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.
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.
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.
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.