One of the most sought-after skills is creativity. When asked, many employers said they wanted it from their workers. And in a large poll of business leaders, one of the skills that came up most often was creativity, not being firm or focused. Part of this is because of how our culture’s ideas about the brain have changed, but it’s more than that. The focus on creativity that has grown over the last few decades is not a passing trend. This is because automation is getting better, markets are getting more complicated, and markets that value innovation and reward first movers are very competitive. It’s the way things are when you work in the 21st century. Those who learn the right skills will do well. Those who don’t will either get stuck in a rut or drown.
Even though many people know this, not many try to improve it. Some people still believe the false idea that creativity is something you are either born with or not, and that you can’t change it later. Nonsense. Creativity is a skill just like playing hockey, memorising decks of cards, or analysing data. With consistent, effective practise, it gets better over time. Another group already knows this, but they don’t do anything about it. Too busy. Coming up is a big deadline. Stressed. Or maybe just stupid. There is hope for both of them. They can get better, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time out of their already busy lives.
As a trainer of professionals for many years, I’ve found that the biggest problem is often that people are so busy that they don’t have time to improve their creativity or that the suggestions are so vague that they are hard to put into practice. Even books on creativity, which I won’t name, give vague advice that can be summed up in one or two words: “feel more,” “empathize,” or “talk with other people.” There is real value in these suggestions, but should you follow them? And how can you make it so that you don’t have to do more work? Synergistic creative thinking routines are the answer. It’s a mouthful, I know, but let me explain.
A synergistic routine makes something you already have to do better. Do you need to come up with something new to sell? There is a way to do that. Do you need to plan for a meeting that might be tense? There is a way to do that. Creativity will help you and your company get ahead if you make it a habit to do it every day.
Here are three simple tools you can start using today to help you get more creative.
- Imagine Your Defeat
- There’s nothing new
Find out what, why, and how each one works by reading on.
Imagine Your Defeat:
Imagine Your Defeat: It could be something as small as being a little annoyed that meetings go on longer than planned or that you have to email three different people for approval before making a purchase. Or, a big donor to your media company might have just gone bankrupt, leaving you with a $4 million budget shortfall in a few weeks (true story). Napoleon, however, was one of the smartest and most innovative generals in history. He didn’t wait for problems to happen before trying to solve them. Instead, he thought ahead and made plans. From his own mouth:
No one is more weak-willed than I am when I’m making plans for a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all of the risks and bad things that could happen because of the situation. I’m in a very painful state of restlessness. This doesn’t stop me from looking calm in front of my group; I’m like a single woman who is giving birth.
As he said elsewhere, though, he often threw out his well-thought-out plans when he ran into problems he hadn’t expected. However, his decision to think about all the ways he could fail helped him respond to new situations in a creative and decisive way. It is also no longer a secret among the best engineers. If you want to be creative, think of all the ways you could fail and figure out how to avoid them.
But here’s the problem: we humans find this hard to do. The Optimism Bias, which has been studied a lot, describes how most people react to planning. This is the tendency to underestimate negative outcomes and risks while overemphasising positive ones. People become paralysed when bad things happen because they didn’t think it would happen to them.
To fix this and improve your creativity and ability to solve problems on the spot, do what Napoleon did and expect failure all the time. Why go so far? First, because extreme situations require creative solutions. If your star engineer is sick for a few days, it’s easy to think of what to do. What will happen if he has a heart attack and dies? Or is in the hospital for a long time?
Second, things go wrong. People tend to underestimate risks, but a quick look at anyone’s life will show that when bad things happen, they don’t always come in small pieces that are easy to handle. Every day, yes. But bad things will happen, and they never happen at a good time. And things that only happen once a year, like a terrible flood or fire, can destroy something that took decades to build in just a few days or weeks. It doesn’t pay off. Plan for the worst, but hope for the best. The worst of the worst, not the kind with a sugar coating.
Plan for the worst by imagining every possible negative outcome of your endeavour, whether it’s a large-scale project, the launch of a new location, or a crucial discussion with a client. Put “stuff that could go wrong” in one column and “what to do” in the other. If you want to do it in a less formal way, you can talk to a coworker and go over possible problems and solutions with them, or you can think about them alone. But I would suggest making a two-column list and going through it step by step. It makes you think more clearly.
Another idea: the more information you give, the better. Actual problems are never abstract. How you interact with one unhappy client is different from how you deal with another. You can come up with more tailored and efficient solutions if you give this more thought. And the more it makes you think outside the box.
But there is also a limited amount of time that needs to be taken into account. Even though it might seem like a waste, you should compare the time you spend trying to avoid problems to the time you spend fixing them. A little bit of care can save you a lot of trouble.
Nan-in was a Zen philosopher who wanted to give a gentleman some advice. He gave out some tea. He filled his guest’s cup, and then he kept pouring.
The professor watched until he could no longer hold back his anger. “It’s too full. There won’t be any more!’
Nan-in said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own thoughts and ideas.” How can I show you Zen if your cup is still full?’
The idea of having an empty cup doesn’t just apply to Zen. Often, especially for experienced and skilled professionals, their cup is full or even overflowing. They think that this is the best way to lead a group. The best way to bake a cake or pasta is this way. The best way to run a business is with Lean Management. And yet, problems persist. The market moves around. And their fixed ideas keep getting them into the same problems over and over again.
This way of thinking is also true in relationships. We pin someone down after we’ve worked with them for a few months or years. Sheila is a perfectionist with nerves. Tui is very demanding and loud. Ed is slow and careful. Still, having a clear approach to tasks and coworkers is important, but it can make it hard to be creative. We get stuck in our ways and stop trying to learn and get better.
Even worse, these fixed ideas can keep us from seeing the truth. Our ideas are always only parts of a bigger picture that is always changing. Someone might not be the same person they were yesterday if their child was just in a bad car accident and sent to the hospital. After a few years of doing the same thing, they might lose interest in the company and start coasting. A method that worked well for you for years might not be right for the new market or the next generation of workers. De-learning is just as important as learning because it helps us see things in new and creative ways.
How to forget
You don’t unlearn by trying to fill the cup with better or more of the same tea. Instead, you pour out the tea. This is hard for a lot of people. They worry that they’re wasting their time if they’re not learning something, even if it’s just something new. But pouring out the old tea gives you something of real value: the ability to be curious, open, and creative about the new. This can be done in two ways.
First, stop everything you’re doing at work and take a long break. A long break keeps you from getting burned out and makes you more creative. Unfortunately, a lot of ambitious workers see breaks as a chance to learn more, attend workshops, or read new or old books on the subject. Most of the time, though, this is not a good idea. This will make it easy to stifle creativity by making the mind too busy. Instead, just take a break when you need to. That doesn’t mean you should drink whisky on your porch, but it does mean you should put your work stuff away and focus on other things. But this method has a big flaw: a few days off, other than the weekends, don’t happen very often.
If you want to unlearn on the job, a good way to get into the “empty-cup mind” is to pretend you are a baby or an alien from another planet who knows nothing about this subject.
If you’re looking at it like a child, ask yourself what you would think if you didn’t know anything about it. How might a child see the problem or the way to fix it? What’s the obvious answer, and why is it good or bad?
Think about it from an alien’s perspective and try to guess what they would think. What would they want to know? How could you explain it so that they understand it from the ground up, without relying on what they already know? What ideas or criticisms do you think they might have? You could also look at the Strange Planet comics to get ideas.
Even though it sounds crazy, it works to look at things like a baby. It helps us stop thinking we know everything and start looking at problems in a new way. From there, it’s easier to find creative solutions instead of going back to what you already know.
There’s nothing new
Why? Because everything we think of as new is just a mix of things that already existed. Even a banana and we share 40% of our DNA. We don’t have any organs that are only found in us. Worms, too, have brains. Even if they are small, they still have brains. What makes humans special is how these traits have come together and changed over time. Still, these changes have allowed nature to make the Amazonian jungle, which has thousands of different plant species. Business creativity also comes from putting together familiar ideas in new ways, which is the same idea as the one above.
Take Elif, a Turkish teen who figured out that banana peels could be used to make a bioplastic that could replace regular plastics. Banana peels? Not something new. Bags and plates made of plastic? Not something new. But by putting these two things together, she has come up with a new, cheap, and easy way to cut down on plastics. That’s clever Mr. Potato Head.
How to Make a new thing out of old things
The formal way is to write down a list of things that are important (such as objects, ideas, parts, techniques, problems, solutions, and limits) on small pieces of paper. Then mix them up and start putting them in pairs or groups. Choose a few that sound interesting and think about how they could work together. Even combinations that seem crazy can be the best, so go with what interests you more than what seems practical. Often, our ideas about what is realistic or practical can stop us from being creative and from seeing things in new ways. People who question what is thought to be true are the ones who come up with new ideas, not those who say, “That’ll never work!”
The casual way is to daydream with some strange or interesting ideas. Try it out and see how far down the rabbit hole they take you. It might not always tell you what to do, but it will often give you a lot of ideas and things to think about. But, like most habits, having a plan and writing it down usually leads to better results, but life is life. I don’t always have the energy or time, or the time might not be right. That’s alright.
Making creative habits habitual
The main reason most professionals have trouble being creative is that they try to do it on the fly, which doesn’t work. If you want bigger biceps, you need to do strength training regularly. As soon as you stop, those muscles start to get wasted, and if you don’t do anything for a few months, gains you made over years can be lost. Creativity is the same way. To get better, you need to practice often and well. The good news is that you can do it at work to improve how you do your job. The bad news is that it will take time and effort before you see results. But if you want to stay at the top of your game, move up in your career, and do well in your business, these techniques should be a big part of your daily work routine.