We’re all born with innate creativity. But what artists do, subconsciously or not, is to continue to develop that instinct.
Today, creativity is an increasingly sought-after quality well beyond the arts. Not only are employers targeting candidates who can generate and execute original ideas, studies have shown that creativity can boost productivity, as well as physical and mental wellness. Now more than ever, creativity is recognized as an essential skill, which can be honed.
Whether you work in a creative field or not, for those looking to enhance their own creativity, it can be hard to know where to begin. To help, we spoke with a group of creative professionals and experts—an artist, an entrepreneur, a psychiatrist, and a writer—to lay out actionable steps that anyone can take to live a more creative life.
What Is Creativity?
First off, it’s important to know what we’re talking about when we use the term “creativity.” Many associate the word with problem-solving. Stanford professor and psychiatrist Manish Saggar notes that while creativity is “very hard to define, let alone measure,” the research and science communities have largely agreed on a simple definition: To be considered creative, something—an idea, a solution, a product, a process—must be both novel and appropriate. In other words, it must be original and useful in some way.
It’s also important to emphasize that creativity need not apply to the arts—it’s essential to art and music, but also math, science, business, and myriad other fields. Take, for instance, Paula Crown, a full-time artist who for many years worked on Wall Street in real estate finance, and found that her creative instincts helped her succeed in a seemingly non-creative field.
Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carrie Barron, who coauthored The Creativity Cure: How To Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands, describes the act of being creative as a form of self-actualization. “It’s when you’re very absorbed in something that is deeply interesting to you; there’s almost a loss of self and you lose track of time,” she offers. “It’s experiencing life at its best, because you’re so at one with your process that you can have a euphoric moment.”
Why Creativity Matters
Bruce Nussbaum, a writer and the author of Creative Intelligence, emphasizes that creativity can enhance your personal life and your career, and that it is a skill that should be taught in schools, like math and literature. (Montessori schools are among the few grade-school-level educational approaches that do teach creativity.) He believes CQ (creative intelligence) should join the ranks of IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence).
The positive effects of art therapy on mental health are widely supported, and a wealth of recent research has found that artmaking is linked to improved brain function, and can be beneficial to prevent and palliate dementia and Alzheimer’s. More broadly, a wealth of research supports the positive effects of creativity on things like performance at work, social relationships, brain function, and happiness.
“Creativity is experiencing life at its best, because you’re so at one with your process that you can have a euphoric moment.”
In two studies since 2015, Saggar, working alongside Professor Grace Hawthorne at Stanford’s design school, has found evidence that links brain activity in the cerebellum to creativity. In one study, where students in Hawthorne’s design-creativity course were compared to students in a Mandarin language class, they found more activity in the cerebellum among students who were studying creativity. “We found that creativity does go up and people who had creativity ended up using the cerebellum more,” Saggar says.
Links between cognitive function and creativity were also proven by a 2009 study on doodling. Researchers found that people who doodle while on the phone have 29% better memory recall than those who don’t. (Steve Jobs was an avid doodler.)
Adobe’s “State of Create: 2016” report, for example, found links between creativity and productivity in the workplace. The study, which surveyed 5,000 adults in five countries, found that companies that invest in creativity are 78% more likely to “increase employee productivity.”
Creative activities have also been recognized for lifting moods. A February 2013 study, which surveyed some 3,500 knitters, found “a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy.”
Knitting is just one of several activities that we do with our hands that have been linked to sublimation—the process by which we’re able to translate negative feelings or emotions into positive ones. “Sometimes we have these torrents inside of us—like anxiety, fear, anticipatory anxiety, or despair—and they can sort of ride us and make us feel disorganized or like we can’t do anything,” Barron explains. With activities like knitting and drawing, it’s possible to channel that negative energy into the task at hand, and to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression.
Recoup Your Creativity
“Anyone who’s ever had kids or watched kids knows that just about every kid is creative,” says Nussbaum. “I think we’re all born creative and we either cultivate it or we lose it.” If you think you’ve lost it, not to worry—you can get it back. And chances are, you’re being creative more often than you’d think.
Childhood pastimes like poring over puzzles, catching insects, and conjuring imaginary friends all trace back to an innate impulse to be creative. But for many, that sense of possibility and wonderment doesn’t carry over into adulthood; it’s diminished by school, by jobs, or by something as small as being told that you’re not good at drawing.
It may not be acceptable for adults to bring their imaginary friends to work, but there are still constant opportunities to try out creative activities or test ideas. And in order to foster that creativity in ourselves and our peers, we need to practice mindfulness. “So often when people are being creative, they get shut down,” says Crown. “It behooves all of us to realize that alternative modes of thinking are something to be cherished.”
“Let go of the way people told you things are to be done, and give yourself the space and the ability to make mistakes, to think about ridiculous things.”
For one, there need not be a separation between creative pursuits and your work and home life. Think about the everyday instances in which you’re presented with an obstacle or an opportunity for experimentation. Perhaps you recently fixed a wobbly table or organized data in a spreadsheet? Maybe you found a compromise to settle a disagreement among friends, or planned a surprise birthday party. These are all opportunities for creativity.
To approach creativity with intention, Nussbaum proposes we pick an activity and “reframe it.” Think about your personal and professional life and identify the creative things that you’re good at. “Understand that everything has a frame and if you just reframe it, look at it in a different way, define in different way, all the lights go on,” he says.
In a similar vein, artist and entrepreneur Perry Chen, who is founder and chairman of Kickstarter, advises those looking to harness creativity to “let go.”
“Let go of the way people told you things are to be done, in general or in the task at hand,” he says, “and give yourself the space and the ability to make mistakes, to think about ridiculous things, and you’ll have the chance to approach something in a novel way.”
Set Aside Time to Be Creative
You may live according to an overpacked Google calendar that makes it hard to find time to do laundry, but discovering your own creative activity doesn’t necessarily mean you need to find more hours in the day. It could be something you already do, or a new hobby or skill—like cooking, coding, painting, or playing an instrument.
Look, for example, to Daniel Herman, a product manager at ironSource, who always wanted to learn to paint but never made the time for it in the past. This year, it was his New Year’s resolution. He enrolled in a painting class that met once a week for three hours, directly after work. It wasn’t just a creative diversion; he found that painting had actually helped him to become a better product manager.
Up to that point, Herman was accustomed to structuring his daily activities, the way he’d bracketed times to study when he was in college. “But painting requires a completely different approach,” he says. “Getting used to doing something that is a bit less structured and defined gives fresh perspective to established patterns which I can apply to other aspects of my life.”
Time, and how one uses it, is crucial to creative production. Chen, who now dedicates the majority of his time to his art practice, notes that the most creatively productive experiences tend to happen during “long periods of uninterrupted time.”
“During the week, I try to carve out longer blocks of multiple hours,” he says, “where I can just get deep into something, or let my mind go a little bit and see what happens, without distractions.”
Find Your Creative Activity
This isn’t to say that you need sign up for a painting class. First, take a look at the things you’re already doing—that you like doing. The idea is to “have a place or an experience where there’s spontaneous thought, where you’re playing with something—maybe it’s a painting, or maybe it’s a soup,” Barron says. “It’s very uplifting.”
“There’s nothing more creative than cooking,” Nussbaum offers. “You can take a recipe, add to it, subtract from it. It’s a very important creative activity. You can always try to do something different.”
While we can all certainly try to learn to code or sing, we can’t all expect to become the next Bill Gates or Beyoncé.
But say you’re keen to learn something entirely new. If that’s the case, approach it with patience. As Barron emphasizes, we all have creative capacity—the ability to bring “our full self and spontaneous thought to an activity.” But that doesn’t necessarily equate to creative greatness. So while we can all certainly try to learn to code or sing, we can’t all expect to become the next Bill Gates or Beyoncé.
To figure out what that creative outlet is right for you, Crown suggests thinking back to the things that inspired you as a child: “What did you naturally love? These are things you probably still do love, but we aren’t as aware of it when we become adults.”
In learning a new activity, it can often be frustrating and discouraging at the start, but Barron advises powering through. She advises to keep at for two or three months, until you find something you really want to spend your time doing.
“It takes time and dedication to fit it into your routine,” Herman says of his experience with painting, “but it feels great to get the hang of a new skill you weren’t initially sure about.”
Avoid perfectionist tendencies (if you have them) and create your own parameters for how and when you’ll learn. “We have to tolerate the humiliation of learning and mastering a task, but when you have mastered it, that can be the thing that you fall back on and go to when you’re in difficult times,” says Barron. Once you have a strong handle on that new task, you can begin to experiment and improvise, which is when the fun really begins.
Keep Creative Company
Nussbaum makes it clear: Creativity is contagious. “Hanging out with somebody creative and doing things together is probably the easiest way to learn to be creative,” he says. “Just working with them, seeing how they operate, how they see the world, learning from that—that’s the easiest way to enhance your creative intelligence.”
Socialization is generative for creativity. “Social interaction is very stimulating,” Nussbaum notes. Say you have plans to see a new art exhibition or attend a concert. Make a point to go with others who you’ll want to have a conversation with after or hash out your thoughts, opinions, questions, and ideas.
Even going out on the town can be a fruitful creative platform. “Nightlife is really important to your creative social life; your creative career is something to keep in mind when you go out,” he explains. “It’s not simply to have a lot of fun, but it’s who you’re meeting, who could be a part of your team, who could you learn from, who can teach you something.”
The caveat here, as Nussbaum is quick to say, is that many creatives are introverts, and place great value on the time they’re able to spend alone. “If you’re introverted, you have to ask yourself, ‘where am I getting my stimulation?’” You might need to make a concerted effort to meet new people, have conversations with your peers, and attend events.
Case in point, he adds, is that many (if not most) designers and creative people have a partner—someone who takes charge of the business side of the operation and things like branding and marketing, but also gives valuable feedback. “Finding someone you trust and can bounce ideas off is is very important.” A trusted friend can also be your greatest asset when you’re experiencing a creative block and need someone to talk to.
Expose Yourself to New Things
Hand in hand with meeting and interacting with others is acquiring new experiences. “The rule of thumb is to constantly expose yourself to new things,” Nussbaum says of strategies to stimulate creativity.
Multiple research studies have found a link between travel and creativity. A February 2015 study in the Academy of Management Journal, to name one, surveyed creative directors at 270 fashion houses and found that those who had worked abroad produced more innovation.
While teaching a course on creativity at Parsons, Nussbaum had his students do two important exercises that emphasized the need to see and experience new things.
First, he asked students to take off their headphones while walking around the city, and put away their phones for an hour. New Yorkers know well that all too often pedestrians are prone to be listening to music (or perhaps a podcast) with smartphone in hand as they walk down the street or enter the subway. This is often a mechanism to relax and/or tune out the city’s incessant noise, but Nussbaum argues it’s keeping us from opportunities to engender creativity.
“Look around as you walk, observe people, see what’s different,” he advises, “smell the smells, see what people are wearing, new restaurants, think about it. Be a flaneur.” Even at your office, he continues, take notice of what’s happening, who’s talking to who. “Being mindful about your surroundings helps you be a bit more creative in your life, and to make creative associations with other people.”
Multiple research studies have found a link between travel and creativity.
For another exercise, he asked students to map out a week of their lives—either by writing, drawing, or taking photos—in order to document what they do on an hourly basis over the course of seven days. They were then told to hand the records to a friend and ask them to analyze them. “You’ll see what is enhancing your creativity, and what is not,” he explains. Most will find that they’ve fallen into static patterns—frequenting the same coffee shop each day, taking the same route to work—and are missing out on opportunities to engage in new experiences.
Research has also found that spending time outdoors is beneficial to creativity. An April 2012 study conducted by the University of Kansas found that spending time in nature improved cognitive function, including a 50% boost in creativity.
On a more local level, Nussbaum encourages tapping into local cultural events, and taking time each week to look up new shows, events, or even restaurants opening—all ripe opportunities for stimulation.
Take Care of Yourself
If you were to throw a stone into a crowd of creative professionals today, you’d be more likely than not to hit someone who meditates or does yoga (if not both).
“This culture of meditation—taking time out, slowing down, having a quiet mind—is very linked to creativity,” Barron says, “because what it’s doing is creating an inward solace, whereas a lot of our time is spent in an outward space, responding to what’s coming at us, like our inbox.” She says that even 20 minutes of meditation or quiet time per day can help you put yourself in a state of mind for creativity to flourish—for example, a mindset where you’re primed to ask questions or come up with solutions.
Crown, who dedicates her mornings to her art practice, meditates each afternoon when she finishes for the day. “It provides me with a moment to pause, to take a deeper breath, to connect to the things that are important to feel deeply and to ground myself,” she explains.
Even 20 minutes of meditation or quiet time per day can help you put yourself in a state of mind for creativity to flourish.
If meditation is not your cup of tea, Nussbaum suggests that restorative exercises are powerful tools in helping you to achieve the calm and focus necessary to be creative in other parts of your life. This could be yoga, running, swimming, even sound baths—a type of meditation where participants lie on the floor while an instructor uses chimes, gongs, and other tools to fill the room with sonic waves. These are also activities that help us to put away our phones, computers, and other screens that are prone to induce anxiety or serve as distraction.
Some simple, physical strategies have been cited as means to stir up creativity. A recent study that surveyed children and asked them to come up with novel uses for everyday objects found that when kids were encouraged to gesture as they spoke, they came up with more original ideas. And even something as simple as moving your eyes—as suggested by studies in 2009 and 2015—can get the creative juices flowing.
Other commonly cited tactics involve planning an outing or workout to break up the workday. Simply getting out of your chair and taking a walk can also help. A compelling Stanford study from 2014 found that “walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after.” For those who are crunched for time but keen to boost creativity in the workplace, these are all inviting strategies that don’t require much commitment (or money).
Don’t Overthink It
In Saggar’s 2015 creativity study at Stanford, students were asked to make drawings inspired by action words within a set period of time (as in the game of Pictionary), and were evaluated on the drawings they made during that limited time window. The research suggested that too much thinking can actually stifle creativity. “The more you think, the more you plan, the worse you perform on this task,” Saggar explains.
They found that the students who were compelled to draw without taking time to think ended up producing more original drawings. While the study was focusing specifically on a person’s ability to improvise in timed situation, it suggests that people should act upon creative impulses rather than overanalyze.
So, next time you start to begin to wrack your brain, willing an idea to materialize: Stop. Find a pen and paper. Try doodling on for size, or—to paraphrase Chen—allow “ridiculous things” to float through your mind. With a little effort, you’ll be able to tap into the creative instinct that was once a part of your daily life.
Header image by Corey Olsen for Artsy.