Stop Trying to Be Creative

Jocelyn Brady
Jocelyn Brady
Executive Creative Director, Scribe
Evan P. Schneider
Founding Editor, Author

Editor’s note: I’m lucky. I’ve been part of a lot of creative projects professionally. Theater, TV, books, stand-up, comics, sitting around a drum circle saying “brah”… Nonetheless, I very often – maybe 90% of the time – question whether or not my work fulfills any “creative” needs or any “professional” requirements or if I’m really even “creative” at all. What is creativity? Do we need it? How can we get it? I don’t know. Jocelyn and Evan can answer those questions better than I can, but I did include a Yoda quote in this article’s subtitle. So I got that going for me…


Here’s a brain teaser: If creativity encourages creativity, how do you encourage creativity?

Before you close the tab thinking you're not the creative type or that being creative doesn't apply to you or your work, consider these things: you were probably born a creative genius and creativity significantly improves business results. (Nielsen calls creativity the “undisputed champ in terms of sales drivers.”)

Being creative can be as simple as making seemingly mundane processes — think data entry or spreadsheet management — more engaging. Every new improvement something adds up. Because when you build something, you love it more, and when you’re into what you make, you want to make more. See? Creativity creating creativity (and productivity and profitability and on and on).

OK. So how can we start becoming more creative? Is creativity something we can even get better at? 

To find out, think of the super creative folks at NASA. If creativity is the ability to solve challenges in new and useful ways, there’s arguably no one who needs that skill more than someone who literally leaves Earth to figure out what this whole universe business is all about (often facing some pretty harrowing, life-or-death decisions along the way).

NASA – being NASA – wanted to measure the creative potential of rocket scientists. They tapped Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a creativity test that measured “divergent thinking”—the ability to look at a problem, challenge or object and come up with multiple solutions or different ways to use said object. The idea is simple: the more possibilities you can imagine, the more creative you are. Divergent thinking is what the scientists consider the most creative. Open ideas, explorative. As opposed to the other type of thinking: convergent, which is judgment-based. (Oh, “legal would never approve that.”)

Example Question: Name as many purposes as you can for that jar of M&M’s on Tom’s desk. You might start with simple associations, like “a place to put things after I’ve had a snack,” and then stretch your ideas from there, like “piggy bank” or “lamp shade” or “poorly insulated space helmet.”

But when NASA, Land and Jarman applied their creativity test to children, the findings were profound: 98% of 1,600 children, aged 4 to 5, scored at a genius level of imagination. Let that sink in for a moment: NINETY-EIGHT percent of children were “creative geniuses.”

So you’d be forgiven if you thought children were our future. (That’s right: Were.) Because when those same kids were tested again five years later, only 30% got to genius ranks. By age 15, in high school, that dropped to 12%. And when adults 25 years and up were tested, only TWO PERCENT rated at highly creative.

So … wtf? (Editor’s note: Jocelyn and Evan also wrote our piece on profanity in the work place. We can’t bleepin’ control them). Where’d our creativity go? And how (and when) did we working-age people get so boring?

Well, according to Land, “Non-creative behavior is learned.” Kids are open to new experiences and are naturally curious — they have to be in order to discover, problem solve, learn and grow. But at some point, all children inevitably confront societal, cultural and institutional norms, i.e. – Yup, you guessed it – the rules. Policies, restrictions, judgment and all the boundaries that come with being part of society.

“Non-creative behavior is learned.” – George Land

Rules can be helpful — even necessary. In fact, we often need them for our most creative ideas to come out. And to have some common standards for appropriate office behavior (like refilling the paper after you’ve made copies, Tom).

Consider, for example, whether Shakespeare would have been Shakespeare if it weren’t for iambic pentameter. Or if Einstein would have been Einstein without relativity? Or if you could really get a lot more done if your schedule allowed more time for doing … nothing.

Remember the last time you had an amazing idea while driving, or in the shower, or just walking in the park? That quiet time gives your brain a much-needed respite from all the pressure to do and judge, freeing up more space for imagining and being creative. (Editor’s note: See this and “Gimme A Break” for more)

There’s a sweet spot between structure and openness, what’s established (safe) and what’s unknown (scary), and this is the zone where our most creative ideas tend to thrive. It’s what experts like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi call, “flow state.” And it’s what scientists are exploring when they look at the inner-workings of creative people at work. Like Hemingway used to say, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

In brain scans of jazz musicians improvising and rappers freestyling, for example, scientists see heightened activity in areas governing organization and drive and a deactivation of self-monitoring and editing. These artists have somehow tapped into that magical space between following the rules and following the muse. A controlled letting go.

(Editor’s note: Because I’m a dork, I often compare learning to do anything well to jazz by saying you have to learn scales before you can make music. I apologize for the saccharine.)

While we may fear losing control generally, being in a flow state actually engenders a greater mastery of control. Because flow occurs when we are faced with a challenge that puts our skills to the test. When we find that flow, we lose track of time and all else — those myriad worries and frustrations somehow fall away so that “action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. And all aspects of performance go through the roof.”

In a 10-year McKinsey study, top executives reported being 5 times more productive in flow. “If you spend Monday in flow, you can actually take the rest of the week off and still get more done than your steady-state peers.”

So what about the rest of us?

Most of us spend less than 5% in a flow state. If we could somehow find a way to nudge that to even just 20%, our overall productivity would double. And our enjoyment of that increased performance rises, too. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.”

Being productive … creatively.

Yes. That. We want that. At work. To allow flow and creativity and all the heightened productivity that comes with it, you and your teams can create goals that will push you — but that you’re confident you can reach because your skills match the task. Those goals can be anything from “scale things up” or “write a better draft.”

Creativity at Work Matters, Even to You

Okay, so maybe you’re not a rapper, or an astronaut, or a free solo climber, or an Einsteinian Shakespeare in the making. FINE. But you can still be creative at work. And it doesn’t even take all that much.

There are basically two types of creativity, according to Lucy L. Gilson and Nora Madjar of the University of Connecticut:

  1. Radical creativity (those “far-out,” quadratic-equation-solving sorts)
  2. Incremental creativity (refining, enhancing or improving existing concepts)

Creativity is really more of a mindset — and a skill you can develop — rather than a personal or professional attribute. You don’t need to literally (re)invent the wheel—you just need to make small improvements over time.

To be more creative, we could begin by thinking of it like channeling our inner child. What do children do? They play, A LOT. As Barbara Friedrickson argues, play and joy lead to “approaching behavior” (more open to experience). And creativity is the process by which interest leads to exploration leads to knowledge leads to growth. It just takes a defining a set of boundaries, and allowing the freedom to play within them. That’s not to suggest we go become children, but we can be more childlike. Let go while being aware of the rules.

A safe environment in the workplace — where you know you can try and fail, without excessive fear of judgment or negative repercussions — is the key to creating a culture of curiosity and interest. A place where you can get in the flow, and hopefully stay there for a while.

Because after all, “joy’s soul lies in the doing,” as Shakespeare said. So long as you’re not afraid you’ll be judged in the process.

Jocelyn Brady
Jocelyn Brady
Executive Creative Director, Scribe
Evan P. Schneider
Founding Editor, Author


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