“Creativity is the ability to combine and recombine bits of information — either from your store of memories and knowledge or from the outside environment — in novel, original, and useful ways,” said Shelley Carson, Ph.D, Harvard researcher and author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.
It’s a must for everything from running a business to getting an education. And it’s especially relevant in today’s shaky and ever-changing times, she said. But creativity won’t only help you professionally, “it will enrich your personal life and the lives of those around you.” Indeed, “Creativity is an asset in virtually every area of your life.”
Here, Carson discusses what sabotages creativity and the many ways you can harness it.
Obstacles To Creativity
How many times have you said that you aren’t creative? You might’ve even said it as you started reading this piece. One reason so many of us don’t believe we’re creative is that we associate creativity strictly with the arts. Painters, sculptors, musicians, opera singers and designers are creative. Non-artsy types are not.
But that’s a common myth. As Carson said, “everyone has creative abilities,” and our brains were “literally built to generate creative ideas.”
And you’re creative every single day. “Every time you have a conversation with someone you are putting words together in novel and original ways that are useful in conveying a message. Every time you think about the future and imagine the consequences of a certain action, you are bringing into being ideas about the future that don’t yet exist.”
The second obstacle is the fear of failure. But creativity actually flourishes with failure. That’s because, failure, Carson said, is part of the process. Creative individuals “learn as much from their failures as they do from their successes.” The key is to keep going by producing more and more ideas and “trying new things,” she said. “Even if only one in 20 is successful, you will come out ahead.”
Being overly judgmental also crushes creativity. According to Carson, everyone has an internal filter that sorts through our thoughts. “If your censor is turned up too high, your potential ideas won’t even make it into conscious awareness.” How to quell your judgmental ways?
“Spend time each day in a nonjudgmental mode,” which simply means “experienc[ing] the world around you [with a sense of wonder] and your own thoughts without trying to judge them.”
8 Effective Ways To Harness Creativity
These are Carson’s suggestions to continuously cultivate creativity.
1. Keep learning.
Being the perpetual student is critical for creativity. “Whether you learn a new skill or take a course in an academic subject, everything you learn is a potential ‘bit of information’ that can be combined with other knowledge to come up with a creative idea,” Carson said.
2. Be insatiably inquisitive.
As Carson said, “Highly creative people are endlessly curious.” And you can be curious about the seemingly smallest of things and still cultivate creativity. “Each object in our environment contains so much to be curious about.”
Carson gave the example of a #2 pencil. You can think about why it’s shaped the way it is, why newer pencils are made of graphite and not lead, where graphite comes from and what kind of tree the wood comes from, she said. Plus, you might consider how a pencil is made, how many people have touched the pencil, where these people are from, what their lives are like and what countries they live in, she added.
3. Don’t censor your ideas.
Any idea can lead to a breakthrough but shutting yourself down at the start won’t get you anywhere. “Some of the world’s most innovative products have been derivatives of fairly foolish-sounding ideas,” Carson said.
4. Surround yourself with creative works.
Creativity breeds creativity. Carson suggested filling your days with concerts, literary classics or other books, good food and art museums (and considering “what makes great art great”).
5. Don’t focus on what others think.
Being self-conscious about others’ opinions squashes creativity, because as with being insecure, you’re shooting yourself down before ideas blossom. It’s another way of censoring your creativity. But “Highly creative people explore activities and ideas without concern that others might negatively evaluate them,” Carson said.
6. “Look for connections between disparate objects and concepts.”
One activity that helps people flex their creativity muscles is to compare any two objects in your environment. “This exercise trains you to see how properties of one object could potentially be used to solve problems creatively in a different area.”
For example, consider how a billboard is similar to the keys in your ignition. Both are made of metal and “initiate action (the key initiates the movement of the car, the billboard initiates a desire to buy a product).” Then you might probe deeper: “Are there ways you can use a key to sell products? Can billboards act as keys to something, like personal change?”
7. Seek out natural beauty.
Enjoying the great outdoors, whether it’s “a walk in the woods, the beach or even your backyard at sunset,” Carson said, “broadens the attention and awakens the senses.”
8. Unplug regularly.
Twitter, Facebook and checking your email every 15 minutes doesn’t exactly allow for thoughtful contemplation. You need solitude in order to “digest and synthesize your daily experience,” which “creates fertile ground for creative ideas.”
The great thing about creativity is that your skills are “transferable,” so a walk in the park or reading the latest novel can very well spark valuable ideas you can use in both your professional and personal lives. “You will be amazed at how worlds will open up when you begin to think creatively.”