Creative Bootcamp: 3 Exercises to Build Your Brain

In her TED Conference talk, “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert makes an analogy that creativity is like Dobby, the house elf in “Harry Potter.” The mythical creature in J.K. Rowling’s novels had a habit of showing up unannounced, typically when you didn’t need him. In the times when you really did need him, he was usually nowhere to be found. The analogy mirrors the familiar perception that creativity is a talent that you can’t control or summon, that you’re either creative or you’re not. You’ve come to believe that creativity is elusive, the property of the artistic few. Does this sound familiar?

Then hear this: It’s a crock.

You’re being sold a bill of goods, bamboozled, tricked, hornswoggled, sold ocean-front property in Vegas. Creativity is nothing more than problem-solving with relevance and novelty. It’s not an exclusive trait of the artistic but rather a quality you already possess and wield every single morning you drop your feet to the floor. More important, you can get better at it. This is both an awesome and terrifying truth.

It’s awesome because it means that the quantity and quality of your ideas can improve … if you’ll do something about it.

It’s terrifying because your own creative growth is now on you. You can no longer blame an innate lack of talent for the poor quantity or quality of your ideas.

So how do you get better creatively? Like anything you endeavor to improve, you practice. If creativity is problem-solving with relevance and novelty, repeatedly solve problems with relevance and novelty and you will see noticeable progress over time. All you need are the problems to solve and the will to solve them.

In its original book form, “Creative Boot Camp” (available in MyDesignShop.com) is a 30-day crash course on creativity. It features an innovative, fun creative training program designed to prepare you to generate ideas in greater quantity and quality. The following is an intense, three-day version of “Creative Boot Camp.”

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Creative exercise 1: Prison 
Cake Care Package

Time Limit: 3 minutes

Alas, your significant other has been sentenced to jail. It happens. As luck would have it, you’re a professional baker. This is fortunate for your significant other because the prison is testing a new contraband policy: If it can fit in a cake, it can come in. Time to figure out what you could sneak in.

Your challenge today is to write down as many items as you can conjure that you could covertly pass to your incarcerated loved one inside a cake. The goal is to provide items that he or she would want or need inside the joint. There’s no limit to what could be sent. If it gets past the guards, it’s no longer considered illegal contraband. You’re tasked with writing down as many items as you can in 3 minutes.

Creative exercise 2: The Gamemaker

Time Limit: 12 minutes

You’ve worked hard and you deserve to play a game. What game shall you play? “Angry Birds Star Wars” edition? Nah, you did that during the production meeting. Online poker? That’s so 2007. No, you need something new, something nearby, something … creative. You’ll just have to make it.

Today’s challenge is to create a game out of what you can reach right now. Not what’s on your desk or what’s in your cubicle, but what you can literally reach from your current position. If you can stretch out your arm and touch it, you can use it. Your game must have rules. It must produce a winner and, therefore, a loser; if everyone wins, no one wins. It can be a game of skill or a game of chance, it can take time or be done quickly. Create a game in 12 minutes or less.

Creative exercise 3: 
DMV Conversation

Time Limit: 15 minutes

A trip to The Department of Motor Vehicles is rarely the highlight of anyone’s day. It’s typically a long, frustrating process that ends in a conversation with a customer service rep behind the counter. This conversation occasionally goes well, but more often than not, it’s less than enjoyable because you’ve just spent the last 3 hours waiting to have it. You’re going to reinvent that conversation today.

Your challenge is to have a fictional conversation with a DMV customer service representative. This is a role-play exercise that requires you to play two parts: you and the DMV customer service representative. You’ll be taking turns playing each role, sentence-by-sentence. So you’ll start the conversation by saying a sentence in context to the situation. Then, you’ll switch roles and play the customer service representative for one sentence, and so on. Sounds simple enough, right? Ah, but there’s a twist (isn’t there always?). Each sentence has to begin with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, starting with ‘A’ and ending with ‘Z.’ It may start something like:

You: “After a three-hour wait, I’ve finally reached your window.”
DMV: “Bob! It’s good to see you.”
You: “Can we just get on with it?”
DMV: “Do you need something from the DMV today?”

Speak each sentence (instead of writing each sentence) and try to make it up quickly so it sounds like a conversation. Don’t worry if you stray into the absurd; it’s going to happen anyway. Don’t stop to evaluate, just keep going. Take no more than 15 minutes to complete your conversation, A-to-Z.

The Takeaways

Creative exercise 1: There’s a fundamental truth that Prison Cake Care Package teaches you about your creative ability. Count the number of ideas you generated in 3 minutes. How many ideas did you generate? Most likely, you came up with more than 10. This is significant because one of the most prevalent excuses creatives use to explain a lack of ideas is time. In just 3 minutes, however, you were able to generate a large number of ideas, so time really isn’t the issue. When you are motivated by the restrictions of the problem you are solving and you respect the process of idea-generation, you generate novel ideas in greater quantity.

Creative exercise 2: You probably became instantly aware of your surroundings during The Gamemaker when you read, “…out of what you can reach right now.” Most of you looked around immediately, visually testing whether you had what you felt you may need to solve the problem. We do the same thing when we ask for more time than we actually need on a project or bemoan the restrictive standards that accompany an assignment. Those restrictions, however, are what make your solution creative. How you overcome the obstacles of a problem is what defines the relevance and novelty of a solution. Next time you’re given a problem to solve, don’t worry about what you don’t have. Instead, focus on what you do have.

Creative exercise 3: What you just performed was a very simple comedy improv. Comedy improvisation is an extremely effective creative training tool for a number of reasons, the most important being the gradual deduction of self-critique. At some point in that exercise, you made a hard left turn and said something bizarre. You weren’t thinking of the ramifications, only getting to the next step. This is exactly how brainstorming should go. When you remove self-critique and share the absurd ideas, too, you give those seeds a chance to grow. Shelve self-critique and watch the quantity and quality of your ideas increase.


Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from HOW Magazine, the annual Creativity Issue. Author Stefan Mumaw also penned “Chasing the Monster Idea,” co-wrote the “Caffeine for the Creative Mind” book series and will present at HOW Design Live.