You might think of creativity as something clever marketers or copywriters whip out when they need to come up with a compelling ad, or a personal trait only certain people, such as successful serial entrepreneurs or brilliant improv actors, naturally possess. But according to Keith Sawyer, research psychologist and author of “Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity,” everyone can be more creative just by taking eight incremental steps, but not necessarily in linear order. His path to creativity is more back and forth, a process in which the steps to greater imagination and originality build on and feed off each other.
The book is a gem, chock full of fascinating findings from research studies and a deep well of tactics that will get you thinking differently. In fact, Sawyer advocates what is likely a radical shift in mindset for most people. Coming up with good ideas isn’t something we leave until there’s a pressing need. Rather, it’s is a skill that can be practiced daily to solve life’s problems as well as discover its opportunities.
Here are his steps for cultivating creativity, along with a sampling of tips that can help you along the way.
1. Ask the right question.
Sawyer tells the stories of the beginnings of Starbucks and Instagram. Neither company would be what it is today if its founders had continued to try to solve the original questions they sought to answer. Instead of asking “How can I recreate the Italian espresso bar in the United States?” Howard Shultz eventually looked at what wasn’t working with that idea to instead ask “How can I create a comfortable, relaxing environment to enjoy great coffee?” And while Kevin Systrom originally pondered how he could create a great location-sharing app, a better question turned out to be “How can we create a simple photo-sharing app?”
Sawyer offers plentiful techniques for generating lots of questions.
- Quickly, without overthinking it, write 10 variations of the same question. For example, for the classic question “How can I build a better mousetrap,” you might ask questions such as “How do I get the mice out of my house?” and “What does a mouse want?” or “How can I make my backyard more attractive to a mouse than my house?” One of your new questions will likely be a better one than your original.
- Debug your life. Brutally criticize an imperfect product or situation you come in contact with every day. Once you have a list, think of ways to eliminate the annoyances. This can amp creativity because little problems are often symptoms of bigger ones. Steve Jobs, a genius innovator, excelled at finding bugs that distracted from a user’s experience of a product.
- Make something then reinterpret it. Sometimes before you get at the right question, you have to make something. Once you do, think of your creation being used for purposes other than your original intent. This process throws away your first assumptions, forcing you to consider new perspectives.
2. Become an expert.
The secret to exceptional success doesn’t lie in natural ability, but in deliberate practice. In fact, research suggest that being world class at anything requires 10,000 hours of practice. It’s not just doing the same thing over and over again, however. It should involve pushing yourself to master tasks just slightly beyond your capabilities.
You have to become an expert in an area before you can be creative in it. “Successful creators don’t just like knowledge, they thirst for it. They can’t stop asking questions, and they always go beyond what they’ve learned from teachers and books,” Sawyer writes. There are a plethora of methods to do this.
- Listen to TED talks. They’re free videos of inspiring, funny, or fascinating speeches made by brilliant people. To get started, check out 6 TED Talks Every Entrepreneur Should Watch.
- Use all your senses to thoroughly delve into a subject. Let’s say you want to learn about the town of Mystras, Greece. You could learn some of the Greek language, search for photos of the Peloponnese online, cook some of its traditional food, watch videos of its traditional festivals, stream its local radio, and email an innkeeper there to get insider information about what the town is really like.
- Get a mentor. Nearly all Nobel Prize winners have them.
3. Be open and aware.
Creative people are always on the lookout for possible solutions. You can do this by becoming more aware and practicing mindfulness, which involves intentionally noticing things and not pegging people you meet based on your expectations or the categories you have established in your minds. Instead, try to be open and curious and resist stereotyping people.
- Create your own luck. Researchers have found people who describe themselves as lucky tend to notice things more than self-described unlucky people. They also act on unexpected opportunities and network well with others because they’re curious. Unlucky people tend to be tense and so focused on narrow goals that they miss opportunities.
- Don’t let accidents annoy you. Plenty of inventions–such as Penicillin, The Slinky and chewing gum–came into being because someone didn’t brush past an accident, but studied it instead.
- Play with children’s toys. Playing children are really good at making new connections. “I’m not the least bit self-conscious about my toy collection,” Sawyer writes. “If you walk into just about any supercreative company, you’ll find toys all over the place.”
4. Play and pretend.
When you play, your mind can wander and your subconscious has time to work. This is why time off from work is necessary for creativity to bloom.
- Explore the future. Imagine yourself being wildly successful five years from now. Write down as many details about what this success looks like. Then write the history of how you got there asking yourself questions such as, “What was the first step you took to move toward your goal?” or “What was one early obstacle and how did you move past it?”
- Leave something undone. If at the end of the day you leave a task slightly unfinished it may be easier to start on the next day. That’s because cognitive threads are left hanging in your mind and as you go about your non-work activities your subconscious might hook onto them and give you a sudden insight.
- Become a beginner. Learn how to do something new, such as Hula-Hooping, juggling, carving wood, or archery.
5. Generate lots of ideas.
This is the part where you come up with ideas, and lots of them.
- List unusual uses for common household objects. What are lots of different ways you could use a paper clip, brick, or knife? Give yourself five minutes to come up with a long list. Don’t worry about whether your ideas are stupid or not.
- Try toppling. This is where you use free association to keep generating new words. The trick, though, is to use a different kind of connection between each one. For example, if you start with “carrot” you can’t free associate another vegetable; instead, you might pick “stick,” as in the phrase “carrot and a stick,” then “glue” because you’re thinking of a glue stick. Another example: “Rock” might lead to “Scotch” because you drink it on the rocks.
- Set an idea time. Block out a regular time when you’re sharp, relaxed, and undistracted. Julia Cameron, author of popular self-help book “The Artist’s Way” suggests taking 30 minutes each morning to freewrite in a journal. As you do, you’ll notice new ideas creeping in.
6. Fuse ideas.
This involves combining things that don’t normally go together. In a recent study British neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones asked people to create stories by giving them only three words. To one set of people the words were related, such as “brush,” “teeth,” and “shine.” Another set of people received unrelated words such as “cow,” “zip,” and “star.” The people who received the unrelated words made up more creative stories.
- Make remote associations. Go to page 56 in two different books and find the fifth sentence on each. Now create a story that tells the connection between the two.
- Use analogy. Find similarity between two things that on the surface seem different. Find something that’s removed from your problem, then define five structural properties of it. Instead of listing “sharp” or “metal” for a knife, for example, you’d want to identify things like “requires downward pressure to cut.” How can these characteristics apply to whatever you’re trying solve?
- Engage with people who are different from you. We hang out with people who are like us, and while doing so may be comforting, it’s not stretching. Also try imagining yourself as someone else–such as a chef, a foreign student, a building inspector. How would such people see the world?
7. Choose the best ideas.
If you’ve followed the first six steps, you should have plenty of ideas. Now the trick is picking the best ones.
- Know what you’re looking for. To do that, you need to trust your intuition–the sense that an idea has beauty. Sawyer also recommends going with ideas that are simple, elegant, and robust (the latter referring to a design that will keep working under adversity or if used improperly).
- Make ideas compete against each other. Select two of them and define how they’re different, even in the most subtle ways. Or if you have more than 50 ideas write each one on a sticky note or index cards. Move ideas that seem related close together. You’ll arrive at idea clusters and can look at interesting differences between ideas; perhaps they all vary along the same dimension.
- Look past the good. Once you’ve decided an idea is a good one, identify its pros and cons, assign each one a number between one and 10 according to how important it is. The pro total should be significantly higher than your tally for cons. You should also think of the worst-case scenario. What terrible things might happen to foil the success of your idea?
- Never stop editing. Everything can always be made better. Find a devil’s advocate to come up with a bunch of reasons why your idea is a bad one. Or, ask people you trust will be honest with you to look critically at your idea. And even failed ideas can be repurposed. The Post It, Sawyer points out, was the result of an adhesive that didn’t work very well.
8. Make something out of your great ideas.
Sawyer holds up the Silicon Valley design firm IDEO for its use of “design thinking,” which seeks to get simple versions of an idea into the world as early as possible–maybe in an hour or a day–by using simple materials such as clay or cardboard to give shape to a new concept. It’s a way of thinking through making, a process that often leads to more ideas.
- Draw a picture. Even if you think you can’t draw, you can at least doodle and no one ever has to see what you put to paper. Abstract problems–such as your relationship with someone or a crushing workload–benefit most from turning them into sketches. Cartooning with exaggerated shapes or using simple symbols helps.
- Make a collage. Grab a stack of magazines and look for photos and ads. Clip any that relate to your problem in any way and glue them to a large piece of poster board. Keep this art near your desk where you can ponder it. You may get a new perspective on your problem.
- Build something. Legos, Tinkertoys, an Erector Set, modeling clay, Silly Putty, and Play-Doh are all good materials you can use to build your idea. Sawyer himself keeps a bag of Legos in his briefcase for times when he has nothing to do.
Check out Sawyer’s book if you want to know more–he claims it offers more than 100 tips on how to be more creative.