You’re not creative. That’s the problem. You are creative. You just don’t believe it yet. Creativity isn’t an on/off switch that you either have or don’t have. Creativity is difficult to measure and the scale has many gradations. Labeling yourself ‘not creative’ blindly kills your potential.
Improve your creativity and belief in yourself with the ‘Daily Idea Practice’. Every day read from multiple high-quality sources and brainstorm ten answers to any question, problem, or idea on your mind. Grow your ‘creative muscle’ a little bigger each day with consistent practice and witness a dynamic innovative spirit appear before you.
Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.-Twyla TharpTo live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.– Joseph Chilton PearceCreativity is not a moment of inspiration, but a lifetime of endurance.– Kevin Ashton
You are a virtuoso creative genius hiding under a blanket of negative self-talk, blind self-deception, and rationalized indecision. I’ll explain the blanket later, but first let’s define the terms.
creativity – the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.
I may not be Mozart, Ali, or Einstein, but I believe in my ability to generate original ideas. I didn’t always feel that way. Growing up I was the kid who was good at math, lightning quick with answers, a top-tier memorizer of facts. English? Well, I tested good but my application left something to be desired. Music and art weren’t my cup of tea either, so I struck out on the typical subjects that lead to a “creative” label as a child.
Teaching martial arts gave me creative confidence. I was sixteen years old with four years of training and two years of teaching experience. It was the first skill I was on a path to master. On an eerily calm, atmospherically-charged night just before a thunderstorm at my hot, humid, speed-bag rattling gym, one of my adult students said to me, “You know, Matt, you’re pretty good at teaching kickboxing. When other people teach I don’t pick up on things as quickly. Keep at it.” Bingo. Light-bulb. Motivation. That statement carried me through ten years of teaching, coaching, and refining my skills.
There’s an article on Elon Musk from Tim Urban on the difference between a Chef and a Cook. Read the whole article if you have time, but essentially Cooks follow recipes and Chefs create them whether you’re cooking food, researching scientific principles, or coaching a basketball team. Like any good artist I was stealing from others and putting things together in new combinations, but many of my methods for teaching students, training fighters, and learning myself were originals from my imagination. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt like a Chef.
I don’t believe there’s anything special about what I did and that’s what I’d most like to impart to you. I found a set of skills I was passionate enough to practice for hour after hour, day after day, year after year. When you find that rare skill you want to master for ten or twenty years, you can experience the joy of becoming a Chef. It’s like a movie with the middle-aged guy dancing up a storm while symphony music plays in the background and they fade out to a wide-angle shot of him as a hero in his hometown basking in the moonlight. Perfect.
Becoming a Chef is a visionary goal, but it’s long journey to get there. It’s difficult to motivate yourself to get started until you’ve experienced small creative successes. The ‘Daily Idea Practice’ helps launch you into those small wins. It propelled me into writing more frequently. I’m never short on ideas for topics, which was my primary fear before rededicating myself to writing.
Let’s head back to that first sentence. Do you label yourself as “not creative” or feel jealous of others who are “creative”? Do you feel creativity is a gift you weren’t given? Do you struggle to immediately name a skill that you’re actively developing? If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, you’re likely suffering from some combination of blind self-deception, negative self-talk, or rationalized indecision.
- Blind Self-Deception – We’re blind to how creative people develop their talents thinking they have innate talent and we’re unlucky. It’s not innate. It’s hard work. Read Mastery or Outliers for the proof in the practice of the greatest creative talents. Mozart wasn’t born a genius. In Mastery you’ll read about how he practiced day and night from the age of four, but didn’t write his first substantial piece of music for ten years. That’s the real differentiator. Mozart found a skill he loved enough to practice all the time. The same story of nine to ten years of hard work before mastery applies to every other great composer in history. For now you can ask “What excites me?” to get started and focus your efforts on any skills that meet that criteria. If you ever find a skill that you can use as an answer to “What excites me enough to practice four to eight hours a day, every day for ten years?”, you’re on your way to Mozart.
- Negative Self-Talk – You tell yourself you’re not creative. You’ll never be if you keep talking to yourself that way. You’re no longer blind to what creativity requires – hard work. At this point telling yourself you’re ’not creative’ is only a convenient way out of searching for what excites you enough to realize your creative potential. Banish the negative self-talk that “I’m not creative” reinforces. Open your mind. Be vulnerable. Experiment. If you can do that, you can be creative. If you can’t, recognize that it’s a choice you’re making and not a lack of ability.
- Rationalized Indecision – You have to pick a craft. Choose your weapon of creativity. A pen. An instrument. A paintbrush. Home design. Sports. Programming. The choices are endless. Pick one. You may not “know” what you want to be when you grow up, but the only way to find out is to “choose” an experiment. Pick a weapon any weapon. Just don’t choose not to choose. It’s a waste of your great potential and all that you can bring to this world. Don’t worry if you decide later that you want to choose a new weapon. You’ll be in no worse position than if you had never chosen. You’ll have learned skills in a craft and that’s commendable.
Take a moment to stop and take a deep breath. Let go of your existing assumptions. There’s wool over your eyes hiding a virtuoso creative genius. That genius may not appears for days, weeks, months, or years, but the genius is there. It’s your job to uncover it. It may not feel like genius at first, but practicing this habit can pull a tiny corner of the wool off your eyes to show you a rare glimpse at your inner creative genius. Your motivation to find your creative craft will skyrocket when you begin to see a vision of your best self after a few weeks of the ‘Daily Idea Practice’.
- Ideas – The ability to generate non-obvious ideas on-demand for any random problem is powerful. Most people will provide obvious answers to problems. You’ll be able to go a level deeper, because your creative muscles will become used to that process with this habit.
- Confidence – When you see three hundred ideas written down after a month, you’ll know you’ve struggled to improve and that the struggle has made you stronger creatively. Generating ideas will get easier over time. Your ideas will be higher quality and your confidence will soar.
- Knowledge Growth – Reading from multiple high-quality sources daily will increase your information base to spur conversation and relate to the world in a more well-informed manner.
- Problem-Solving Ability – Your increased knowledge and confidence and higher quality and volume of ideas provides a stronger base to use for problem-solving. It might not even feel like problem-solving at times with how much easier it will be compared to your previous state.
This is paraphrased and slightly modified from James Altucher’s book Choose Yourself. Read the whole book for more life-changing habits.
Develop the idea muscle by performing the following every day.
- Read from multiple books or high-quality journals, newspapers, or web articles.
- Write a list of ten ideas on any topic.
Reading from multiple high-quality sources increases your knowledge base from which to generate new ideas. Your knowledge grows. Your confidence increases. Your ideas improve. High-quality is hard to judge. Books usually have significant research and effort per page of material, so starting with books is a good option. For other sources time-box 15-30 minutes to find the best quality writers, researchers, and publishers for topics you want to read about for the next month or two and keep a list or setup an automatic feed to deliver their articles to you daily.
Writing ten ideas every day exercises your idea muscle. It’s not a muscle you can flex and point to like your biceps, but a network of structures in your brain that generates thoughts and solutions when you call upon it. Like your biceps you can trains it to grow bigger and become more functional with daily practice. Your ten ideas don’t need to be good ideas and they don’t need to be on a specific topic. You pick the topic, every day. It can be trivial like “What are ten sounds I’ve heard in nature this morning?” or more important to you like “What are ten ideas for solving my client’s problem on our new project?”
Part of the practice is to get in the habit of picking a topic to brainstorm. That requires a moment of creativity, but don’t overthink the choice. Any topic will do. You don’t need to look at these ideas after your practice session. I keep mine for reference, just in case but I rarely go back to them. The point of the exercise is to generate hundreds and thousands of ideas over time. After one year, you’ll have generated 3,650 ideas. You will be much better at creating ideas. It’s even possible that 3,649 of those ideas are really bad, but 1 is so good that it changes your life. Get on it!
- Time – Reading can take as much or as little time as you allocate for it. Keep books and articles saved on your phone, so you can read whenever you have spare time. Time-box your daily reading to as little as five to ten minutes. It may not be much, but it’s a start and it’s much better than not reading at all. Generating ideas takes five to ten minutes and closer to five minutes after a month of practice as you strengthen your idea muscle. If you have to choose between reading and generating ideas, choose generating ideas to practice improving your creativity.
- Lack of Topics – You don’t know what to read. You don’t know what to generate ideas on. What are you interested in? What problems do you have in your work and life right now? What might you want to learn? Who inspires you? Make your first few idea generation sessions focused on answering these questions. Then search for books on these topics. When you feel like you’re out of topics for brainstorming, brainstorm a list of topics to brainstorm.
- Struggle with Adversity and Silence – You will get stuck when generating ideas. It’s bound to happen at some point. It happens to the strongest creative geniuses and it will happen to you too. The difference is that those “creative geniuses” have learned how to sit with that pain and adversity and not give up. Take a deep breath. Stay focused. Live with the pain a little longer. Some people can’t stand the silence or or maybe maybe they struggle with the rabid thinking of their own mind. Try meditating. Look for a future post on it or download Headspace for now to get started.
Here are a few easy triggers to use to perform this habit. I use this at work to brainstorm first thing in the morning when I have a tough problem, but otherwise I like using it during my morning routine.
- Arrive at work
- After lunch
- When a problem appears
What holds you back from reaching your maximum potential? That’s a hard question to answer. Maybe, you’re not ready to answer it yet. The “Daily Idea Practice” is much easier than psycho-analyzing yourself to the core. Redefine your limiting beliefs by surprising yourself with what lurks inside the ticking-time-bomb of creativity resting on your shoulders with just a few weeks of the ‘Daily Idea Practice’. When you hear the ‘critic’s’ voice inside your head casting down your ideas, remember Teddy.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Teddy Roosevelt