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Does your creativity sometimes ebb and flow like oceans under a full moon? You’re not alone; everyone has creative highs and lows.
But when your creativity is on the skids, it’s important to remember that the condition isn’t caused by external gravity or internal gremlins. Non-creative behavior is learned, not inflicted.
We all enter life as highly creative beings, but, within a few years, most of us begin exhibiting some level of non-creative behavior.
“When children are very young, they all express creativity, but by the end of the first grade, very few do so,” Robert Epstein, former editor of Psychology Today, told Scientific American. “They learn in school to stay on task and to stop daydreaming and asking silly questions. As a result, the expression of new ideas is largely shut down.”
Unfortunately, this non-creative behavior can accompany us into adulthood, and, regardless of how imaginative we might have been yesterday, counter-creative behavior can kick in to cloud today’s creativity.
So the next time your creativity nosedives, remember the condition is learned, not bestowed. Start shifting yourself from non-creative to creative behavior by asking four questions.
1. Have I shut down curiosity?
Over the years, I’ve interviewed and worked with hundreds of highly creative people, and I’ve not met one who wasn’t also highly curious. Curiosity is straight fire for creativity.
“A mind stretched to a new idea,” noted Oliver Wendell Holmes, “never returns to its original dimensions.” Although Holmes made this observation in the early 1900s, today’s brain imaging verifies its veracity.
Neuroplasticity research proves that new information triggers the brain to develop fresh pathways and connections. By pushing ourselves to be curious in times of creative lapses—“opening the mind for seduction,” as photographer Sally Mann puts it—we stimulate brain cells and spark ideas.
2. Do I dwell in boredom?
In London, there’s an annual event called The Boring Conference, billed as “a celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked, which when examined more closely reveal themselves to be deeply fascinating.”
Previous presenters have discussed such topics as sneezing, toast, yellow lines and vending-machine sounds.
The next time you feel less than creative, hold your own Boring Conference. Identify nearby sources of boredom—be they projects, places, products, or possibly even co-workers or clients—and deep-dive into them, not stopping until you find perspectives and truths to inspire you.
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four,” said composer John Cage. “If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
3. Have I quit taking risks?
To reignite creativity, muster the courage to advance ideas that might initially be labeled silly or nonsensical by others. After all, most bold ideas are called nonsense until they eventually make sense to the masses.
Take the case of Adam Steltzner, the NASA engineer who figured out how to safely land the Mars rover. To prevent the rover from crash-landing, Steltzner’s team came up with a rocket-powered shell that hovered over the Martian surface and gently lowered the vehicle on a cable. During development, this idea was sneered at as “rover on a rope,” but was recognized as genius once the rover actually settled on Mars without harm.
“Good work and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset,” says Steltzner.
4. Have I stopped being playful?
“Play,” says actor and comedian John Cleese, “allows our natural creativity to surface.”
But creative playfulness calls for more than simply installing a ping-pong or Foosball table in the workplace—rather, it’s a state of mind, a prevailing attitude that displays itself even in the midst of tough projects.
Psychology professor Donald MacKinnon saw creativity as behavior rather than intellect or talent. Highly creative people, he observed, were “childlike,” able to play with all of their projects and thoughts each day.
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead also studied and appreciated this tendency for playfulness in creative people. “I am interested,” she wrote, “in what happens to people who find the whole of life so rewarding that they are able to move through it with the same kind of delight in which a child moves through a game.”