Where Does Creativity Come From?
Where Does Creativity Come From?
When I was eight years old, I wrote a story. In fact, I created my own picture book – drew and coloured in the pictures to go with my story, complete with a hard cardboard cover.
It was called ‘Goldilocks and The Three Bears’.
Now, that may sound familiar to you and unfortunately, it’s not because I wrote a famous fairytale at the tender age of eight. But, I didn’t plagiarise it either. I borrowed. My three little bears didn’t eat porridge. They ate bacon and eggs. And it wasn’t too hot or too cold, it had too much or not enough tomato sauce. The story even featured other characters like three little pigs and a billy goat gruff.
I always felt embarrassed when my mum proudly showed the book to other people. I knew I hadn’t created anything new. And later in life, other, less obvious adaptations like researching ideas and using them to form an argument in an essay still had me feeling like a fraud (even though I referenced their use).
But lately I have been thinking about when I am my most creative, and I realised, no one creates anything in a vacuum.
Just because it is spawned out of something already in existence, doesn’t make a new take on an old song any less creative – or any less loved.
Creativity requires inspiration, and that’s why sometimes, when you put aside a whole day to work on a creative project, have your breakfast and coffee and sit down with your artistic tool of choice, nothing comes. Writers block, lack of motivation, a dry spell – whatever you may call it, it makes sense.
The truth is, good ideas almost never come when you want them to. Sitting and thinking about a problem for a long time rarely gets you the answer. Sure, tenacity and grit can get you so far. But great ideas – ideas that have you scrambling for a pen and paper, ideas that you can’t get out of your head until they come to fruition, ideas that can’t wait – don’t come when you will them to.
Instead they come when you’re out for a walk, reading a magazine, having a conversation, or in the shower.
So does that mean there’s nothing you can do to engineer creativity? You just have to hope ideas come when you need them most? I don’t believe so.
For me, there are two conditions that help inspire creativity:
I went to a Creative Thinking Masterclass run by Bradley Trevor Grieve at The Collective last Monday, and one of the things BTG urged creatives to do is this: fill your brain with as much knowledge as possible.
He said ‘Creativity comes from the sum total of your life experiences.’
In other words, ideas don’t come out of nothing. The more you know about things – even seemingly unrelated subjects – the more you’re able to rearrange your knowledge in the correct way until it becomes something new and amazing.
This really rang true for me. I know I’ve had lots of great ideas when I’ve been listening to a podcast or a TED talk on a topic that interests me, but has nothing to do with what I do at work.
Personally, I know I feel most inspired when I’m learning. Ideas come to me when my brain is already abuzz with the electricity of new information or a new way of thinking. Whether it’s a documentary, a conference, a great conversation, or travel to a new location; it’s when I’m not focused on the problem at hand that a new solution shines through the clouds. And so in a way, I’m borrowing from all of these sources.
Many people have said that we’ve reached a point where nothing is ever really new. As BTG pointed out, there are only 24 letters in the English language, and no matter who you are, that’s all you have to work with. Yet, finding your own entirely unique way to rearrange those letters can lead to something beautiful. It’s all about seeing things with fresh eyes.
That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with outside interests. It’s so easy to become absorbed in the everyday, the mundane, the busy, and to think ‘I don’t have time to indulge in the things I like doing’. But in reality, you can’t afford not to. Not only will it motivate and refresh you to get on with your everyday tasks, it’ll inspire you in ways you never imagined.
Making sudden associations between unrelated topics is one thing, but what do you do when you need ideas at work?
Part of my job is to come up with creative ideas on a daily basis. And like anyone, there are certainly days (or at least hours in a day) when I’m not feeling particularly inspired.
I can’t always be popping off to read my book in the hope that a good idea manifests out of it.
But for me, coercing a little creativity in these moments is still about gaining knowledge and making new associations between ideas. When I need a new topic for a piece of content and nothing is coming to me, I do tonnes of research on what has already been written in the industry and what has worked in the past. This doesn’t mean I then copy something that’s already been done, but by gaining more understanding of a subject, I’m able to come up with my own take on it, piecing together different parts of the puzzle until they fit together in a way they never quite have before.
BTG’s most recent book is ‘In Praise of Idleness’, and in his talk on Monday he reminded me of the importance of allowing a little space in your life.
Everything moves so fast in the online world, in the business world, in our world. It’s no wonder we may go some time without an original thought when we don’t actually give ourself the space to make those associations between all the things we’ve read or consumed.
With apps like Skip and Hey You, we don’t even have to wait in line for a coffee anymore. Or if we do, we’re on our phones, checking emails or social media.
We’re so used to filling up every spare moment, filling silences with noise… how do we expect to have time to think, let alone have new ideas?
Perhaps that’s why everyone understands the concept of ‘shower thoughts’ – the shower is one of the only times you’re actually forced to pry your device from your hands – and you’re also forced to just mull things over. And often, that’s when great ideas come to you.
Slow down and take time to let ideas form.
Maybe you take a walk, maybe you sit and write a stream of consciousness for five minutes non-stop, with no real purpose or goal. Maybe you take a bath or have an hour phone-free each day. Maybe you meditate before work. Whatever it takes to get you to be more idle, do that and you might be surprised at what comes up for you.
Inspiration, by definition, comes from something else. It may not come from where you expect it to, but if you provide yourself with lots of opportunities to be inspired, it will come.
For me this is exciting, because it means I don’t have to feel guilty when I’m doing something like reading or going for a walk instead of working through my lunch break. Technically, I don’t even have to feel guilty when I’m doing nothing. Because I’m creating the conditions to be more inspired in my everyday.
To invite a little more creativity into my life I go outdoors to drink my coffee or indulge in a little mindful colouring before my work day begins. I listen to podcasts on all kinds of topics while I get ready in the mornings, but occasionally turn them off and simply take everything in on my walk into work. I travel to new places and try new things on the weekends. I do all these things not with the expectation of coming into some groundbreaking ideas, but because they’re things I enjoy, and I can give myself permission to do them because I know they’ll help me feel more inspired when the time does come to be a little more creative.
What do you do to welcome inspiration into your life?