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Slaying the Creativity Dragon

Creativity is a skill.  And skills can be learned, it’s always a matter of learning a few techniques and getting practice so you’re comfortable using them.  But there isn’t a lot of room for creativity in the education system, and because we don’t value it as much as a culture, I think it’s left underdeveloped in most of us.

Instead, people say, “I’m not creative.”  Or they just stay quiet and admire (or envy) the artist types who are bizarre, incomprehensible animals capable of tricks as strange and remote as a gecko running up a wall or a hummingbird hovering in air.

I’m one of those people, by the way.  I don’t think of myself as creative, but I work and I play in spaces that depend on creativity.   So I may have an identity issue, but the good news is that I am also living proof that creativity isn’t only for people with paintbrushes.

Creativity is difficult. So what?

Barry Schwartz is the author of “The Paradox of Choice,” and I’ll refer you to the presentation he made at one of the TED conferences.  But this line from the attached bio is probably a very apt summary:  Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche.

Creativity is entirely about choices.  Lots and lots of choices.   Imagine being sat at a computer and told to write a book.  Or handed a palette of paints and told to paint something.  Imagine a big block of granite.  Imagine being told to do something with that big green field out there.

Dark Skies

What kind of book?  What should I paint?  What do I sculpt?  Should I make the field into a garden or should I put up a building?

That empty space is a monster.  A terrifying monster.  There are so many options, it’s impossible to know which one to pick.  Paralyzing and exhausting, remember?

Corner the Dragon…

That big green field is just too hard for most of us to take on.  But that is where creativity techniques come in.  All of them have the same goal:  Take the problem of infinite choices and break it down into something more human-scaled.

Sounds complicated, but it’s not:  I’m sure we’ve all had a time at a new restaurant where we’ve stared at the menu and had no idea of what to pick.  But after the meal, good or bad, it’s really easy to say, “Next time, I think I’m going try a different appetizer.”

It doesn’t sound like much, but composing a meal from menu choices is a creative act.  Not as creative as composing the menu in the first place, but still creative.  And playing with that meal composition is *also* a creative act.  Not as creative as coming up with the original meal, but that’s my point.

…Then put it out of your Misery

Coming up with something from nothing is difficult.  Coming up with something from something else is easy.  So the way to make being creative easier, is to avoid starting from scratch

Put something in the big empty field.  Once there’s something there, you can start thinking about what’s wrong with it, and what you like about it.  Or you’ll start thinking of questions.

Forty Shades of Green

Instead of trying to do heavy lifting with that untrained “creativity” muscle, you can help it with your well-developed “refining” muscle, and make large and small adjustments till you get to something you like.

Now all we need is a fast way of finding the something to start with.  And I’ve got a few simple, easy to use recipes for “somethings” to fill the empty spaces.

1. Make an Educated Guess

If you have any clue what you think the end-state should be, start there.   Be as detailed or as vague as makes sense.

As an example, if I told you to take a picture of a group of people, odds are you’re going to stand them in a line.  And then if you decide the line makes the picture too wide, you’ll move people around into two lines.  Or you’ll step back.  Or maybe you’ll get them to wear a team shirt.  Or…  you get the idea.

Here’s a wilder example.  If I told you to build an airport, you probably have never done that before.  But you need flat long spaces for runways.  And you know you need terminals for the planes to get to, and you probably want those close to the runways.  And you need parking near the terminals.

In consulting terms, we call this a Straw Model.  Something that’s approximately the right shape and size, and then you can adjust the bits.  You can use it to sketch a face, or plan a city, or get a rough idea of the plot of your book.

2. Make a list

When I don’t know what the answer looks like, I make a list of the things I do know.   At a minimum, it makes me think of other things about what I might be trying to create.

It gets the mind going, and sometimes ideas fall out.  Sometimes they’re not even related to whatever you’re thinking about.

Feel free to throw in random ideas.  Or to play a free association game, and write the first thing that comes to mind and then the first thing that connects to that.

The list will help you to see things in the big empty space.  If not, try organizing the list, and make notes as new thoughts come to mind.  Once you get to the structured list process, you’re into something called Mind-Mapping.

3. Throw something random at the wall and see what sticks

Sometimes you really do have nothing but a big empty space, and no idea how to fill it.  And at that point, if we’re talking pure creativity here, the best approach is to just do something.

Do something random.  Hit a photography website and use the 7th picture.  Pick a different medium.  Make a mark.  Pick a color and use that as a theme.  Go for a walk.  Read a magazine.

Hit a search engine, search for inspiration.  And then do something.

You’re not done till you make a mark

What you do doesn’t matter. As long as you do something, you can start to tweak it.  Once the empty space has reference points, you are better able to deal with it.   And once you start to have ideas, you can try one of the other approaches again.

The Secret Sauce is Repetition

The real secret to faking creativity is repetition. Even first-rate professional artists don’t get everything right on the first try.

The techniques above are ways to get past the beginning which is the most difficult part.  But once you have a straw model or a list, that’s when you’re most likely to figure out something that you forgot, or misunderstood.  Or you’re going to think of a different way to do things.

And so you try again.  And again.

Wrong is as good as right

Sometimes your first attempt will feel like a disaster.  Your guess may be wrong.  I make models in my work all the time and discover problems.

But whatever mess I create is only a first draft.  And now instead of having to invent something, I can say, “Hey, my piece about creativity didn’t talk about failure and that’s really important.” which is a lot easier to address than the larger question of “What should I say about creativity?”

The point is to get to *something* that you can then bend and warp and wiggle towards something right.  A mess isn’t as satisfying as a beautiful result, but any result is a step forward.

In being creative, there’s no such thing as failure.  Instead you just try again.

Persistence Approaches Perfection

A professional athlete rehearses their moves, over and over again.  A professional artist draws small sketches and studies, before ever moving to a wall-sized canvas.  Writers make outlines when they need one, and writes draft after draft.  Film directors make story boards, and then scripts, long before they start shooting.

Nobody begins at the finished product.  It’d be great if we could skip the refining process, but it takes a lot of skill and practice to get to that point.  And it’s those masters who put the most effort into developing a systematic progression.


They’re masters because they practiced.

Creativity is like that.

Things to take away

  • Creativity is actually hard, so it’s okay if you feel challenged.  As long as you don’t let the fear stop you.
  • Sneak past the intimidation by trying to find ways to break up the empty space:
    • If you know a lot, mock it up with a Straw Model
    • If you know a little, make a list or a Mind Map
    • If you know nothing, throw in something random.
  • Repeat!  Repeat!  Repeat!!
    • Failure is USEFUL!
    • Persistence offers rewards


So leave me a note and tell me what you’re going to do to be creative.  And then go do it.

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4 Responses

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  1. Scott James Magner says

    Well played, Sebastian

  2. ej says

    I have to say that I love the tweaking, revision, rewriting process. Oh, and, as you know, it’s not the beginnings that get me; it’s the endings.

    And you know what I’m doing to be creative, though I’m not doing it today because I’m engaging in my only hobby and driving my kid places.

  3. Elevenser says

    The part I keep re-reading is “Wrong is as Good as Right”. That’s true on quite a few levels, and, of course, in the creative process those labels are never clearly defined. That ambiguity can often spin us into even more fear… that of the unknown, or of the empty space. You’ve outlined a great guide here, breaking the creative process down into very manageable steps, and that Big Empty Space into more comfortable rooms.

  4. hearthsong says

    Love it. I may reference it in a creativity-themed post. One thing I’d like to mention (and it’s tangential) is the concept of sunk cost. I have thrown a lot of creative energy into certain projects/media simply because of natural talent or training… but didn’t love it enough for the persistence part to not be a drag. Letting that go and starting something new may get me labeled a flake… but at least I’m a happy flake.

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