How to Improve your Creative Abilities (and help save the world)

In her book The Creativity Challenge, KH Kim presents her research about plummeting creativity levels in America and the long term impact this will have. Educational policy since the 1980s is part of the problem, since more standardized testing means less creative thinking, and more recently, Trump’s stance on immigration is part of the problem because America’s creative power is historically based in the mixing of cultures.

All of this gets us wondering about developing creativity. Most contemporary literature and research suggests that creativity can be developed, but we don’t think the usual brain teasers and problem-solving challenges — the kind you find in most creativity manuals, for example — are up to the task. Creativity is, after all, something innate to human nature, something profound that blossoms in childhood and is then suppressed — first in school and later in cubicles. How can we develop our creativity so that we become truly creative entrepreneurs, leaders, change agents, parents, teachers, and so on? How can we reverse the creativity crisis and become a creative people?

You have immense creative potential.

Our aim is to help you discover just how immensely creative you can be. In our view, creativity is a human birthright. If you can (1) understand some basic things about the nature of creativity, and, (2) practice and develop specific aptitudes and skills, then you can grow your creative capabilities.

It’s not just about art…

We don’t equate creativity with artistic ability. Making art, drawing, playing an instrument — those things provide excellent training to developing your creativity, but they’re not by any means a definition of what it means to be a creative person. In the larger sense, creativity is key to finding joy and meaning in LIFE, in work, in making your contribution in the world, in fulfilling your purpose and mission. In the grand scale, it’s about co-creating with others and doing your part to, as MLK said, bend “the moral arc of the universe towards justice.”

To develop creativity is to develop creative capacity — not just forcing a temporary flash of insight, but possessing a sustained capability to be creative at will. Developing this capacity requires understanding, practice, and in our experience, a gradual transformation of inner habits while strengthening abilities for play, receptivity, newness, openness, and others.

…but art can help you train.

Art can illuminate and nourish; it can help articulate ideas; it can deepen concepts and transmit messages. In the spirit of an image’s thousand words, we’ve coupled five ideas about developing creativity with works of art.

These five ideas are kicking off a longer series of articles and artworks about developing creativity. We’re jump starting a larger conversation about what it means, how it feels, what it takes to become creative in today’s world.

#1: Practice being receptive

Creativity Collection System, oil and pencil, 2017.

A key to developing creative capability is practicing receptiveness, the ability to think new ideas, adopt new attitudes and perspectives, and perceive new possibilities.

To cultivate and develop this openness requires a sustained inner effort to confront and gradually transform habitual and learned tendencies (the blackness in this image) while strengthening one’s abilities for attention, silence, humility, and other aptitudes (the blue and white sky).

Once begun, however, this inner organization (the white lines) can be maintained, grown, and strengthened into true creative capacity.

This picture represents the act of being receptive to input from sources all around us, collecting creative potential like lightning rods and antennae collect energies from the atmosphere.

#2: Become a lighthouse

Lighthouse Key, oil on wood, 1998–2017 (ongoing).

A simplistic but hopefully helpful metaphor: a lighthouse. To operate a lighthouse, you have to approach the lighthouse, open the door at the bottom, climb the stairs, open a door at the top of the stairs, sit down at the controls, and work those controls effectively. In creativity, you have to unlock your thinking, meaning you have to inhibit specific mental and feeling habits. You have to “climb” to another kind or another “level” of thinking, and you have to do this actively; you have to work to do it. Then you have to unlock more doors, because this new and more fluid thinking will easily fall into patterns and habits long established in your psyche. Developing creativity is transforming habits and strengthening new (and for many of us, long latent) abilities.

If you can get so far, you’re in the zone; you’re being creative. You’re in the lighthouse and you’re working the controls, illuminating the night.

The fact is, humans create their thoughts and words without really knowing how they do it. As a result, we overlook the fact that thought and speech come from what at first seems like nothing; they appear out of thin air, mentally speaking. When they do so, however, we ourselves give form and shape to them.

This is the very definition of creativity, the first inception of creativity in the human being. Attention flows, first, and takes form. We think about this as a “downstream” flow. There is nothing, then attention and thinking as activity take place; then a thought forms (an idea, a word, a picture, etc.). We move from a nothing point into the movement of our thinking; that activity comes to rest in a finished thought, a form.

To move from the finished thought upstream into movement — to leave behind the habit of thinking in thoughts, words, and other finished “forms,” and to enter into moving or “living” thinking — this is “climbing the staircase” in our lighthouse metaphor above.

There, at the controls of the light in the lighthouse, is where things get interesting. You can learn to work with the stream of attention as it emerges from (what seems like) nothing. You can learn, through study and practice, to get “acquainted” there — to get better and better at going upstream.

#3: Walk through the flames

Walking Through Flames, oil on canvas, 2008.

Every creative process is structured around a “gap” between the initial momentum of starting and the eventual outcome that emerges at the end. There is a tension between these poles of beginning and emerging because if the process is truly a creative one, it is also, by nature, unpredictable. This tension inevitably causes fear and trepidation, especially when the stakes are high.

To create something truly new is to walk this path. The uncertainty that accompanies every creative process forces you to separate out what’s essential from what’s merely, in the end, habitual. It can be a purifying and humbling process, the fruit of which is vision, understanding, and wisdom.

Walking Through Flames is a testament to this process. The figure walks through fire and is simultaneously enlightened. Creative power is won through suffering the indignity of being imperfect, of failing, and going through severe trials in order to break through to the next level.

#4: Reclaim morality

Infinity Filter, pen on paper, 2017.

We normally think of morality as something “subjective” or “religious” — but we need to revise this view. The “infinity filter” is a way of thinking about creativity: we humans give form and definition to the otherwise infinite possibilities of thought, feeling, and will.

The top of the “filter” is open, like a funnel, to the wide expanses of the infinite. We draw from that immensity a much narrower slice of meaning (2, in the drawing); we further refine and condense it through stages (3–7) until we have a potent extract, an idea, a word, a sense of balance or harmony, etc. We section off a little piece of infinity, and filter everything else out (infinity symbol).

Can we wrest our creative power from our instincts for self-interest and self-destruction? Can we transform these gifts into capacities to serve life, and, at the root of the question, to love? The future takes shape, not as an inevitable extension of our DNA and our neurology (our biology), but instead, as an extension of our choices, moral and otherwise. We are infinity filters. How will we play this role, realizing there is always a moral dimension at play?

#5: Compost your sh*t (and that of your culture)

Compost Before Fire, large format digital print, 2003.

Compost is a physical expression of decay and growth: as the organic matter breaks down, enzymes, bacteria, and other living organisms transform what was once waste into nutrients for the next cycle of life. It can also be a symbolic expression of a decay and rebirth process happening within a person or, as this image suggests, within a whole culture.

The pickup truck with the American flag decal is actually far behind the compost pile and downhill, but is a tiny reminder that America is both in flames (self-destruction) and in compost (self-renewal). The flames in the far background suggests a wildfire of destruction visible today in the form of wars, financial and political corruption, and ecological and many other kinds of disruption.

The key to this image is the composter, the person wielding the pitchfork: anyone doing the work of transforming culture, norms, systems, habits, and paradigms. That transformation starts in the self, and only later ripples out as change at larger scales.

Building compost before fire is a symbolic and physical gesture of renewal even in the midst of decay and destruction. To become creative one has to commit to this process both within and around one’s own life and work: of composting the old paradigms that are powering social dysfunction, and creating rich soil for healing and regeneration through co-creative efforts.