Excerpted: ‘Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity’

Keith Sawyer, the Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations, is an expert on creativity and has written several books on the topic. One of them, “Zig Zag,” lays out a series of practices that Sawyer says can unlock the creativity already inside each of us. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to “Zig Zag.”

Choosing Creativity

Creativity doesn’t always come naturally to us. By definition, creativity is something new and different; and although novelty is exciting, it can also be a little scary. We’re taught to choose what’s familiar, to do what’s been done a thousand times before. Soon we’re so used to staying in that well-worn rut that venturing into new terrain seems an enormous and risky departure.

But rest assured — you already have what it takes to be creative. Neuroscience and psychology have proven that all human beings, unless their brain has been seriously damaged, possess the same mental building blocks that inventive minds stack high to produce works of genius. That creative power you find so breathtaking, when you see it tapped by others, lives just as surely within you. You only have to take out those blocks and start playing with them. How, though?

In fact, the journey’s pretty simple. In this book, I share with you the eight steps that are involved in being creative. Once those steps become second nature to you, creativity won’t seem rare and magical and daunting. You’ll stop being scared of writer’s block or stupid ideas or a blank canvas or a new challenge, and your creative power will be flexible, versatile, and available in unlimited supply. All you have to do is learn how to tap it. And that’s the purpose of the exercises in “Zig Zag.”

I started thinking about creativity many years ago, when I graduated from MIT with a computer science degree and found myself designing video games for Atari. Since then I’ve played jazz piano and studied how jazz musicians collaborate; earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Chicago and studied how Chicago’s improve companies create on the spot; researched theories of creativity in education; and studied how artists and sculptors teach creativity.

No matter what kind of creativity I studied, the process was the same. Creativity did not descend like a bolt of lightning that lit up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It came in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes.

Zigs and zags.

Keith Sawyer talks about teaching creativity.

When people followed those zigs and zags, paying attention to every step along the way, ideas and revelations started flowing. Sometimes those ideas did feel like gifts, arriving unsolicited at the perfect time. But in reality, a lot of daydreaming, eclectic research, wild imagination, and hard choices had paved the way.

It’s lucky we do all have creative potential, because we need it more than we realize. You might think of creativity only in a single context, as a quality you pull out when it’s time for a weekend craft project or a crazy practical joke. But you can use creativity to

· Excel at your job

· Build a successful career

· Balance professional success with a deeply fulfilling personal life

· Shape your personality, your sense of style, the way you connect with the world, and the way you are perceived

· Raise your children without dull routines, harsh words, or quick-fix bribes

· Learn effectively — not by rote memorization, but in a way that makes the knowledge part of you, so you can build on it

· Find fresh, clever, permanent solutions to nagging problems

· Make good and thoughtful decisions

· Forge interesting, sustaining friendships

· Bring about real change in your community

Think of a challenge, need, or issue that you face right now. Something that you care about and just don’t know how to deal with; something that is frustrating you or feels like an impasse. Scribble this challenge on a Post-it note (now there was a creative product idea!) and stick it to this page. Scribble a few more, if you like; you can plaster the page with them.


Sawyer directs a new master’s program at the School of Education: The Master of Arts in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. The 12-month, full-time program is offered in collaboration with Kenan Flagler Business School, the School of Information and Library Science and the Department of Computer Science. It’s designed to provide early- and mid-career professionals with skills needed to create educational innovations, grounded in the learning sciences.

Here are some examples that most of us have faced at some point in our lives:

· “My career is stuck, and I don’t know how to move forward.”

· “My relationship seems to be falling apart, and I don’t know what is wrong.”

· “I’m spending way more money than I’m making.”

At your job, your problem might be more immediate and concrete:

· “I need a good idea for my next advertising campaign.”

· “My company wants to market our successful product to a new type of customer, and we’re not sure how we need to change the product to satisfy them.”

· “I need a way to explain the latest changes in tax policy to our employees.”

· “My group doesn’t work together very well because no one understands what anyone else is doing.”

· “At my medical practice, we’re starting to get a lot of patients with the same disorder, and I can’t figure out why.”

Sawyer talks with “Well Said,” a UNC-Chapel Hill podcast, about creativity.

In many professions, the problems can get so specific and so technical that only you know how to phrase them. As a psychology professor, I face challenges like the following:

· “How can I rewrite my scientific journal article so it’s readable enough for a general audience?”

· “I need a research project compelling enough to win a National Science Foundation grant.”

· “My students didn’t understand a word of the reading I assigned. I need a clearer, livelier way to teach them this material.”

As you read the techniques in this book, keep thinking of your Post-it challenges, and play with these techniques to find a creative solution.

The Eight Steps

I’ve spent more than twenty years as a research psychologist studying how creativity works. I’ve explored the lives of exceptional creators and learned the backstories of world-changing innovations. I’ve reviewed laboratory experiments that delved deep into everyday creativity that all of us share.

To write this book, I distilled all that research into eight powerful, surprisingly simple steps. Follow them, and you zig zag your way to creativity.

Much of what’s been written about creativity until now has romanticized it, invoking the divine Muses or the inner child or the deep subconscious. Creativity glows like an alchemist’s gold, always mysterious and just out of reach, but promising utter transformation. That’s a clever trick, and people have made millions on it. They’ve convinced us that creativity is a rare gift conferred on a handful of special individuals, and the rest of us can only stumble along in the dark, hoping some of that glittering dust will fall on our upturned faces.

These eight steps aren’t the exclusive property of exceptional individuals. I repeat: we all have these abilities. And the latest research in psychology, education, and neuroscience shows that they can, without a doubt, be practiced and strengthened.

This book is your personal trainer, coaching you through the eight zig zagging steps of creativity. Before I started to write, I spent a long, patient year reading countless books that claimed to increase your creativity. Some of them were brand-new, some were decades old, and some recycled the wisdom of the ancients. Most of them contained at least some good advice; but because they weren’t grounded in research, that good advice was usually mixed with myths and mistakes. Still, in just about every book, I found at least one or two hands-on activities, exercises, and games that aligned perfectly with the latest research findings on human creativity. I organized the best of these classic creativity games and exercises into the eight steps. Then I added many of my own hands-on exercises, which I created just for this book and are based on new research about successful creative thinking.

Here are the eight steps, with short descriptions so you can see how they fit together:

1. Ask. Creativity starts with a penetrating research question, a startling vision for a new work of art, an urgent business challenge, a predicament in your personal life. Mastering the discipline of asking means you’re always looking for good problems, always seeking new inspiration. You know where you’re going, and yet you’re receptive to questions that emerge unexpectedly.

2. Learn. In a creative life, you’re constantly learning, practicing, mastering, become an expert. You seek out knowledge not only in formal classrooms but also from mentors, experts, books, magazines, film, Web sites, nature, music, art, philosophy, science …

3. Look. You are constantly, quietly aware. You don’t just see what you expect to see. You see the new, the unusual, the surprising. You see what others take for granted, and what they incorrectly assume. You expose yourself to new experiences eagerly, without hesitation; you regularly seek out new stimuli, new situations, and new information.

4. Play. The creative life is filled with play — the kind of unstructured activity that children engage in for the sheer joy of it. You free your mind for imagination and fantasy, letting your unconscious lead into uncharted territory. You envision how things might be; you create alternate worlds in your mind. “The debt we owe to the play of imagination,” Carl Jung wrote, “is incalculable.”

5. Think. The creative life is filled with new ideas. Your mind tirelessly generates possibilities. You don’t clamp down, because you realize most of these ideas won’t pan out — at least not for the current project. But successful creativity is a numbers game: when you have tons of ideas, some of them are sure to be great.

6. Fuse. Creative minds are always bouncing ideas together, looking for unexpected combinations. Successful creativity never comes from a single idea. It always comes from many ideas in combination, whether we recognize them or not. The creative life doesn’t box its concepts into separate compartments; it fuses and re-fuses them.

7. Choose. A creative life is lived in balance, held steady by the constant tension between uncritical, wide-open idea generation (brainstorming, done right) and critical examination and editing. Choosing is essential, because not all ideas and combinations are ideal for your purposes. The key is to use the right criteria to critique them, so you can cull the best and discard any that would prove inferior, awkward, or a waste of your time.

8. Make. In the creative life, it’s not enough to just “have” ideas. You need to make good ideas a reality. You continually externalize your thoughts — and not just the polished, finished ones. You get even your rough-draft, raw ideas out into the world in some physical form, as quickly as possible. Making — a draft, a drawing, a prototype, a plan — helps you fuse your ideas, choose among them, and build on what you like.

Republished with permission of the author.