Creativity Building Blocks

Artist, architect, inventor, engineer, scientist—these are just some of the roles Leonardo da Vinci embodied in his life as a prolific creative. There is no question he was an accomplished originator, with his creative genius springing mainly from the general traits fleshed out by Michael Gelb. From an intense curiosity to a highly sharpened sensory awareness, these traits made da Vinci a fountain of ideas and solutions so remarkable we’re still talking about his genius centuries later.

In the same way that Gelb recognized those traits that spawned da Vinci’s extraordinary ingenuity, we can also identify practical mindsets that could serve as the building blocks for a more abounding sense of creativity. These building blocks will structure your thinking so that you start to view the world in a new light, stirring you to be more creative subconsciously and practically. Contrary to popular thought, creativity isn’t reserved only for those born with an artist’s hand or an inventor’s imagination. It’s something you can learn to better develop in yourself by having the right mindset to nurture it.

What usually hinders people from maximizing their creative potentials isn’t the lack of creative capacities, but having a mistaken mindset on what creativity is all about.

Take for instance Terry, a graphics artist contracted by a company to design a new ad for their food product. He has two weeks to deliver the output. The first day after getting the project, he sits at his work desk with a pencil and a blank piece of paper to try to sketch out some ideas for the ad. Nothing comes to him.

An hour comes and goes, and still nothing. He decides to leave the project alone and go do other things instead, thinking to return to it once inspiration strikes him. He never touches anything related to it again; he only waits for his muse to appear and grant him a flash of genius before he gets down to work. Hours become days, and days pass without him getting anywhere with the project. The deadline arrives, and Terry has nothing to deliver for his clients. He might feel like a complete failure and constantly fret that he just doesn’t have what others in his field seem to naturally possess.

What Terry failed to realize is that inspiration is a myth. To wait for it before getting down to work is sentencing a creative venture to doom. Creativity is not something that calls for a waiting game; it’s a skill that needs active effort and discipline to harness. Say Terry gets another week to complete the project this time.

Recognizing that he can’t just rely on flashes of genius to come up with creative ideas for the ad, he resolves to set a fixed number of hours every day to work on the project whether or not he feels motivated or inspired. To stir up his creative thoughts, he does research on the company and their products, looks at their previous ads, and notes down the interesting ideas he comes across. He finds that inspired ideas strike him while actually working. Eventually, he’s able to design a creative ad that he’s proud of and that brilliantly captures his client’s vision.

His experience proved to Terry that creativity has to be treated as something that requires persistent effort and discipline, just like any other professional skill. This is just one building block of creativity that can boost the quality of your creative output as well. This chapter will delve deeper into this notion of disciplined creativity, as well as discuss more building blocks to help you exhaust the creative possibilities in your own life.
Mental Locks and Blocks

Before we delve into the building blocks, it’s worth mentioning what keeps us from opening up and taking advantage of the techniques in this book.

Yes, creativity is a subtle, living, breathing entity that can be a little hard to define at times. But we also have plenty of research showing us exactly what it’s made of, and how best to nurture it within our own lives. Before we can realistically ask what creativity is and how to develop our own abilities, we need to be truthful about everything that’s standing in the way of our doing so. Many people have vague resistances and fears about creativity that they never really take the time to articulate or examine. They simply say, “I’m not creative,” and never look into the matter further.

As part of our mission to become more creative, we need to do the hard work of naming all the mental blocks that keep us from our natural creativity. And this is in essence the shift in perspective: We are all creative, and it is natural to be creative. What is not natural are all those thoughts and beliefs that tell us we are not allowed to create, that we are bad at it, and so on.

Many of us have hidden (or not so hidden) beliefs about the world and ourselves that make it impossible for us to be creative. It’s only in addressing these beliefs directly that we can release them and give ourselves the opportunity to enjoy our creativity, to feel good about thinking new things, and to feel comfortable with the creative process.

Roger Von Oech’s famous book, A Whack on the Side of the Head! deals with all the mental locks we hold on to that keep us from novel, fresh, out-there thinking. Creative thinking belongs to all of us—creativity is curiosity, joy at life, a thirst for mastery, an appreciation of yourself and others, a zest, a faith in one’s own mental faculties… most of the reason we don’t constantly dream up new and creative ideas is not because we’re fundamentally incapable, but because we artificially limit ourselves with the “mental locks” outlined below. Read through some of these to see if you can recognize any in your own thinking. Most of them are completions of the sentence, “I can’t be creative because…”

…I might be wrong
Conventional schooling teaches us there is a right way and a wrong way—and those who are wrong might get punished! A junior at work might see a novel solution to a problem the company is having, but because it doesn’t look like the right kind of answer, he has no faith in it and doesn’t share. He may also hold back because he fears his suggestion might ultimately prove to be incorrect.

Advice: Let go of the need to be right. In fact, strive once in a while to deliberately be wrong, just to prove to yourself that it’s not the end of the world. Look for the second-best answer. Even better, look for as many answers as you can, or change the wording of your question so that you get more answers than you thought possible.

Finally, give your ego a check and remind yourself that it’s not a genuine threat to be wrong in life. In fact, it’s evidence that you’ve ventured off the beaten track and are actively growing and changing. Get used to failure and risk. Invite them in and see what you can learn from them. If you can drop the negative feelings that you’ve “failed,” you can open up new avenues to explore—how can you become better next time?

…It doesn’t make sense/isn’t logical
New ideas often don’t. This belief is really fear of the unknown in disguise. To find something truly innovative, we have to leave behind our old habits and conceptions, and risk trying something new—which might seem odd, uncomfortable or even frightening at first.

Advice: Forget about logic. Do you think the theory of gravity seemed sensible to anyone at the time? Did the greatest artists ever have critics praising them for how logical and sensical they were? Embrace imperfect, “fuzzy” logic and trust the process. Everything that’s currently considered logical is thought to be so precisely because it is not creative.

…I don’t want to break the rules
Sometimes, to build something new, we have to clear away what’s already there, and this can feel destructive and a little dangerous. You may decide you want to move countries entirely, but a little voice in the back of your head is telling you that you’re not really “allowed” to do that; you’re only allowed to solve your problems in the ways others have already solved theirs, and you should feel bad for thinking too far out the box.

Advice: Have courage to be a rebel. Ask uncomfortable questions if you must. Rules can be helpful—but decide for yourself how you’ll determine their helpfulness; don’t let others or your own fear decide for you. The rules are the box. That’s the opposite of our goals.

…It’s not practical
Many people allow their creativity to die under a heavy burden of practical obligation. They judge themselves harshly, thinking that creative thinking and ideas are flimsy and frivolous. Have you ever heard a talented person utterly condemn themselves by deciding not to pursue their art simply because it couldn’t pay the bills or they “don’t have the time”?

Advice: Give yourself permission to simply ask new questions. You don’t have to act. Yet. We all need to be hard-nosed and practical sometimes, but can you carve out a moment in every day to entertain possibilities—any possibility—without saddling it with the burden of being perfectly workable and risk-free? If you can’t do this, you’re stopping yourself before you get to the starting line.

…I don’t want to be wishy-washy
For some of us, ambiguity is something to be feared and avoided, even though it’s part and parcel of creative thought. Fearing being unclear, miscommunicating or things getting chaotic and out of hand, we reign in creativity for the sake of clarity. A woman may have a brilliant idea to share but trash it prematurely because she’s having trouble articulating it just yet to her colleagues, and she believes only perfect ideas are worth exploring.

Advice: Go easy on yourself and sprinkle a little humor into the creative process. Remind yourself that it’s OK to make mistakes.

…Being creative is silly
Some people genuinely think that play is only for children, and that adults who have too much fun in life deserve deep suspicion and a stern talking-to. Do you know anyone who acts as though life is meant to be super serious, joyless and full of unrewarding work and nothing else? Fearing that creativity is too frivolous points to an underlying distrust of pleasure, and its role in the creative process. If a manager keeps suggesting his group’s brainstorm ideas are “stupid” and shuts down playful or silly suggestions, what is he communicating to his team?

Advice: Enjoy yourself. Not only is having fun allowed, it’s almost required for a proper outcome. Take your time and don’t rush. Consider that fun and enjoyableness are key ingredients to fresh, new, innovative ideas. Don’t stifle yourself by being your own creativity police!

…I’m not really an expert
Do you have the belief that you’re only allowed to tackle ideas in your specific niche, and you’re not allowed to tread on other people’s turfs? We all specialize in life, true, but sometimes the answer to your problem lies outside your ordinary scope of affairs. Someone may feel like, for example, if they’re trained in the medical field, they can only ever offer opinions, ideas and concepts that are medical in nature, even though their curiosity and the situation are asking them to step outside that role. Similarly, a person without training in an area may feel unqualified to provide their view, even if their being an outsider is precisely what allows them to see things in such a refreshing way.

Advice: Don’t limit yourself. Drop the labels when you can and simply become curious about the underlying similarities across situations, despite their surface differences.

…I’m not a creative person!
Perhaps the most common mental lock—and totally untrue. The only difference between a creative person and person who believes they’re not creative is a little faith. If you insist that you’re not creative; fine. Try something new anyway, just because. Surprise yourself. Follow a random whim and laugh about it. Let go of expectations for the outcome. A man might consciously tell himself, “I feel silly doing this, but I’ll give it a go” and unwittingly open a tiny creativity door in himself.

Advice: Give yourself the opportunity to prove yourself wrong. The smallest of risks, the tiniest thoughts or creations all count. Do something different and watch to see what happens!

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