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9 Practical Ways to Boost Your Creativity
Check out this advice from Stephen King, Shonda Rhimes, Ed Catmull, and more.
Whether you're an artist, an actor, a lawyer, a doctor, a writer, or an engineer, there is one skill you need to be successful at your profession: Creativity.
After researching the lives and careers of hundreds of innovators across industries, I’ve learned a number of practical strategies you can apply to your own work.
Here are nine techniques that will help strengthen your creative muscle.
Stephen King: Your 'muse' lives in your basement
Many writers believe in the myth of the muse. Legendary author Stephen King is here to burst your bubble: “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer screen," King says. "He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there, you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in." In other words, don't hold back by waiting around for inspiration to strike. Get your butt in the chair and start typing. If you do all the grunt work, King says that the guy in your basement will give you "a bag of magic." He adds: "There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
If you run every day, running becomes easier and you form muscle memory. The same is true in writing. If you want to be a good writer, you need to be writing every single day so that you can become “mentally fit” in the creative process. Writer and executive producer Shonda Rhimes recommends creating a mental trigger that tells your brain it’s time to write (or do whatever skill you’re trying to hone). “There’s something about having a small ritual — even if it’s as simple as having a cup of green tea,” she says. “It’s about flipping the switch in your mind to tell it you’re about to start writing.” Think of it as Pavlovian conditioning — the desired behavior always follows the trigger. Read more.
The structure of film director Christopher Nolan's films follows a musical framework called "The Shepard Tone," a series of ascending notes on a scale. It's an auditory illusion in which the tone gives an impression of an infinitely rising pitch. You've heard it in pretty much every Nolan film (see it in action here). "I wanted to try to apply it to screenwriting," he says. "Can you braid together the three storylines in such a way that you create the idea of a continuing rise in intensity?" Some of the most creative people in the world generate ideas by allowing their brains to make connections between two totally different inputs (ie: hearing music and applying the structure to film). Read more.
The moment we graduate from college, we're told we need to perfect our "elevator pitch," which refers to the ability to pitch an idea to higher ups in a 30-second elevator ride. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull says if you can pass the elevator test, your idea is probably derivative of what’s been done before. In other words, it's not as original as you think. For instance, ambitious ideas — “a rat that wants to cook, or an old man who floats away on a balloon with a stowaway" — can’t be summed up in 30 seconds, but they can go on to become the Oscar-winning Pixar films “Ratatouille” and “Up,” respectively. Catmull believes failure, uncertainty, and overreaching are essential ingredients to creative growth. Read more.
Ultra-runner and writer Katie Arnold's a big believer in keeping notebooks in which you can write your observations or just record the mundane details of everyday life. She doesn't like calling them "journals," because a journal brings added pressure to write something precious and special. "If I'm working on something in my writing but I don't want it to feel formal or that it has to be good, then I write it in my notebook," she says. "I go through a notebook a month." I also have a tiny notebook that I carry with me to record my thoughts, ideas, or interesting quotes I hear from random people around me. It's nothing special but it keeps me present and curious throughout the day. Read more.
If you want to unearth new ideas, get off the internet. On the internet, you’re part of social media platforms that often confirm your existing beliefs. If you type a question into Google, you’re served the most popular queries. So how do you uncover fresh new ideas? Author Malcolm Gladwell says you need to create an environment that facilitates falling into intellectual rabbit holes. He offers three tips. First, take a walk through towns or buildings that pique your curiosity. Next, go to the library, identify books you’ve liked reading in the past, and look around them on the shelf to discover something new. Finally, look at the footnotes in books or articles because they often lead you to other sources that can help you learn the subject more intimately. Read more.
Ask yourself the question, “When do you get your best ideas?” For Spanx founder Sara Blakely, it was in the car, so she created a "fake commute" where she would drive around her neighborhood in order to generate new ideas. For Albert Einstein, it was while shaving. Research suggests that people’s most creative ideas strike when they’re not actively thinking about anything — that’s why showering, running, meditating, or any sort of rote activity can spark inspiration. Read more.
When he first started, Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton knew only two things for sure: One, he loved portrait photography, and two, there were a lot of humans in New York. His first idea was to photograph 10,000 people in New York City across all five boroughs and plot their photo on an interactive map. But over time, Stanton realized that his conversations with strangers were so interesting that he wanted to include a small quote with each picture. Then, the conversations turned into Q&As which turned into hours-long "probing, therapeutic and psychological interviews." The point is that HONY would never have become what it is today if Stanton hadn't just started. It's better to start with a bad idea and iterate along the way than wait for the perfect idea to spring into your brain. Read more.
Writer Gay Talese considers himself "a person of record." He has saved photos, receipts, travel itineraries, notes, and all sorts of "evidence" that documents every single year of his life. Everything is dated and organized by chronological order. "It's a whole process of giving worth to every moment of your day," he says. "By saving it, I'm not just a collector of stuff. I'm a documentarian of what it is that I do, who I know, and what I see." You can try this on a smaller scale. Try to go one week documenting your life as you would if you were reporting a story on someone else. Record notes, pay attention to conversations, and save photos and little artifacts of your daily life. What can you notice and learn about yourself that you've never before realized? Read more.