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 you cannot succeed unless you are ready to fail

When I was younger I didn’t enjoy trying new things and meeting new people (truth be told I still don’t enjoy this), so I didn’t join clubs that I might have enjoyed or speak to people I did not know. I lived my life doing the things I knew and sticking to them. I was afraid that I would try something and fail or make a fool of myself, and this even extended into my work during my PhD. I was loathe to try new techniques because I would have to admit I didn’t know what to do and ask for help. However, when I eventually did learn a new technique it might not work for what I was doing at that time, but could open up new avenues of research to explore and discoveries to make. I shied away from using HPLC and LCMS for these reasons and in the end they were what helped me complete my PhD.

What did I learn from this?

In the end I looked back at what I was doing and realised what I was missing out on; how this fear had made my life less than it could have been. I decided that I would try new things and be prepared to fail. I might not make a big impression, but am willing to approach people at conferences and try to start conversations, or learn a new skill that might help my work. By spending my life not trying things, I learned that even not trying I might fail as I have not even had a go. This new approach to life is not easy as I regularly fall back on old habits of avoidance, I am often the person standing on his own in a big group of people. It is at these times that I have to remind myself every day of the things I have accomplished by trying more things. I have worked with interesting people and learned new skills, and my life feels fuller because of this.

What should you do?

So my advice would be to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. It does not have to be a large step, it might just be saying hello to someone whilst in the queue to get coffee or visiting a next door lab or office to introduce yourself. These little steps will steadily grow your comfort zone and each little success or failure will teach you something, even if it isn’t what you thought it would be.

Don’t just write, make sure you read as well

One of my favourite quotes about writing comes from Austin Kleon who says:

“In every undergraduate creative writing workshop I was part of, there was that one kid who said, ‘I like to write, but I don’t really like to read,’ and it was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely.”

This is because if we write without reading first we cannot build upon the work of others and we cannot learn from people who have published before. This should be self-evident but often when we are researching and experimenting, we will do a search to help us overcome an issue and will skim through to locate what is hopefully the answer. You might not fully read the introduction or conclusions, not really caring for the context or analysis for someone else.  We do not have time to read each article in depth and have time for research, for writing, for lecturing, for mentoring and for a life outside the research institute. Yet here I am suggesting that you should be reading more in our already packed lives.

If we do not want to learn and develop then this is not something that you should commit to, however, if you do there is always time to be found, even if it is just 15 minutes a day, possibly whilst sitting on the toilet. To improve you should read great writing; this does not have to be a ‘classic’ like Crime and Punishment, but should be something relevant. I would suggest that as writing up research is akin to non-fiction writing, it can be beneficial to read scientific non-fiction books, which can also provide ideas for research or help develop new ways of thinking. This can be science magazines, books or blogs.

Some suggestions for things to read

However, we shouldn’t limit ourselves, great writing is great writing and we can always learn something from it, hopefully, how to tell the best stories possible.

Austin Kleon – http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/33792291289