You’re working on a project and feeling uninspired. Some of the solutions to this problem may include activities that don’t sound very responsible, such as gossiping with your colleague, procrastinating, waiting until you’re drowsy to think about it again.
In fact, while many consider creativity to be inherent in some people – and hopeless in others – Jonah Lehrer, author and neuroscience specialist, writes that creativity can be encouraged by adopting some new habits. His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (recently excerpted by The Wall Street Journal), considers virtually every type of creative activity from mathematics breakthroughs to successful ad campaigns.
“Creativity can seem like magic,” Lehrer writes. “We look at people like Steve Jobs and Bob Dylan, and we conclude that they must possess supernatural powers denied to mere mortals like us […] They’re ‘creative types.’ We’re not. But creativity is not magic, and there’s no such thing as a creative type.”
In fact, he says, anyone can learn to be creative and get better at it. New research is emerging, showing the “surprisingly concrete” ways in which people develop the creativity to invent world-changing products or solve the toughest problems.
Consider the idea of “cross-pollination” outside your own area of expertise when it comes to solving thorny problems, Lehrer says. Arthur Fry, an engineer at 3M in the paper products division, combined the memory of a lecture he’d attended on weak adhesives with the frustrating problem of the bookmarks that slipped out of his hymnal in church choir practice. And a reusable bookmark (the Post-It Note) was born.
Some of the other creativity shortcuts Lehrer suggests include:
Surrounding yourself with the color blue. A 2009 study found that subjects solved twice as many insight puzzles when surrounded by the color, versus red – a better backdrop for people solving analytic problems.
Getting groggy. People at their least alert time of day (like a night person early in the morning) often perform better on creative puzzles.
Daydreaming. Research shows that people who daydream more score higher on various creativity tests.
Watching something funny. When people watch a short video of stand-up comedy, they solve about 20 percent more insight puzzles.
Changing venues. All those folks working part of the day at your local Starbucks might be on to something: A new study showed that volunteers performed better on creativity tests when they were seated outside a 5-foot-square workspace, perhaps because they internalized the metaphor of thinking outside the box (read: cubicle).
Traveling. Experiencing another culture leads to valuable open-mindedness, Lehrer says. The example: Fashion directors who have lived in many countries produce clothing that their peers rate as more creative.
Of course, Lehrer writes, solving problems is sometimes simply a matter of continuing to hack away at them. While a relaxing shower can lead to epiphany, he says, “Sometimes we just need to keep on working, resisting the temptation of a beer-fueled nap.” But what’s your take? Do you think that we all have a responsibility to train our creative muscles, or that true creativity is an inherent gift?