Creative and original thinking is central to performance. You must think on your feet, almost automatically in fact, and without question. You must be sharp and impulsive, especially when you are engaged in a fast-paced environment such as a sports field on a big day or an operating theatre and life is in your hands. Today we will examine nine ways in which we might sharpen our creative thinking powers.
Rather than considering creativity to be something that can be taught, like mathematics or some other process-driven subject, consider creativity as conditional. In other words, the expression of creative ideas relies on individual personal attitudes and environmental conditions. Like a plant that won’t grow without good soil, water and sunlight, creative thinking needs the right organic setting. Without it, creative and innovative ideas fail to sprout.
Thinking as we’ve always done is easy, thinking different is hard. The brain is the hungriest organ in the human body and takes effort and mental energy to think differently. Our brains are designed for efficiency — they want the shortest route from A to B. So given the absence of a soul brave enough to say, hold on, is there not a better way? Nothing changes.
So when old ideas no longer work and new solutions are required, circumstances need people who can think differently. If we can’t or won’t then the species, or a part thereof, die out.
Creativity is the result of an attitude towards life and a seeking out of opportunities to think of solutions to problems that are novel, surprising, and compelling (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2019). There are many creativity-enhancing techniques available; however, the ones below are designed to change attitudes. Apply these methods to help nurture creativity in ourselves and others at home, school and work.
When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.Lady Gaga
1. Redefine Your Problems
Perspective can be limiting. And for many of us, the society or family in which we were rared can set in place particular ways of looking at life. It’s like we’re stuck inside a box with a hole out of which we view the outside world. Problems can often seem insoluble. Redefining these problems is, in essence, stepping out of the box. Edward DeBono called this “lateral thinking” .
What choices exist? What are we not seeing?
We need to drive this nail into the wall, but we have no hammer. What else available here is weighty enough that I can use as a hammer?
I want to make toast, but the toaster is broken. What else can I use to make toast?
My friend didn’t turn up to give me a lift to work this morning, and I have 45 minutes to get to work. What other means can I use to get to work on time?
These may seem trivial examples, but it is in the trivial that we practice creative thinking. There are always solutions; we just need to examine our default means and ways of getting things done and come up with new ones.
2. Challenge Your Assumptions
Creative people always challenge assumptions and are prepared to ask difficult questions. It is an essential aspect of creative thinking and is responsible for some of our most significant advances in medicine, science, technology, and perhaps more crucially, how we treat one another.
In the 1800s, the industrial revolution was in full swing and exploited every means at its disposal to profit from human labour. Children were a primary labour source and suffered intolerably in deplorable conditions. People like Thomas Agnew thought differently and challenged the assumptions regarding children’s rights. In 1883 he set up the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (LSPCC), and other cities began to follow suit. On 11 July 1884, the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (London SPCC) was formed.
Established assumptions are not always threatening to life and welfare, but they can halt progress both on a personal level and in organisations. In many school systems, for example, questions require a single right or wrong answer — but this is not true of life. So rather than accepting the default answer, challenge your assumptions of those things you regard as unquestionable. Encourage it in group settings too, and practice explorative questioning rather than merely questioning for the sake of it.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.Martha Graham
3. Learn To Sell Your Ideas
It’s a trap into which many creative people, artists, scientists, and enthusiastic business people fall. They are so in love with their fantastic idea that they think it will sell itself. The truth of the matter is that new and innovative ideas are treated with suspicion and scepticism rather than welcomed with open arms and open pockets. Different ideas and the people who propose them are often seen as trouble makers.
As an extreme example, consider the weight of reliance, momentum and vested interests there related to oil-based products. There must be gazillions of dollars tied up in oil and its producing nations. Is it no wonder then that despite the benefit to the planet of rejecting fossil fuels for renewables, the take-up seems to be so bloody slow!
Ok, so taking it back down to a you-and-me level, we must practice defending and supporting our ideas in the face of opposition. We must be able to speak of its practical advantages, technical superiority and financial benefits. Others don’t have to accept our new idea, because they believe what they have already does the job just fine. So practice selling your creative ideas.
4. Overcome Obstacles & Rejection
Do you have the courage to persevere in the face of resistance and rejection? It’s practically inevitable that you will encounter obstacles if you are a creative thinker. Criticism and psychological punishment are part of the game, and if you are unwilling to endure, then you will recede to obscurity pretty quickly. We could say it’s a short-term cost, but that short term might well be many years before your idea is accepted.
I remember back around 1999/2000 I had a product idea which came about from a practical problem. I talked to a couple of workmates about the problem, and they all agreed my solution would be better. Full of beans, I drew up a couple of sketches and submitted my idea to a local enterprise organisation and waited patiently for a reply.
I got a reply, but it wasn’t the one I was expecting. In short; thanks but no thanks. They admired my inventiveness but basically said I was wasting my time. So disheartened I dropped it. Fast-forward ten years and lo and behold, a product very similar to mine was on the market and used widely by the tradesmen I had set out to help.
Maybe if I had overcome my rejection and persevered that product might have seen the light of day.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.Oscar Wilde
5. Take Measured Risks
When creative thinkers take on the might of the momentum of things, they also take on risk. As mentioned above, there is ridicule, criticism and outright rejection. The risk of failure is high, especially when the idea is asking for a massive change in how things are currently done. As such, we’ve got to be prepared for our early iterations to fail.
Where ideas are represented in art, ten, fifteen or even twenty years may be required to create something that can breakthrough. So we’ve got to be prepared to take a chance on ourselves.
In work, take a chance, make a call, do something different and be prepared to get it wrong. In art, Make something, anything, and get it out there. In business, back yourself even on a small scale. Make small investments over three years rather than going all-in up-front. Those lesser risks taken in a relatively safe environment are what build confidence while keeping potential losses low.
6. Learn To Tolerate Ambiguity
As mentioned above, our brains are built for efficiency and thinking different takes mental energy. As a result, people like to view the world in black and white, good or bad, terms — it’s easy on their brains. But as any good artist worth her salt knows, reality is far from black and white. People and circumstances are often filled with unknowns and getting comfortable with “not knowing” is a vital ingredient in creative work.
Creative ideas, like iPhones, novels, artwork, and scientific theories, often take many years, perhaps decades, to come to fruition. The interim is the unknown. As artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing, and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”
When we are impatient and unwilling to go deep into the work for its own sake, for the inherent enjoyment of exploration, we risk killing it. We must tolerate ambiguity and realise that the answer, the final product, needs our immersion and dedication over long periods.
If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.Sir Ken Robinson
7. Do First What Engages Your Curiosity
Go where you are drawn. That’s what I tell my boys. I tell them, you don’t have to find what it is you want to do with your life, it will find you. And when it does, you’ll know. It won’t be a maybe or a perhaps — it will be a yes.
You’ll know it has found you when you need to be dragged away from it when it commands your attention to such an extent that time passes without your awareness. You’ll feel excited and energised, but you’ll also be challenged as you have never been before.
It’s more than difficult to do our best work in fields we do not enjoy, it is soul-destroying. Maybe many things engage your curiosity, then try to find a way to combine them — think creatively!
In fairness, you may not know what that thing is, and that’s ok. So do something, it won’t be lost on you because there’s value in going down different roads for a while.
8. Build Self-Efficacy Slowly
Self-efficacy theory  explains ‘outcome expectancy’ as our expectation that our behaviour will lead to specific outcomes. It defines ‘efficacy’ as our sense of conviction that we can successfully carry out a task and produce the desired result.
In other words, if you believe you have the ability to complete a task, then you will be likely to start. If you do start and don’t believe you can achieve it, then you are likely to give up or fail. The level of efficacy you possess when you begin a task will largely influence your ability to succeed.
To realise success in our careers, we must be willing and able to identify our own deficiencies in self-belief. By taking a look at our thoughts and behaviour, we can sometimes identify where these deficiencies lie. Small measured steps towards the goal taken in a safe place then become key. Because, after a while, these little successes build momentum in the right direction.
However, we’ve got to be careful not to take a harsh critical approach. Instead, we should make an objective analysis of areas where we need to work more intently to reach our goals. Working with a coach or mentor can help identify our deficiencies.
People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities.Albert Bandura
9. Delay Your Gratification
Rewards and applause are nice when they come, but there is a danger of producing sub-standard creative work if we are reliant on them. They never last and rarely bring about the kind of satisfaction that can be achieved by deep, immersive work. So we must be willing to forgo niceties today, for creative success tomorrow.
Others looking in on our work can be quick to offer criticism for what they see as time ill-spent. They can’t see what the creative visionary sees and therefore don’t see the value. So we must find space to work, or if we are the supervisor or teacher, we must be willing to give students the necessary space for their work.
This can be challenging, especially given societal and institutional restraints. However, we must find a way; otherwise, we train ourselves and others towards short-term thinking and pursuit of immediate gratification.
Creativity flourishes in people in open-minded environments that harness both positive and negative aspects of the creative process. It is a balancing act that we need to practice to perfect. Perhaps paradoxically, creativity requires stimulation as well as support, and learning to give and receive both, is the secret to finding solutions to problems.
Sampling many different fields of endeavour also lends itself to more extensive creative output. So do lots of things; climb mountains, run races, paint, draw, learn mathematics, take pottery classes, study astronomy — whatever floats your boat. The mind works in ways we can’t even imagine, and creative ideas come out of the woodwork when we least expect it.
So take your time, go broad for a while and learn many different things. Then when the time is right, you’ll know to go narrow and deep, and everything you’ve learned will stand to you.
We don’t need to figure it out; often it is it that figures us out.
- Kaufman, J., & Sternberg, R. (2019). The Cambridge handbook of creativity (2nd ed., p. 91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- DeBono, E. (1973). Lateral Thinking (1st ed.). New York: Harper Colophon.
- Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122–147. doi: 10.1037//0003–066x.37.2.122