People often think that creativity is something you're born with or you're not. "My sister is the creative one in the family; she goes to art school," you might hear an accountant say. Advertising agencies even label their departments as such: project managers deal directly with clients, while "creatives" are given the space to write and direct campaigns.
It turns out that narrative is flawed. A new book, Building Your Creativity: Tools For Having Ideas And Bringing Them To Be, argues that creativity is hardly a fixed trait. Rather, like any other skill, creativity is something you can train yourself to cultivate with the right kind of practice. In fact, it's more of a science than an art.
I talked to one of the book's authors, Esteban Gast, to find out what that kind of training looks like. Gast teaches a course on creativity at an unexpected place: the University of Illinois' College of Engineering. "Creativity and engineering have been separated culturally, but at their core, they're both systematic disciplines," he says. "People are shocked to find that there are multiple studies that show creativity can be enhanced. You can teach yourself to be creative just as you can teach yourself any skill, be that piano or long division."
According to Gast, this process requires more than just "believing in yourself" -- a common refrain in many of the creativity self-help guides out there. His team's approach involves tangible techniques and specific action plans, which his book brings to life for readers through a series of hands-on exercises.
Gast is quick to point out that, like piano and long division, building creativity requires patience and hours of practice. So reading all the way to the end of this blog post won't make you instantly more creative. But it will give you seven things you can start doing now, whether you're an accountant or an art student, to bring more creativity into your life.
Push past your first ideas. Experts define the act of creativity as coming up with an original idea, something nobody else has thought of before. Our brains, however, are wired to focus on concepts we already know. "If someone tells me to design a car, my mind will first go to something that already exists, like Tesla," Gast explains. But this pattern can be broken with what his book calls provocations: simple, unexpected prompts or word associations that force our brains to connect seemingly unrelated concepts. "If that same person who told me to design a car then threw out the word 'nature," Gast adds, "I might instead think of something entirely new. Tires that can plant seeds, for example."
Don't self-edit (especially at the beginning). One of the biggest obstacles to coming up with creative ideas is our tendency to edit them along the way. Any creative act, whether brainstorming or writing or solving a problem, will be more effective if you give yourself the freedom to go in all sorts of directions and then evaluate your ideas afterwards. Gast calls this the "diverge and converge" method: first let your ideas flow freely, then look at them more critically. Give yourself time, and then even more time. Researchers say time is one of the most important indicators of creativity. "People are usually really excited during the beginning of a brainstorming session," Gast says. "Then there's almost always a dip in energy after the initial burst of ideas. And then you're likely to be reinvigorated again. But most people give up before reaching that third phase." Being patient enough to sit within the discomfort of feeling like you've run out of ideas -- knowing that it's simply a matter of time before your brain starts making breakthroughs again -- will help you reach new creative edges.
Take a break. Our best ideas often happen during what scientists call the creative pause. "Our students echo what most people say: they come up with great ideas in the shower, driving their car, or on a walk," Gast says. That seemingly idle time gives your subconscious the space and freedom to make connections. Working on something creative, taking a break to do an easy task while those thoughts marinate, and then deliberately coming back to whatever you were working on is an extremely effective strategy.
Personalize your space. What can you do to be inspired by your surroundings? Gast suggests setting up your personal space in a way that is conducive to your most creative self, whether that means natural light, candles, your favorite art pieces, or ensuring you always have access to notebooks and pens. "Research even shows that the way schools are designed can impact creativity," Gast says. "Your work, mental state, happiness and creativity are a reflection of your environment more than you realize."
Go outside. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can have a number of positive psychological effects, from stress reduction to improvement in memory. This extends to creativity. Immersing yourself in the natural environment, away from digital devices and the other distractions of a bustling 21st-century life, can give your mind the space it requires to be open and imaginative. Take a hike without your iPhone, go on a day trip to the ocean or lake, or simply sit under a tree with nothing but a journal. Make it a habit. Like mastering any skill, becoming more creative takes practice. It's important to engage in regular habits that both directly and indirectly allow you to cultivate creativity. Activities that help prime the brain for creative thinking, such as meditation, yoga, reading fiction and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you, are just as important as creativity exercises themselves, be them prototyping or problem-solving. "Infuse creativity into every part of your life," Gast says. "If you do your best to build a lifestyle that encourages creativity, your creative ideas will be unlimited."