Photo by Alejandro Peters
James M. Higgins, author of 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques: The Handbook of New Ideas for Business,defines creativity as the process of generating something new that has value. Creative ideas run the gamut from new associations of existing ideas, elements, or concepts, to radical breakthroughs which extend the boundaries of human knowledge and create paradigm shifts. That is, you don’t necessarily have to make a quantum leap to be creative; you can begin by finding ways to improve an existing product, or by modifying a process to make it more efficient.
Creativity can mean identifying an untapped market for an existing product, finding a new solution to a problem, finding creative ways to resolve a labor dispute, and so on. In addition, creativity is not the sole domain of the arts—whether it’s painting, theatre, music, architecture, dancing, literature, and so on—but is important in any field, from medicine to business, and from engineering to economics.
Also, creativity applies to all facets of life. You can use creativity to solve daily problems and to think of new ways to deal with everyday challenges; you can use creativity to find novel ways to increase your income and finally build your nest egg, you can find creative ways to get your child to go to bed at night, you can be creative when it comes to finding a way to get your employees to arrive at work on time in the mornings, and so on.
Developing your creativity is one of the best things you can do to lead a more satisfying and fulfilling life. Fortunately, as most creativity experts hold – including Jack Foster, Roger von Oech, Edward de Bono, and others – creativity is a process that can be learned, practiced, and perfected. Below you will find four steps you can follow to be more creative. These steps are roughly modeled after the five step technique set forth in the creativity classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young.
1. Gather Information on Your Subject Matter
The first step involves gathering information about the topic at hand. Read everything you can on your subject matter: go to the library and check out books, go to your neighborhood bookstore and browse though interesting reading material, read magazine articles, subscribe to a newsletter, surf the internet for information, subscribe to blogs dedicated to your topic, and so on. You can also talk to people who have knowledge on the topic and ask them lots of questions, go to a lecture, enroll in a seminar, and even take an online class. The more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to come up with creative ideas for that subject matter.
2. Digest the Information and Apply Creativity Techniques
The second step involves digesting and working with the raw material that you gathered in the previous step. There are many books on creativity which offer the reader different creativity techniques to help in the generation of ideas, and at this point you can begin applying these techniques to your problem. Some creativity techniques are intended to “open your mind” and encourage “free thinking”, such as idea generation and brainstorming sessions, guided imagery, and other expansive techniques. For example, you can begin by releasing all of the preconceived ideas and assumptions you have about the topic and disregard fixed lines of thinking and rigid behavior patterns.
Other techniques create constraints and force your mind to focus, such as setting time deadlines and other methods that force you to converge on a particular course of action. For example, in problem-solving contexts, the random word creativity technique has been shown to produce great results for those who apply it. Basically, a person confronted with a problem is presented with a randomly generated word and is told to make associations between the word and the problem as a creativity goad. By combining expansive and constraining creativity techniques you can come up with several different alternatives to choose from for solving the problem at hand.
3. Take Time for Incubation
The third stage is letting go. You just drop the subject entirely, go do something else, and let the unconscious mind deal with the problem. After a period of intense concentration, Albert Einstein would take a nap or find another way to detach from whatever he was working on. He found that during these mental breaks his unconscious mind would go on thinking about the challenge and surprise him with an insight when he least expected it.
Isaac Asimov was quoted as saying that when he got stuck writing a book he would simply put the project aside and start writing a completely different book. When he returned to the original project he would find that his unconscious mind had figured things out and the ideas would just flow. Therefore, after a period of thinking hard about a problem, the next step is to either work on something entirely different, or to relax: practice deliberate frivolity, go to a museum, go to the movies, or go for a twenty minute walk. Many people have reported “Eureka” moments while taking time for incubation.
4. Refine the Idea and Make it Real
The final stage is where you use trial and experimentation to test, edit, refine and polish the idea. In addition, at this step you need to make your idea real. In her inspiring book, Creative Companion: How to Free Your Creative Spirit, Sark tells the story of an Australian artist named Ken Done who created a painting he thought would look great on bed sheets. He took the idea to a sheet company but they turned him down because they just couldn’t visualize bed sheets with his painting on them. Ken then went home, took a white bed sheet, painted his painting on it, and took it back to the sheet company. The bed sheet he painted looked so fabulous that the sheet company immediately placed a large order. It’s not enough to come up with great ideas, you have to act to turn those ideas into reality.
Begin implementing these steps in all areas of your life, whether it’s your home life, at work, or anything else you’re involved in. In the words of Abraham Maslow: “The key question isn’t ‘What fosters creativity?’ But it is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.”