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3 Paths Toward A More Creative Life

Want to be more creative? Sometimes it’s just a matter of giving yourself the space to think, writes Bruce Nussbaum.

Everyone can learn to be more creative, but to become very creative, I’ve come to believe you need to lead a creative life. In watching my best students, in examining the lives of successful entrepreneurs, and in seeing the process of the great Native American artists who I know, it is clear that how they live their daily lives is crucial to their success. I realize that it sounds very "zen-y" (which is OK by me), yet I come to this realization not through a search for spirituality or clarity but from simple observation.

Creativity is in such demand today that when we apply for jobs, when we join organizations, or when we just meet other people, we are asked to present our creative selves. But we can’t do that unless we understand the nature of our own creativity, locate the sources of our originality, and have a language that explains our work. If you are one of the growing number of "creatives," or want to become one, you need to lead a creative life. This is what I talk about with my students. Through outside speakers, deep readings of key classics, and intense classwork, we explore the nature of leading a creative life and develop a series of concepts and a literacy that allows us to understand ourselves and communicate and convince others of the validity of our work and the resonance it has in society and the marketplace.

It’s a work in progress, of course, but here are three specific ways that can help you lead a creative life.

1. Be mindful—disconnect

As important as it is for you to lead a hyper-connected and super-stimulating life as a creative person circa 2013, it is just as crucial for you to be self-reflective and mindful. The last time I had dinner with Bill Moggridge, the father of interaction design, the cofounder of Ideo, and then head of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, I asked him where he went in New York to spark his creativity. He quickly said the High Line. Walking the High Line was where he would go to think and ponder. Steve Jobs was a walker. Mark Zuckerberg is a walker.

For good reason. We are all so connected these days and distracted by constant interactions. Our time is spent responding, reacting to others or absorbing, taking in new information. But we often lack the space, the time, the moment to integrate that knowledge, connect those dots, generate that creativity. Slowing down and disconnecting provides that space. That’s why showers or lingering over that cup of coffee before starting off to work are good places to start your creative life. Taking a walk is particularly good. Walking alone is an excellent strategy for freeing your mind up so that you’re able to bring together different areas of knowledge. Finding that neighborhood coffee shop to hang (not the one where you meet your friends) and just think can be important. You don’t need hours and hours of disconnection but just a few to be mindful of your challenges and how you might meet them. You need to allow your creativity to flow without interruption and to let your mind to fill up.

2. To create meaningful things, delve into the past

Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a polymath’s polymath (he was building a Cree birch canoe using traditional tools and techniques the last time I saw him in Toronto), says people spend more time learning about the music they love than the fields they work in—especially in high tech. Prospecting and mining the past to gain a deep understanding of where things come from and why they exist is hugely important to creating meaningful new things. Buxton points to the example of the 1993 IBM/Bell South touchscreen smartphone called the Simon that was a likely inspiration to Jony Ive for the wildly successful iPhone. Bob Dylan "mined" Woody Guthrie. Van Gogh found inspiration in Jean-Francois Millet. Being mindful of the roots of your knowledge domain, your industry, your creative space can bring greater understanding—and more success—to your own creative efforts.

Being mindful also means understanding the intellectual context and history of key ideas. The UX (user experience) is perhaps the single-most important concept in business today, but our understanding of that experience is shallow. We know enough to be "user" focused but not enough to really know what that means. Read Walter Benjamin’s work on aura and fashion, and you realize that our most powerful attraction to things come from a dynamic engagement, not a passive experience. In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki describes a Japanese entrancing relationship to the smell and look and feel of cooking rice. Digging deep into meaning and understanding, you discover that some wonderful things "beckon" us, we interact with them emotionally, we want to stay engaged. In an era of social media where we all want to participate in the making of our lives, user engagement (UE) is more important than UX.

Being meaningful is important for leading a creative life because it allows you to understand the deeper meaning of relationships, outside and inside the marketplace. That includes our relationships to things and our relationship to one another. For example, we just celebrated Valentine’s Day. But do you really know what a gift is? We are mired in swag, "free" gifts we give away at nearly every event. But do you know the intense underlying psychology, social, political, and economic dynamic that goes with giving and receiving a gift? Knowing the anthropological and sociological literature on the gift—it is extensive because the gift is perhaps the most celebrated and common of all human rituals—provides meaning to your creativity. Kickstarter is all about the gift as a mechanism of patronage, art production, and, I would argue (and cofounder Charles Adler would disagree), shaping a new kind of capitalism.

3. Be masterful

We now know that we can all learn to be more creative. It’s not a rare "aha" moment that comes to a lucky few. To be very creative, however, requires a deep mastering of both knowledge and skills. Creativity is mostly about two things—connecting different bodies of knowledge in new ways and seeing patterns where none existed before. Connecting dots of disparate information (shoes and the Internet, anyone?) usually involves "fresh eyes." It plays to the strengths of the younger. Seeing things differently, often taking existing things and connecting them to new technologies, can be serendipitous. But we can train ourselves to look for serendipity constantly and everywhere. We can learn to play at connecting this and that to see what it creates. We can make serendipity work for us day to day.

Learning pattern recognition takes longer. Pattern sight requires you to master the skill of looking for what should and shouldn’t be there. It’s the ability not only to see the rare "odd duck" but to routinely look for that duck and see it. That’s what good birders do. That’s what hunters, hikers, skiers, and all outdoors people do. It takes time to learn patterns of information, which is why you need to spend a lot of time "in the field." We call that "experience," and you’ve seen that whenever you’re in a situation with someone who just "knows" what’s coming next without being able to explain it. That person is reading the patterns. This mastery is not about fresh eyes but wise eyes.

Leading a creative life is increasingly the path people are choosing, for good reason. In an era of volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity, being creative is perhaps the best way to navigate your career and succeed. It gives you the right skill set and mindset. But a creative life can offer more than business success. Keith Richards perhaps says it best in his biography Life: "There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you. . .When it works, baby, you’ve got wings." Richards is a textbook example of leading a creative life, which is why his biography has become required reading in my classes. But you don’t have to be a rock star to tap into creative flow—just start by taking a walk.

[Images: Heads, socket, whip, and Bone via Shutterstock]

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  • Jason Thibeault

    I'd also disagree with the need to disconnect. I love to stay connected. I love to stay distracted. Because it is in distraction, it is the moment when my brain is processing information that I am feeding it (from all sorts of different topics and sources), where connections are made. Whether it's something someone says via social or in an email, or a link to an article, my brain needs a massive amount of stimulation. For me as a creative, the digital world is like crack. I just don't consciously try to make sense of anything until my brain has identified a pattern. I just absorb.

  • Jason Thibeault

    Although I think these are all great suggestions, you skirt around the most fundamental issue: accepting that creativity is an irrational process. Why most people fail to really be creative is because their brain is wired to reward for rational thought (something we do to all kids as they grow up) whereas the creative, the one who puts seemingly random patterns together, is rewarded for both irrational and rational. And the creative genius? That's the person that can swing both ways easily, they can apply rational process to irrational thinking and yet continue to exist in an irrational state of mind. Which calls into sharp relief the problem with businesses and creativity. Businesses are productive by nature. Productivity is an output of rational process. Sure, they want more creatives but the problem is that you can't put a creative into a rational process. You can't say, "okay, let's brainstorm for 30m." That may seem creative on the surface but it's an attempt to "rationalize" the irrationality of creativity.

  • Ko-Shin Music

    There is a great story... The Buddha was sitting in a forest when a man came and without reason- wildly tore apart a branch from a tree. The Buddha walked up to the man with the branch and said, "now put it back" - the story points to us the teaching that to destroy is easy, while the art of creation, that's what our lives are truly about. 
    How can we be anything but creative, as we are the creators of our lives, conscious or not, we are the pilots, the navigators, the designers. Realizing THIS opens the floodgate to unending creativity - seeing the majesty in the tiniest details...a plant growing in the crack of pavement in a city street, the glorious sheen of patina off a rusted pipe, the beauty of a feather gracefully lying on the ground, beckoning adventure...the creative force is pulsing in everything!!! SO taking time to breathe, and BE instead of running around -like you are a smartphone- so you can officially "stop and smell the roses" is part and parcel to opening the gateways to the eternal truth of who you really are. People who say they aren't creative or don't understand how to tap into the expanding wellspring - are just living disconnected from the truth of who they really are! 

  • Katherine Tattersfield

    Interesting that you mentioned creativity as an in demand trait for the job hunt. I find that odd because I've had several employers express reservations that I'm "too creative" for the position or the company during interviews. 

  • Daniel Ferrara

    Bruce, free time for the creative mind is most important. Going into the wilderness with minimal equipment, hunting with a bow and arrow takes intense concentration. This allows the mind to process thoughts on a different level. This disconnect, as you call it allows the creative to
    Luckily I have been able to do this for many years.

    Daniel Ferrara
    Ferrara Design Inc

  • Virgínia Dias

    Leading a creative life is a much healthier way of living, but that doesn't mean one is going to be creative because of it.
    is written in the genetic code and can be refined throughout life through
    inspiration and intuition.

  • Chris Kelly

    Surprisingly, all of these points are things I do in day to day life. Although, 5 years out of uni, I've had a rough time in the professional world. UX is very much the most important thing, but even the people who know it, cut it out of the process or ruin it. 

  • LaurenNisbet

    I think the world definitely demands more creativity today than it has in the past - technology has provided so many more possibilities and opportunities to explore and create, and it has become an expectation among employers that job applicants will have this kind of open-minded approach that will lead to innovation and progress within their organizations. I like that these suggestions have to do with internalizing the creative way of thinking, making it part of your routine and adapting your thought processes based on a desire to understand and master an idea, pattern, or connection. I think this article would be especially relevant for young people like me who are beginning their careers and still shaping their professional identities - endless possibilities!   

  • Suneel Jain

    Good Article... but there is lot more to say on this.

    Suneel Jain - ART Ellipse

  • aviva jaye

    Great article that doesn't trivialize creativity, or treat it only as a way to gain success, but rather a way of life. It is nice to see the work and critical thinking and stretching that many of us artists proactively deal with, addressed here.

  • Tony

    Creativity can be learned (not taught).  It is an inspirational state of being; cannot be compared to learning to paint. Creativity is killed by public education.  It is up to us as a culture to spawn create spaces for society to learn creativity.

  • TroyceKey

    I don't think that creativity can be taught , learned, or acquired just as learning to paint 'well' won't insure that producing a good painting (let alone a masterpiece) will be a likely outcome. I also don't subscribe to the notion that everyone is creative and artistic. The world is full of imitators and precious few creatives and human history exposes this truth. Imitating the lives of 'creative people' isn't much of a value proposition. Standing in front of a mirror and reciting positive affirmations won't increase your creativity much either.

  • Saija Projects

    The first article I've read so far that shows a very recognizable way of interpreting the birth of creativity. Very refreshing to read! Thanks. Based on my experience I can see now how we are "meditating" our way to pattern reading of life. And when we do discover and connect the supposedly already existing dots we call it innovation. Some say that living a creative life means to live from the heart. I like that.

  • Chris Cowley

    I find that the majority of my best ideas come during my cycle to work. The times are am powering down a country road surrounded by countryside have been the source of many a solution to nagging problems.

  • Irene Velveteen

    Great piece. Thank you for bringing insight into my mind this fine working day :)