Why we are not uncreative

I have recently got back into listening to podcasts and enjoy those discussing productivity and creativity. This morning I was listening to the Accidental Creative podcast and Keith Sawyer was discussing his book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. One of the points discussed was that about 80% of creativity is learned. This seems surprising at first but when I considered it, it seemed right.

I have read a number of books (including Austin Kleon’s excellent Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative) that highlight the need for side projects as these encourage creativity. This is because if we focus on one area only we are likely to be stuck in one way of thinking and this can impact our ability to be creative.

Many people (including David Bohm and Steve Jobs) have emphasised that creativity is not just doing art or design. rather it is coming up with something new and making unexpected connections. When we consider creativity in this way, it is odd that some people are ‘creatives’ and others are not. We often do not consider scientists to be creative, when they can be some of the most creative people there are.

Why is there confusion about creativity?

I think that this confusion about creativity, with many people claiming they are not creative, starts at school. We are either classed as academically gifted or creative or persistent or musically-gifted. Often those who decide to do science are not encouraged to do anything artistic, instead focusing on science and maths to the detriment of other studies.

At school, science and maths are about remembering facts and applying equations, rather than trying to prove new things or question established hypotheses. This school-work is not creative and sets a mindset that can last throughout our lives. When we get to university we may do some research and suddenly we are faced with a completely different subject. We have the knowledge that we need to apply, developing experiments that may prove or disprove our hypothesis. If things don’t work, we need to create different experiments to confirm the results or different pathways to what we desire. This is different from at school where if something didn’t work we just needed to redo it, as it was guaranteed to work if we did it correctly.

What do I do to increase my creativity?

I have found that making sure I have a hobby increases my creativity. This means that rather than watching TV in the evening, or sitting reading a book I am trying to develop new skills. I love printed art and zines (Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?: The Art of Making Zines and Mini Comics), and would eventually like to put together my own. As such, I am trying out linoprinting and collage, and have for several years been taking photos on my walk to work. These on there own are unlikely to increase my creativity, however, the planning and getting ideas for the prints means that my mind is active and coming up with ideas unrelated to work. These can then eventually lead into ideas for work and for other areas of work.

I cannot say for sure that this works, but it is a lot of fun!

Why might networking be beneficial?

I personally find the idea of networking at events to be daunting and when I attend congresses I will be the person standing on their own looking a bit lost. However, when I do talk to people I will find that I will have a great conversation and not be at all terrified. What is holding me back is fear of the unknown and worries like: What if they do not want to talk to me? What if I sound like an idiot? What if I have nothing to say that they want to hear?

This fear of the unknown has held me back at many times during my life. I have not joined clubs that I maybe wanted to; I have not spoken to somebody and regretted it later; I have resisted using a technique that eventually turned out to be extremely beneficial to a project. If I had been courageous enough to do these things, the first time the opportunity presented itself I can safely say that my life would have been completely different. Nowadays, I have taken a few steps towards overcoming this problem, the first of which was admitting to myself the reason why I was not doing things that I wanted to.

Indeed, talking to people I do not know at events has become a bit easier since I realised one thing. That one thing was that many of the people I could talk to at events are in exactly the same position as me. They do not have anyone with them to talk to, but worry about talking to strangers. If they are at the same specialist event as me then we likely share some interests and this can be used to initiate a conversation. If this is a congress and they are presenting a poster, then often you have to be present at least for a while and will often be keen to talk to anybody. The exception to this I always feel is the big names in the area, who will know lots of people and will have lots of people wanting to talk to them. There might not be an opening for you to introduce yourself. Nevertheless, once again there is a way, you can use your own contacts to introduce you. It might be that you have a colleague who knows them, or can introduce you to someone who does. Often specialist communities are quite small and you will likely have some degree of connectivity. Even if you don’t, by talking to other attendees you may meet someone who could eventually introduce you to a person who could change your career.

Networking does not have to be done in person, and can also be done online. If someone has done work that interests you and you have questions you want to ask, you can always write to them and let them know. They will appreciate your effort and if you are discussing the work then they are more likely to respond to you. This can lead to a ‘conversation’ and a connection to someone who you have never met in person.

Why being nice can be a great strategy at work

When I was at school, one of the things that my English teacher would tell us was that we shouldn’t use the word nice. He considered it bland and thought that there were more descriptive words that better expressed what something was like. However, I think that nice can be extremely good at times, especially when you are considering your interactions with other people.

Why should you be nice?

The world of academia/work is quite small and it is likely that anybody you meet once you will meet again if they remain in the same area. However, when we next meet them they could be in another job or publishing work we find interesting. If this is the case then they are probably someone you want to talk to and potentially collaborate with. However, if when you met them the first time you were rude or brusque, then they may remember this and be less inclined to spend time with you. As the cliché says “what goes around, comes around”. Conversely, if you were pleasant when you first met them or provided help or advice they will remember you favourably, and good things may come from the next meeting.

Surely this is a cynical approach to the world

This may be considered cynical, however, it is also a valid approach to life, and if you start making a conscious effort in this, it will eventually become a habit. Furthermore, if you are consistent you may develop a reputation as a helpful individual who is good to know and opportunities may come your way that you were not aware of.

A very good discussion on this appears in the book Have Fun, Get Paid: How to Make a Living with Your Creativity. This book focusses on creativity and creative industries, however, I feel it is applicable beyond this area and would recommend it.