Looking to boost your creativity in 2016?  Whether you’re starting a novel, painting a masterpiece, recording your first album or just enhancing your life by busting some salsa moves in the evening, the most important first move is to break yourself out of your routine, practical thinking–and into the mindset that will allow your creativity to flourish.  This terrific TED video by Cindy Foley based on new research from Project Zero at Harvard lays out the basic elements you need in order to think like an artist (or wow people at dinner parties by making them think you must be one!)  Here they are, broken down into five key techniques:

1. Be comfortable with ambiguity.

As a coach working with creatives, I find that one of the key issues my clients face is that they are struggling over their work.  Why are they struggling?  Because though creative work can be exhilarating when you’re in a state of flow, the state of total, rapturous absorption described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (for extra creative credit, try pronouncing that name five times before breakfast), on many other occasions, creative thinking by definition will take you beyond what you already know or understand.  This state of not-knowing, of ambiguity, can be deeply uncomfortable–which ironically is the key to many creative breakthroughs.  What I tell my clients is that the problem is not that they’re struggling–the problem is that they’re resisting the struggle.  For an artist, writer or musician, developing the ability to stay with this state of not-knowing and ambiguity is the cornerstone of creative work.

2. Go for volume over quality at first.

One of the key definitions of creativity is your ability to come up with as many new ideas as possible in a short period of time–which is the basis of the gold-standard of creativity measures, the Alternative Uses Test, in which you’re given a few minutes to come up with as many uses as possible for a common object, like a brick or a paperclip.  The Harvard researchers call this process “idea generation,” and it’s not dissimilar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages, in which you write like a demon every morning for a few pages without stopping.  Whatever you call it, the process is the same: you crank out as many ideas as possible without censoring yourself, loosening the grip of your inner critic for a while to give every idea, even the really crazy ones, a moment in the sun.  Often, once you start throwing down ideas, the most interesting ones will come in the second or third round, once you’ve gotten past your usual thoughts.

3. Play.

Now that you’ve embraced ambiguity and allowed your ideas to come pouring out, give yourself permission to play, using a spirit of “what if…?”  Pick your wildest idea, the one that maybe you think is a little nutty but that kind of appeals to you, and see what happens if you go with it for a while, not in the spirit of creating the greatest masterpiece of all time, but in a mood of fun, just to see what happens.  The essence of all art is what Jacques Derrida calls “jouissance,” an exuberant (and for you francophiles, hell yeah, it’s also sexual) all-out joy  So now that your inner critic is on a mini-break, pack him or her off on an hour long vacation by reminding this grim logician that professors at Harvard have told you that play is essential.  Enjoy!

4. Follow Your Curiosity.

Now that you’re throwing yourself full-out into your creative work, you’ll often find that your mind is teeming with questions and new ideas.  “My ideas are having babies all over the place!” a client of mine once exclaimed. Let’s say you’re a writer, and you’ve thrown yourself into a new series of short stories.  All of a sudden, everything you see may seem like a possible story. Who lived in your apartment before you did?  Why did they move out so suddenly?  Who built your car?  Why does that guy with the law degree now run your favorite doughnut store–what’s up with that?  Instead of shutting down these thoughts as irrelevant, keep a small notebook with you and scribble notes. Ask questions (politely), look closely, find out the deeper meaning of things. What you discover may become the basis for your next novel, painting or song.

5. Nerd out.

The Harvard researchers, being Harvard researchers, call this process “transdisciplinary research.”  In other words, do a deep dive into a subject that fascinates you, and then incorporate it into your work.  If you’re a novelist fascinated by the history of California, follow that passion.  Drive up the coast visiting every mission, or take a walking tour of the old theaters of downtown L.A., or learn about the Gabrielano Indians.  If you’re a science geek, study the stars, or new tech developments, or read a history of Galileo.  Your new knowledge will fuel your creativity, sometimes directly, by becoming the subject of your newest work, and sometimes indirectly, by sparking new ways of seeing the world, new ideas and even new friends.

Above all, in 2016, give yourself permission to be creative.  If you haven’t noticed, these five steps are not just the key to producing great creative work–they’re the key to living a full and joyous life.  Here’s to a happy, creatively productive new year!

Featured photo credit: The Artist/martinak15 via flickr.com

Set a goal for yourself

"I'm going to inspire people around me by doing anything I can, even if it's something really small."

Add To My Goal

Read full content