, I wanted to unpack this paradox. Are some people inherently more creative than others? Why do the best ideas often happen outside of structured brainstorming sessions? And why, some days, is it so damn hard to be creative?
No matter how wildly creative I think I am, it turns out: creativity isn’t an elusive gift bestowed upon a few “chosen” people. Your brain is actually wired to sabotage your creativity, so it’s important to find ways to practice it.
SURPRISE! WE’RE ALL CREATIVE
In 1968, NASA’s Deputy Director approached consultant and general systems scientist, Dr. George Land, to develop a tool that could help the agency identify (and hire) the most creative candidates. Dr. Land and his team developed a test to assess an applicant’s ability to look at a problem and come up with new and different ideas. The “Imaginative Thinking NASA Test” had great success at identifying creative engineers and scientists for NASA.
Dr. Land wanted to further explore his assessment tool so he conducted a longitudinal research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children. First, he tested kids ranging in ages from three to five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. He re-tested the same children respectively at 10 and 15 years old. The results were surprising. Creativity drastically decreased as age increased.
The same test given to 280,000 adults? 2%.
We’re all born (okay…98% of us) with the capacity for genius-level creativity. Genius level! So what happens over time? As American architect and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller puts it, “Everyone is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.” In fact, Fuller found that children, in all their natural inquisitiveness, ask about 125 questions a day. The average adult, on the other hand, only asks about six questions per day.
JUDGMENT: CREATIVITY’S ROADBLOCK
As we get older, a few factors prevent us from producing our most creative work. In Breakpoint and Beyond, co-authors Dr. Land and Dr. Beth Jarman point out, “The socialization process restricts the natural creativity of our thinking potential by automatically assigning value judgments such as good, bad, right, wrong, proper, improper, ugly, beautiful. Small children have no conception of these values and interact without limitations. Our proficiency in expressing our creativity gradually drops off as we learn to accept others’ opinions, evaluations, and beliefs.”
According to Land and Jarman, judgment invokes perceptual filters that screen out much, if not most, of the information and connections — the possibilities — around us that could be useful in shaping a different kind of future.
Think about it: if you walked into a classroom of preschoolers and asked them to sing, likely the entire class would be eager to join in song. What would happen if you did the same thing with a group of grad students? Would the whole class belt out a tune? Likely not. You might hear, “I don’t have a good voice,” “I’m not really a singer,” or “I am tone deaf.”
RIGHT BRAIN VS LEFT BRAIN
Dr. Land also points to two types of thinking processes to explain the dramatic drop in creativity:
Convergent thinking: where we judge ideas, criticize them, refine them, combine them and improve them, all of which happens in our conscious thought
Divergent thinking: where we imagine new ideas, original ones which are different from what has come before but which may be rough or half-baked to start with, and which often happens subconsciously
Creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman also refers to these two types of thinking as “rational thinking” (convergent thinking) and “imaginative thinking” (divergent thinking).
We’re often taught to use both types of thinking at the same time, which is virtually impossible. The more schooling and education we receive, the more our convergent and divergent thinking dual; we’re simultaneously trying to coming up with new ideas and judging them at the same time. When we’re busy judging our ideas, there’s no room for the weird, wild, or original thoughts to occur. Kaufman suggests creative thinking requires the interplay of both sides of the brain.
THE WAY WE’RE WIRED
Because we’re busy managing day-to-day tasks, our brain doesn’t have much space for creativity.
Scientifically speaking, our brain is working against us. When we think creatively, our prefrontal cortex, the critical thinking part, is off duty. But the older we get, the less our prefrontal cortex gets a vacation. After all, it’s responsible for self-control, decision-making, and most of our executive functions — things like planning, problem-solving, and achieving long-term goals. On a daily basis, the prefrontal cortex is constantly executing a series of tasks and crisis management (both big and small): “Who’s going to pick up the kids?” “How should I respond to this text?” “How will I get all of my work done before the deadline?” When we’re managing so much throughout the day, our brain is too tapped to be creative.
On top of that, at the first sign of danger, or even stress, our brain is wired to shut down our creative juices to focus on survival and safety.
Our amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for detecting potential threats. When the amygdala senses danger, it actually blocks our prefrontal cortex to react swiftly. While this can help save our life in physically dangerous situations, it can cause us to shut down and think or act conventionally — without the freedom to take risks or think “out of the box.” Our amygdala also sends signals to the hypothalamus, which makes sure that the body stays in a continual state of balance. It then releases bursts of stress hormones, which prompt us to enact safety strategies, everything from taking cover to avoiding conflict.
Our amygdala responds the same way to life-threatening situations as it would a stressful work environment. Stress responses can be activated whenever we feel vulnerable. Even the slight threat of failure, criticism, or embarrassment (hello brainstorming sessions, or sharing an idea for the first time) can trigger a stress response and hijack our idea-generating, problem-solving brilliance.
Knowing our brain freezes in everyday situations, the impact of trauma and poverty are even more consequential to our ability to think creatively.
At Design Impact, we address complex social challenges by working with communities who are directly impacted by these issues. We know creativity can drive divergent thinking and help us get unstuck, which is why we pull in creative practices to find new ways to tackle persistent problems like homelessness, food insecurity, or health disparity.
But if we know everyday stress can stifle our creativity, innovative ideas are even more out of reach when you’re carrying the weight of deep trauma or trying to meet basic needs.
PROCESS MAKES PERFECT
Stress, trauma, and our own self-criticism and censorship are all factors that can sabotage our creativity. So how can we create space and time to work with our brain rather than against it? We can’t wait for one moment of inspiration or a silver bullet idea to hit us: creativity is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. And it can be learned and applied by anyone. Here are some ideas to get started.
Let your mind wander
Daydreaming and letting your mind wander can be a great way to discover (or rediscover) your creative side. With science to back it up, it finally makes sense why some of the best ideas I’ve come up with didn’t happen when I was sitting down and trying to be creative or participating in an ideation session; they were generated in the shower, on a run, or over a drink with friends (thank God for bar napkins!). I actually keep a notebook on my nightstand because there have been many times when I’m half asleep and an idea pops in my head that I need to jot down so I don’t forget it by the morning.
Create a judgment-free zone
Remove the phrase, “I’m not creative” from your vocabulary. We’re all creative; some people just have more to manage in their day-to-day lives that get in the way of truly creative ideas. Once you’ve accepted you’re creative, find ways to embrace your childlike curiosity. Land and Jarman suggest,
“Retaining or recapturing the simple playfulness of a child opens a person up to creative possibilities. This is when wonderful things start happening, when you move outside the boundaries and different possibilities emerge. Listen to music, fingerpaint, wear a crazy hat, make a face, dance, monkey around, talk to yourself, fiddle, scream, yell at the moon. Recapture your childlike nature.”
Once you’ve embraced the playful side of your brain, try to come up with big, outlandish ideas. Then, afterwards, sit down and take time to critically evaluate those ideas. This allows our convergent and divergent thinking to work both separately and together.
Find the right environment
It’s also important to create space where our minds can run totally free while we come up with new ideas. What are some places where you feel safe and comfortable to let your mind wander? At a table in a windowless conference room, or on a cozy couch? Brainstorming sessions are often hosted in structured spaces that are designed to keep people on time and on task; the furniture, lighting, and the agenda are not conducive to letting the mind wander freely.
If you’re hosting an ideation or brainstorming session, challenge yourself to have it at an unconventional place. Instead of booking a meeting room, try a brainstorming walk; this can be through a neighborhood or community you are working with or places your customers or consumers might go- the mall, the park, etc. Literally get outside of your comfort zone.
People can also influence your environment. Surround yourself with people who foster and nurture your creativity. Without administering the “Imaginative Thinking NASA Test” you likely know someone who falls in the 2% of adults who still score at a genius level. Grab coffee with them.
Generate a lot of ideas
The first idea is rarely the best idea. Great ideas come from iterating, collaboration, and building or combining ideas. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Joel Chan conducted a study on the science of forming good ideas and found that “one maximizes one’s chances of obtaining exceptional ideas not necessarily by raising the average quality of ideas generated, but rather by increasing the variance of quantity of generated ideas.” It’s more important to come up with a lot of ideas rather than a lot of great ideas.
So grab that blank pad of Post-Its and challenge yourself to come up with 100 ideas to start. It may sound like a lot, but don’t hold back, some ideas may have potential, some may seem ridiculous and wrong, but remember, we’re going for quantity, the quality comes later. Creativity is a process, not a Post-It. And it takes practice and persistence.
Thanks for reading!
How can Design Impact make creative brainstorming more inclusive? Rather than working against the brains’ mechanics, we want to re-design ideation sessions to be more welcoming and less stressful. Share your ideas in the comments below.