What comes to mind when you hear the word “creativity”? A painter toiling away at a canvas into the wee hours of the morning? A composer writing countless drafts of a song until it’s perfect? Or maybe an actor bringing an audience to tears with the right word said at just the right time?
What about that final paper for your Intro to Anthropology class? Or that project proposal you’ve been working on all week?
We tend to associate creativity with certain jobs and fields of study. But the reality is that creativity is useful in all kinds of work. Furthermore, it is possible to become more creative…even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative person.
In this article, I’ll explore what creativity is, why it’s crucial to success in college (and beyond), and some exercises you can do to start being more creative.
Like love and the recipe for the perfect burrito, creativity is difficult to define. This hasn’t stopped scientists from trying, though.
As neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen explains, attempts to study creativity usually fall into two categories: “little c“ and “big C.”
Little C: Quantitative Measures of Creativity
“Little c” refers to research that attempts to quantitatively measure creativity. One popular way of doing this is to give subjects tests of divergent thinking.
Andreasen defines divergent thinking as “the ability to come up with many responses to carefully selected questions or probes.” This is in contrast with convergent thinking, “the ability to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer.”
A classic test of divergent thinking would be to ask people a question such as, “How many uses can you think of for a brick?” The more uses a person can come up with, the more creative they are (in theory).
Big C: Studying Highly Creative People
But “little c” isn’t the only method for studying creativity. As Andreasen explains, such tests are based on the assumption that creativity = divergent thinking.
This, she argues, is not necessarily the case since there are equally creative achievements that are the result of convergent thinking. She cites the mathematical accomplishments of both Newton and Einstein as examples.
Because of this discrepancy, many researchers also study “big C.” The “big C” approach takes a group of people who are already recognized as highly creative and then studies them to reverse engineer a definition of creativity.
This approach also has its problems, though, since it involves a subjective assessment of creativity. Plus, it risks neglecting all the highly creative individuals who haven’t been lucky enough to achieve wide recognition.
A Working Definition of Creativity
Since science is still unsure how to define and quantify creativity, I think that popular and philosophical definitions of creativity are just as helpful. My favorite definition comes from author Denise Shekerjian, who defines creativity as,
“…the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way.”
Shekerjian’s definition gets at the idea that creativity is something inherently wondrous and even magical. It’s the surprise that comes when you or someone else notices and articulates an unlikely connection.
With all this being said, is creativity something you can learn and practice? Absolutely. Creativity is hard, but it is a skill you can cultivate.
But why should you put in the work to become a more creative person? Keep reading to find out.
Now that we have a working definition of creativity, we need to discuss why it matters so much in both school and the workplace. The simple answer is that rote memorization can only get you so far.
When you were in high school, here’s what you typically needed to do to earn a good grade:
- Read the textbook
- Take notes on the lectures
- Memorize the key terms and facts
- Reproduce those terms and facts on a test
In college, however, that’s not enough.
You may be able to get through your first couple semesters by regurgitating facts. But to excel in higher-level courses, you need to be able to think creatively. Higher-level courses ask you to think outside of the box, to go beyond the surface level.
For instance, let’s say that your philosophy professor assigns you to write a paper on the meaning of life. If you want to do well, it’s not enough to write a paper summarizing the opinions of different academics on the topic.
To make your paper shine, you need to comment on and critique the existing arguments, integrating them into your own original answer. Such activities are inherently creative.
The Professional Benefits of Creativity
Furthermore, creativity is essential if you want to distinguish yourself after you graduate. Devising creative solutions to novel problems helps you stand out. Particularly as rote work tasks become increasingly automated, creativity will only become more valuable.
This is not to say, of course, that creativity can replace hard work. Deliberate practice is still essential to mastering your discipline. Nothing can replace putting in the hours. (At least, until our world becomes like The Matrix and you can download kung fu directly into your brain).
Talking about creativity in theory is great, but what can you actually do to be more creative? Below, I’ve put together a list of the best ideas I’ve found for cultivating creativity in school, work, and everyday life.
“Creative” and “Non-creative” Is a False Dichotomy
You may have grown up with the idea that some people are creative and others aren’t.
Our culture loves to praise innate talent and celebrates stories of prodigies or the naturally gifted. But while it’s true that some people may be naturally more creative than others, that doesn’t doom you to a life devoid of creativity.
You can learn to be more creative. You just need to practice it like any other skill.
On a similar note, there’s a false dichotomy between “creative” and “non-creative” jobs/majors. Sure, some work is obviously “creative” (graphic design, photography, etc.).
But creativity is useful in all kinds of work. As Austin Kleon puts it in Keep Going, “being creative is never an end; it is a means to something else. Creativity is just a tool” (65).
Lay Aside Your Assumptions
Creativity requires you to be open-minded. This mindset is frequently at odds with our typically skeptical, critical, opinionated way of working.
But since the most creative ideas are often the result of unexpected combinations, it’s essential to lay aside your assumptions. The best way I’ve found to do this is “no bad ideas”. No matter how ridiculous an idea seems, write it down and consider it. You can always edit later.
Embrace the Power of Constraints
It seems counterintuitive, but constraints breed creativity. That is, creativity isn’t about being able to do everything; that’s overwhelming. Creativity far more often comes about when you have to work within constraints/limits.
Popular music is a great example of this. Most of the songs you know and love have 3 or maybe 4 chords. But yet diverse artists are able to produce infinite compositions using the same material.
And you wouldn’t argue that a songwriter is “less creative” because they limited themselves to a few chords. Instead, that chord progression gives the artist a structure on which to hang the rest of their work.
No matter the work you do, you can find your own way to play with constraints. Often, the constraints are built into the project, whether that’s in the form of a limited budget, limited time, or limited personnel. Instead of viewing these limits as a disadvantage, view them as an opportunity to find a creative solution.
We talk a lot about creative work, which can give the false impression that creativity is an extremely active, focused process. While active focus is useful for many activities, it’s not always the best way to be creative.
Often, you find solutions to problems when you’re not focusing on them. My favorite way to take advantage of this is through walks.
I take a walk in my neighborhood every morning and evening. Not only is this good for my mental and physical health, but it’s also a time-tested way to let ideas bounce around in your head. I’m not saying every walk I take provides the solution to a problem, but it happens frequently.
And taking walks is just one example. There are many other ways to take a break from your work and occupy your body while your mind solves problems in the background:
- Play a musical instrument. (Richard Feynman famously played the bongos as a way of taking a break from difficult physics problems).
- Do some yoga or stretching.
- Practice yo-yo tricks.
- Get some exercise.
- Draw a picture.
You get the idea. Just be sure that what you do offers your mind a break. So no social media or other quick hits of distraction.
Have a Way to Capture Creative Insights
Nothing is worse than a good idea slipping away before you can record it. To prevent this from happening, you need a way to quickly capture your creative ideas.
The best system for this is the one you’ll keep with you and remember to use. For most of us, this will mean our phones. I use an app called Drafts since it’s quick to access (just open the app, start typing, then press save). But any note-taking app on your phone will work.
Looking for the right app to capture your creative ideas? Check out this list of the best note-taking apps.
If you don’t want to use your phone, a pocket notebook is a time-honored solution. I’d recommend a small Moleskine, but you could even use a classic reporter’s notepad. Personally, I always forget to bring a notebook, so I stick with my phone.
Finally, you don’t have to write down ideas. You could also make audio notes (a popular technique for musicians).
Find Your Most Creative Time of Day
We talk a lot on the blog about how to find your most productive time of day, the time of day you’re most alert and focused.
However, your most productive time of day isn’t necessarily your most creative. A 2011 study published in Thinking and Reasoning asked participants to solve analytic and insight-based problems at different times of day.
Analytic problem-solving is the set of skills you use to solve math problems and other analytical tasks (what people often refer to as “non-creative” work).
Insight-based problem-solving, on the other hand, involves problems that don’t have a step-by-step, analytical solution. Rather, the solution comes to you in a burst of insight (the “Eureka” or “Aha!” moment).
The study found that participants performed better on insight-based tasks when they were less awake (typically early in the morning or late in the afternoon). This suggests that you’re better off doing creative work during your “less productive” times of day.
Working when you’re tired doesn’t guarantee great creative insights, of course. But the lowered inhibitions during that tired state may make your brain more open to unexpected connections and new ideas.
Use Drawing and Mind-Mapping
I already mentioned drawing as a way to occupy your hand while your mind works in the background. But drawing can also be a powerful tool for active, creative problem solving.
Whenever I’m stuck on an idea for an article or another work project, I draw it out. Typically, this takes the form of mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is the process of visually connecting ideas together using shapes and lines. You can see an example below:
For maximum creative benefits, I suggest making your mind maps by hand. Don’t worry if you have bad handwriting; the point is to produce new ideas, not draw a masterpiece. I find that making them by hand is a great way to get away from screens, slow down, and have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.
But if you prefer to use a digital mind-mapping system, Coggle is our top recommendation. You can see Coggle in action in the video below:
Feed Your Brain New Ideas
Since creativity is about making new connections between disparate ideas, you need to be sure your brain has a steady supply of new ideas to work with.
The most efficient way to do this is reading. Reading lets you connect with the greatest thinkers (and ideas) from all of human history.
What you read is up to you. I suggest you follow your interests, read voraciously, and read across genres and topics (nothing is off-limits). If you’re looking for a place to start, check out our list of book recommendations.
We typically view boredom as a negative thing. It’s something to avoid at all costs, something to alleviate as quickly as possible.
And in many ways, our present society has succeeded in eliminating boredom. There’s always something to stream, scroll, or play, making boredom increasingly rare.
While this might feel like a triumph, it’s actually a missed opportunity. Boredom is where some of the best ideas come from. When you’re bored, it forces you to be alone with your own thoughts, creating a blank canvas for new ideas.
So next time you feel bored, don’t immediately rush to fill the space with distraction. Sit with the boredom for a few minutes, and see where it takes your mind. (Read more about the importance of boredom).
Have Stimulating Conversations
So far I’ve been talking mostly about creativity in a solo context. While we love the myth of the lone genius, it’s often just that: a myth. In the real world, creativity is often the result of an exchange of ideas between people. Frequently, this means having a great conversation.
A great conversation offers access to new perspectives and ideas that you’d never reach on your own. Even in the age of Google search and digital media, when any idea is (theoretically) available with a few clicks, I’ve still learned some of my most influential lessons and ideas from conversations with other people.
Furthermore, the process of talking with a good listener can help you come to new insights. Often, these are things you implicitly knew or thought but had never consciously put into words.
You can get some of the same benefits from journaling or even talking to yourself, but I still find it more powerful to have a conversation with a real human.
There’s no manual for being creative. It’s an inexact process that science still struggles to understand.
But the benefits of creativity both in college and beyond are undeniable. I hope this post has given you some concrete ideas for bringing more creativity to your life, no matter what you do.
Image Credits: paintbrushes