HOW DOES ONE DEVELOP AND MAINTAIN A CREATIVE MINDSET?
I’M FAR FROM SURE I KNOW THE ANSWER TO MY OWN QUESTION—BUT I WILL CERTAINLY TRY
Creativity works in weird and wonderful ways which I don’t pretend to understand fully (or at all, in some cases). I do know the following has helped me significantly.
- INTELLECTUAL CURIOUSITY. Being innately intellectually curious. I always seem to have been this way, so I guess you can say it is genetic. It means I have a voracious appetite for knowledge which seems to increase as I get older (and become increasingly aware of how little I know). Where my areas of interest are concerned—and they are wide—I love to learn nearly as much as I love to write. Of course, the two are intertwined. I learn before I write—and I learn from writing (because the process of writing demands clarity of mind).
- BEING DYSLEXIC. Suffering from a form of dyslexia which means I have had to develop a whole series of workarounds in order to remember things. In essence, dyslexics are not less intelligent, but we are wired differently. There are downsides, but also advantages. As a consequence, we see things that many others do not. It is scarcely a coincidence that so many entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
- CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT. Growing up in a creative environment—as far as my home life was concerned. My mother was a writer, and painter with a keen interest in the theatre, movies and in creative people in general. She was a difficult, complex, charismatic, dangerous woman—and not remotely intellectual—but she was creative.
- ADVERSITY. I have had a very difficult upbringing—and life since hasn’t been much easier. Adversity forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you question, think, and push the envelope. There were certain parts that I would gladly have missed—-I am not a masochist—but, on balance, such difficult times and experiences have served me well.
- READING. I don’t believe that reading is a substitute for real life—because it is an entirely real experience in itself even if you are not physically involved (other than holding a book and moving your eyes). But it is an endless and fascinating joy, an endless fount of knowledge, and, even if indirectly, allows you to experience the wonders of the world. All of that apart, reading stimulates you creatively like few other activities.
- A FULL LIFE. An interesting, varied, and adventurous life. I cannot stress the importance of this too much.
- THE COURAGE TO TRY, FAIL—AND TRY AGAIN. I tend to be slow before making a move though how much of that is perfectionism compared with a lack of courage is hard to say. But, whatever about my slowness, I do try—and seem to keep on trying—new (and normally difficult) things. Some degree of failure is inevitable under such circumstances—because you just don’t have the experience initially. You just have to accept it and persevere. It is something of a cliché—but true—that failure is how you learn.
- RESILIENCE. The issue is not whether you fail or not, but how you handle it. Since failure is inevitable in the creative field—rejection apart, you never write, for instance, quite as well as you would like—and financial chaos is almost guaranteed (which doesn’t make your nearest too happy)—what counts is your response to it. My performance has been very far from exemplary—but I have always just managed to hang in there. My fears—which I have never entirely overcome—seem to be compensated for by my stamina (which truly astonishes me). Does that add up to fortitude? I don’t know—but I would like to think so. What I will say is that I will stay with a project for as long as it takes, despite every setback—until the outcome is certain, one way or another. If that adds up to years, so be it. I’m doing what I love and what I believe I am meant to be doing—and that is as good as it gets.
- THE CULTIVATION OF YOUR OWN INNER VOICE. I have received some very good advice in my time—but most advice has been terrible. The trouble is that most people advise you from the basis of the status quo—which is damn all use if you are trying to break new ground—or they don’t have your best interests at heart—or they are just plain ignorant. Jealousy also enters the picture. Human nature isn’t set up to make creativity easy. Accordingly, you have got to develop the confidence to trust your own judgment. This is absolutely vital—because creativity, by and large, is a lonely business—and you will be actively opposed on many occasions, often for no good reason at all. People don’t like, fail to understand, and are uncomfortable with those who are different. That is just the way it is. The first man to invent fire must have had a hell of time! It’s hot; it burns; it hurts; it destroys; it’s hard to store; and harder still to carry. And what use is it!
- A STABLE WRITING BASE. Though I have stressed the importance of having a variety of adventures, and living life to the full, I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t have a castle to retreat to as well. Well, it doesn’t literally have to be a castle (though my main protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, lives in one) but you need some haven to which you can retreat to write—and at least one friend who believes in you (Surprisingly, it’s all it takes—but to retain even one believer can be tough at times. Most people are attuned to fast results and the conventional—whereas creatives, by definition, tend to be unorthodox). A stable writing base is vital as far as I’m concerned—equipped with plenty of flat surfaces. From this writer’s point of view, there aren’t nearly enough them! The world needs more tables!
An article by Zachary Slayback reminded me that being creative involves a great deal more than having the right mental attitude. If you want to be effective creatively, you have got to execute—to build up a body of experience, to push yourself to your limits.
In short, you have got to do stuff—not just think about it. If you don’t, your creative talents—no matter how considerable—will atrophy.
Work is involved—a truly extraordinary amount of it—and absolute commitment.
The man is entirely right.
There’s no formula for a good idea. Good ideas are creative. To develop a good idea, you must engage in the moment of creation. Many company founders, authors, and artists will note that their best ideas don’t come to them during sessions of brainstorming, but simply on a whim — in conversation, while walking, or just as a passing thought.If your company were rational, somebody else would have done it already.— Evan Baehr, cofounder, Able
Billionaire investor Peter Thiel says in his 2014 book, Zero to One that the moment of creation isn’t about rehashing old ideas or simply moving existing resources around to make them more efficient — it’s about discovering secrets. The tricky thing about secrets is that they are secret. Discovering secrets takes work and time. Some will be dead-ends, but some will lead to the next big thing (who would have thought that you could build a $40B+ company off of connecting people with empty seats in their cars with people who need rides?). If there was a formula to discovering secrets, there would be no more secrets.
So discovering your next venture or project isn’t about following a formula, but you can inculcate certain habits and attitudes that help move towards innovation.
Ultimately, innovation comes down to creatively producing, which can be broken down into:
- Productivity — are you creating something new at a good rate?
- Contrarianism — are you looking to create things in places and in ways that others aren’t? You can create a widget every day that is the same as one somebody built the day before, but that won’t lead to anything new in itself. Are you creating something nobody else is?
Achieving a mindset that begets productive contrarianism is key. Looking for new ways to create value and new ways of doing things will help uncover the secrets of the world. Doing what everybody else is won’t lead you to producing ways to secrets, even if it may lead to increased productivity overall.
Putting yourself in a productive mindset requires a series of habits. Here are some ways to achieve this:
- Blog every day — Blogging is the act of creation. Write a review of a book you read, commentary on an idea you’ve been thinking about, a poem, a story, or simply write about writing. The core idea here is to actually go about creating something every day — even if it is just a string of words and sentences that convey ideas.
- Undertake a self-development project — Self-development projects are simply projects where you look to improve on some element of yourself. This can mean going to the gym every day, reading every day, launching a new venture, or just inculcating some habit that you believe improves on yourself as an open-ended project.
- Actively look for places to add value — Look for the places where things can be done better, where you can go above and beyond expectations, and where solutions are being overlooked. Maybe your expectations at work require you to do A, B, and C. Nobody is doing D, though. Do D — add value to your organization, and see the world as a place for more and more things to be done in.
Creation begets creation, so getting in the mindset of creating — blog posts, value in the self, value in work — will help prime the mind for a bias for action.
Zachary Slayback is the Business Development Director for Praxis, a twelve-month program for entrepreneurial learners. Zachary dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after seeing firsthand how college fails the most ambitious students. He writes regularly on education, schooling, and philosophy atzakslayback.com.
Originally published as “Productive Contrarianism: How to Create the Next Big Thing” at blog.discoverpraxis.com on February 17, 2015.