The most commonly held belief about creativity is that it’s elusive, esoteric and unique only to the anointed few.
The ancient Greeks believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. They called these spirits daemons. The Romans had a similar idea as well but called the spirit a genius.
Centuries later, not much has changed. The only difference is that we no longer attribute creativity to divine spirits, but to special individuals. We think that it’s only Beethoven, Picasso and Mozart who have creative genius.
Except that’s not true.
Today, we deconstruct and analyse even the most elusive of processes. We come to understand that there are specific behaviours and mindsets which anyone can use to reach a desired result.
Here are the seven behaviours of highly creative people.
1. Steal Like An Artist
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”
One must realise that the idea and inspiration for a piece of work comes from many sources at once. Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of previous ideas. It’s why, quoting Jonathan Lethem, Kleon writes that “when people call something ‘original,’ nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.”
Hence the recommendation — steal like an artist.
The good artist emulates the style of another as closely as he can. The great artist selects elements from others’ work and incorporates them into his own mix of influences. He does so tastefully, knowing that the right fusion will create something that is uniquely his, although not completely original.
So learn to steal like an artist — the entire world is up for grabs.
2. Always Be Researching
To find something worth stealing, one must look in the right places.
Input facilitates output. There’s no getting around that. The quality of the information one consumes determines the quality of work one will produce. In a world where noise often drowns out the signal, finding the best ideas can often be difficult.
There are two ways to get around this. The first is what Kleon calls branching, which is useful for exploring variations of an idea.
“Chew on one thinker. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go.”
That’s not the only method of sieving out valuable ideas. Originality stems from creating something that has never been seen before. Which is why bestselling author Ryan Holiday turns to the classics whenever he is in doubt.
Classic pieces are ‘classic’ for a reason. They’ve survived the test of time. The philosophy of Stoicism goes back to the ancient Greeks, but Holiday showed how those ideas are relevant today in his books Ego Is The Enemy and The Obstacle Is The Way. He didn’t come up with those ideas; he applied them.
It’s not enough to just observe your surroundings. The creative actively seek out the best ideas from all places. They’re always researching.
3. Enter New Domains
As we gain more experience and expertise in our work, we become more entrenched in a particular way of viewing the world. It makes us more efficient as we eliminate part of the thinking process, but the downside is that we become less receptive to new ideas and less responsive to changes.
It’s as Abraham Maslow observed: he that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.
That’s a death sentence for any creative who hopes to do good work. It’s also the surest way for a company to go out of business within the next few years.
Consider the ubiquity of Google today. Search engines had existed long before Google along, but were limited in use. Google changed that when it adopted a new approach for returning results, choosing to focus on quality rather than popularity.
The inspiration for this change? Academic publishing.
In the academic world, one can easily determine the quality and relevance of a paper by how often it is cited. The best research papers rise to the top, while the more limited ones fade into obscurity. It was an elegant idea which Larry Page was only too happy to introduce into Google’s search algorithm. It’s now known in the world of Search-Engine Optimisation (SEO) as back-links.
Original and creative solutions don’t always come from reinventing the wheel. Rather, it comes from developing innovative applications, not imagine completely new concepts.
You can start by finding two completely different ideas and combining them.
Or as James Altucher puts it: have idea sex.
4. Be More Prolific
Thomas Edison was famous for being relentless in experimenting. The sheer quantity of his experiments would eventually result in him holding the record for having the most patents — over 1090 in his name. Picasso painted over 20,000 works. Bach composed at least one work a week.
Most of these works never amounted to much. They were creations which the average man on the street would never have taken a second look at. It turns out that none of us can accurately predict which ideas will hit and which will miss.
The solution? Produce so much work that one piece will inevitably stick. If only one idea for every ten that you come up with is good, all it means is that you should be working on a hundred ideas to come up with ten good ones. The same goes for writing, composing, or painting.
It’s widely assumed that there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality — if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it — but this turns out to be false. Quantity breeds quality. The act of creating something, no matter how lousy, is practice for creating a better one.
And that’s why Steve Jobs rightly said, “real artists ship”.
Creating more work sounds like a good idea in theory, but it’s difficult in application. The single and most important reason is that we don’t give ourselves permission to suck.
Stephen Pressfield knows this too. In The War of Art, he names the fear that all creatives have — he calls it the Resistance.
“The amateur, on the other hand, over-identifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and over-terrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyses him.”
The problem is that we’ve been trained to tie our self-worth to our accomplishments. If that’s the case, who then, would willingly create a piece of work that would be used to judge him?
For this reason, Pressfield says that we must turn from amateur to professional. Only then can we produce truly creative work.
“Resistance wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can. The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them. Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouthpieces of Resistance.”
The way to creativity is to create a lot, and the way to create a lot is to give ourselves permission to suck. People will forget the mistakes and garbage we make, but will remember our best works.
6. Embrace Constraints
There are many barriers that can prevent us from creating a good piece of work. But the essence of creativity is making do with what we have. In fact, Austin Kleon suggests that it is necessary:
“Nothing is more paralysing than the idea of infinite possibilities. The best way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself.”
He goes on to explain how having less helps us:
“One, getting really good at creative work requires a lot of time and attention, and that means cutting a lot of fluff out of your life so that you have that extra time and attention. And two, creativity in our work is often a matter of what we choose to leave out, rather than leave in — what is unspoken vs. spoken, what isn’t shown vs. what is, etc.”
Constraints are not the enemy. Many creatives understood that and went on to produce masterpieces because of constraints, not despite them.
Dr. Seuss was challenged to write a children’s book with only 50 words. The result was Green Eggs and Ham, which went on to sell over 200 million copies. Having constraints was so vital to fuelling creativity that Dr Seuss would set his own limits to work with for his other books. For example, The Cat In The Hat was written using only a first-grade vocabulary list.
But perhaps the most famous example is Hemingway’s six word story. Nobody is likely to forget For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn anytime soon.
7. Develop Your Ritual
Creativity doesn’t come easily.
The process is frustrating. There’s hardly a good barometer with which we can use to measure our progress. It’s elusive. It’s why we give ourselves a pass whenever we can’t come up with good ideas or do any creative work.
But what does the architect, the lawyer, or the doctor do when they aren’t inspired? They still get down to work.
It’s essential then that we create a routine or ritual which we can rely on. Systems work, and prevent us from falling victim to our mood. The painter, Chuck Close was unequivocal on this point:
“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great art [idea]. […]If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”
Creativity is a process. There’s a system that one can apply methodically to generate good ideas. It’s not an esoteric field that is the sole domain of the genius. But one must do the work, no matter how difficult.
Just remember Chuck Close’s last line — if you hang in there, you will get somewhere.
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