For companies, creativity is the fuel for innovation and competitive advantage. For individuals, creativity is the key to quickly and effectively solving problems. But as important as creativity is, most of us don’t understand how it works and how to enhance our own creative thinking. Instead, we tell and retell a series of myths, faulty beliefs that serve as our best guess for how creativity works. But the implications of 50 years of research into creativity are re-writing many of those myths. The results might be counterintuitive, but they are effective. Here are four evidence-based ways to boost your creativity.
We tend to think of outstandingly creative works or projects as wholly original. But the truth is that most breakthrough creative works are the result of copying and modifying existing works. Microsoft and Apple both borrowed the design of Xerox’s Alto to build their personal computers. George Lucas copied the theme of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” and blended it with concepts and visuals from Akira Kurosawa films and Flash Gordon serials to create the blockbuster Star Wars series. Even on a smaller scale, ideas are made by the combining of older ideas. Research suggests that individuals whose brains make connections between various thoughts score higher on creativity tests. Start collecting ideas, testing possible combinations, and seeing what creative ideas emerge.
2. Study a New Field
While our most difficult problems are often given to long-standing experts, the most innovative solutions don’t always come from these experts. Instead, individuals with a sufficient background in a field, but with additional knowledge from a diverse range of fields, are those ones who dream up breakthrough innovations. Paul Erdos, the most published mathematician in history, changed his field of specialization constantly. Erdos was known for showing up on the doorstep of future collaborators and exclaiming, “My brain is open.” He’d trade knowledge with his collaborators and move on to find new ones. Open your brain and start studying new fields; you never know which one your creative insight will come from.
3. Find Constraints
When we think of creative people, we think of them as wild and unrestrained. The truth is that most creativity would whither without a certain level of constraint. Restrictions create boundaries that actually help us understand the problem at hand and evaluate possible solutions. Research demonstrates that we’re more motivated and able to solve creative challenges after encountering obstacles than when we’re set completely free. 37Signals, the innovative software company behind Basecamp, intentionally sets constraints around the number of people working on a project and even the features their products can have. Instead of looking at constraints as additional problems, start seeking out the structure created by them. Creativity doesn’t just love constraints; it thrives under them.
If you look at the offices of the most innovative companies, they seem fun-loving and friendly. There are pool tables, free food and a casual atmosphere. But if you look at their creative process, you find a lot more fighting then fun – and that’s a good thing. Structured, task-oriented conflict is a signal that new ideas are being submitted and tested. A lack of conflict can suggest that people are self-censoring their ideas, or worse, not generating any new ideas at all. That’s why the acclaimed animation studio Pixar stages regularly scheduled “shredding” sessions where the directors and animators gather and criticize their film-in-progress. Don’t be afraid to fight over ideas. The ensuring conflict will likely yield drastic improvements.
Creativity isn’t a fixed trait. It’s a skill that can be learned and developed. Under the right circumstances, we all have creative insights, and we all have the potential for more. Anyone can develop into a creative genius, and these four methods can help you get there.
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The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas