Ingredients for Creativity, According to Me, Steve Jobs, Einstein, and my Cousin Lisa

Something that’s been on my mind is creativity: what is it and how does it happen? Halloween week seems a particularly apt week to explore it. More than any other holiday, Halloween celebrates creativity. The focus isn’t on gifts or cooking or family – it’s on coming up with a clever costume and getting into character. Well, that, and candy. So, also good.

The Halloween Queen 2013

The Halloween Queen 2013

My cousin Lisa deserves a gold medal in Halloween. Just when you think she can’t possibly top the year before, she comes up with some elaborate Hollywood production. The only person who does Halloween better is Heidi Klum, and she’s got an entourage taking orders. I suspect that Lisa’s Halloween planning begins November 1st, and it’s all her.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that Halloween is her day. She’s the kind of person who was sewing her own clothes at age 9. She’s the kind of person who makes this for her desk at work, and calls it Motherboard vs. Mother Nature:


Her world is a completely unforced, fantastically magical Pinterest page. If there’s a gene for creativity, she must’ve gotten it from all sides.

Recent research suggests that creativity isn’t a gift, but a skill, and that there are ways you can cultivate it.

Twice I’ve been asked what my preferred form of creative expression is. An odd question, but one that most of us, given a moment of reflection, have an answer to. The first time I was asked that question, my response came quickly: writing. I’ve always enjoyed writing reflectively and writing creatively. The asker nodded, satisfied. An appropriate response.

A year or so ago, I was asked the question again, and this time, it took me longer to find a response. I wasn’t writing so much anymore. I suppose I was quite literally creating human life inside my body, but that didn’t seem an appropriate response. Hmmm…what do I do that’s creative? And then I had it. Aha! I teach! The lesson plans and unit plans and project outlines are created in my head in advance, and there is also a tremendous amount of creative thinking that has to happen on the fly as I respond to the spontaneous needs of students. The person who posed the question – a student – was completely unimpressed. To her, that response was on par with saying “accounting” or “walking my dog.” Why couldn’t I say painting or songwriting like someone with soul?

But what is creativity if not coming up with something novel or unique? In that sense, you could make a case for making a lesson plan being every bit as creative as weaving a basket or drawing a portrait. Steve Jobs called creativity quite simply “just connecting things” — synthesizing previously learned knowledge to make something new.

Recently I’ve been thinking about what the ingredients of creativity are. We’re all creative to some degree, but what factors in one’s life really unleash it? Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up.”

So, upon reflection, I came up with my three ingredients for creativity, and upon further research, I think I can even back these ingredients up with findings of smart and creative people. My ingredients are: boredom, adventure, and an established routine. The official ingredients from the researchers are: relaxation, getting outside the comfort zone, and work ethic.

Boredom or Relaxation

I first became aware of the effects of boredom on my own creativity back in high school while working one of my first jobs, folding clothes in a store. It was Old Navy in the Mall of America, and the store was constantly getting ransacked by the hundreds of shoppers trampling through. Fold clothes was all I did for an entire four hour shift. Fold clothes and listen to disco music. For four hours. It was soooooooooo booooorrrrrrriiiiiing Oh my Gaaaahhhhhhd! But after a few moments my mind would start going off in all sorts of directions. It was like my brain had to keep me entertained or the boredom would kill me. So between piles of T-shirts, I’d jot down little notes and ideas, flashes of insight I never would’ve had if my mind was being used for work.

Einstein backs me up on this: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Turns out, I’m not alone in having my best ideas when it’s down time. Research suggests there’s a reason we have our best ideas in the shower. (Or driving home from work or on a solitary walk or when folding clothes.) There’s actually a creativity cocktail at play: relaxation, which in turn releases an influx of dopamine, and repetition which causes our mind to wander. And I’ve noticed this. Whenever I’ve had my most tedious office jobs or longest commutes or just more time off, I tend to be extra creative. During every school holiday I come up with a new multimillion dollar business plan, and every quarter when I’m back to the grind, it fades to the background.

Adventure or Getting Out of My Comfort Zone

Another ingredient for creative inspiration for me is when I’m having adventures. Or, less glamorously, simply when I’m doing something new or outside of my comfort zone. Steve Jobs claimed that inventors seek out “diverse experiences.” In a study of Stanford business school entrepreneurs, those with more diverse social circles were significantly more innovative, making a case for the types who strike up conversations with strangers being ultimately more creative. It seems logical. Stretching our minds with experiences, people, challenges, unpredictable conversations, just newness of any kind will certainly lend itself to new and creative ways of thinking. It will also help us to connect the dots in interesting ways (that all-important synthesis) for down the road when the time comes. This is probably why writers don’t usually peak until their lives are rich with experience.

An Established Routine or Work Ethic

Finally, the whole “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” cliche has merit. I don’t always feel like writing in this blog, for example, but it’s become part of my self-imposed daily requirement. JUST DO IT. Even when I’m not feeling it. Even when I don’t think there’s anything to say. Just say it anyway.

For the past two years, my New Years resolution has been to take a photo a day. I dropped the ball 165 days in 2012, and 90% of the photos suck. I did a fair bit better in 2013, only missing 88 days so far – many during the newborn stage (NEVER BELIEVE ANYONE WHO SAYS THEY SLEEP ALL THE TIME). The photos have gotten better too. With practice, routine, and many, many days of plodding through it, I’m slowly training myself to: remember to do it, to really look for the beauty around me, to get more interesting shots, to think about my day moment-to-moment. Not every day’s shot is creative, but thanks to the forced habit of it, some of them are – most of which wouldn’t have happened without it being mandatory.

Jack White echoes my thoughts in the documentary Under Great White Northern Lights: “Not everyday in your life are you going to wake up, the clouds are gonna part and the rays are gonna come down and you’re going to write a song from it. Sometimes you gotta just get in there and force yourself to work and maybe something good will come out of it.”

So my magic word BALANCE is the answer again, because every day has a shower, a commute, a jog around the neighborhood, and every day has a little nose to the grindstone, and hopefully, HOPEFULLY most days have a little adventure or two, leaving creativity enough for me.

I went to Savers today, two days after Halloween, hoping to get some inspiration and maybe a deal on Halloween 2014. I don’t aspire to take the throne from Lisa, but I am excited to see what I can come up with.

About Ancestors Within

Uncovering the stories of our ancestors written in our DNA
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2 Responses to Ingredients for Creativity, According to Me, Steve Jobs, Einstein, and my Cousin Lisa

  1. Coach Kelan says:

    Great post which poses a great question! It seems like creativity comes in many different forms. You brush a great point that it is not necessarily during work that it is found. I know for myself I get the most creative when I am on runs for some reason. Thanks for sharing this message!

    • Thanks for the comment. It’s funny you mention the creative process while on runs. I don’t usually have major epiphanies while running, but it’s where I do a lot of building on existing ideas – working out details of projects, and things. 🙂

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