Secrets to Long Haul Creativity
About five years ago, I started thinking long and hard about a very specific type of creativity. Unlike most researchers, I was less interested in exploring the day-to-day puzzle of making something out of nothing and more about the equally baffling mystery of how to do this over a lifetime. Long Haul Creativity is how I’ve come to think of this topic.
Over the past few years, this topic has become a bit of an obsession. I’ve talked about it with everyone I know and have come to realize the answers I’ve gotten apply to far more folks than just writers. These days, creativity is a buzz word in just about every field. It seems like everyone’s hunting for more of this skill, but no one’s really talking about the ramifications of getting what we desire.
This is a critical point. Being creative over a career involves a whole subset of nearly invisible skills, a great many of which conflict with most people’s general ideas about what it means to be creative. What’s more, being creative is different than the business of being creative, and most people who learn how to be good at the first, are often really terrible at the second. Finally, emotionally, creativity just takes a toll. Decade after decade, that toll adds up.
So here are eight of my favorite lessons on the hard fight of long-haul creativity. A few are my own. Most are things I learned from others. All have managed to keep me saner along the way.
One: Creativity De-Coded
fMRI scans of the three networks the brain uses for creativity.
The one thing neuroscientists know for sure about creativity is that it’s not one thing.* The brain is creative in dozens and dozens of different ways, which is why training people to be more creative can be so difficult. Yet, what we do know is that creativity is always recombinatory — it’s the product of novel information bumping into old ideas to produce something startlingly new.
What’s more, we also know that this recombinatory process always requires the interaction of three overlapping neural networks: attention, imagination and salience. Understanding how these networks work and how we can augment their effects gives long haul creatives some much needed leverage.
1. Attention: This network governs executive attention or spotlight attention. It’s the go-to system for the hours-on-end laser-focus required by creativity. And this leads to an obvious intervention: anything that trains up attention, amplifies creativity. Almost any mindfulness practice will work or, if you prefer a more dynamic experience, the Flow Genome Project designed this Art of Flow video-meditation for those too twitchy to follow their breath.
2. Imagination: The imagination network or, more formally, the default mode network (DMN), is all about mind-wandering. It’s what allows you to construct mental simulations of potential outcomes and test out creative possibilities. The trick here is to activate the DMN you have to stop focusing on the problem you’ve been trying to solve. This means turning off the spotlight attention system. Research shows the best way to pull this off is via low-grade physical activity. I prefer gardening. Tim Ferriss (see below) likes long walks. But Lee Zlotoff, creator of the TV show MacGyver and (no surprise) an expert on creative problem solving, has tested dozens of different activities, and found that building models — airplanes, dinosaurs, whatever — consistently produces the best results.
3. Salience: This network monitors incoming information and tags it as important or irrelevant. The more salient info the brain detects, the more raw material it has to be creative. The big issue here is that familiarity breeds contempt — meaning, when we are locked into our normal routine this network usually runs on autopilot. It notices what it always notices. The secret to getting its attention is risk and novelty. New experiences and new ideas. Ceaseless adventure and constant reading are key. For the former, see this article I wrote on risk and creativity. For the latter, books are always better than magazines, newspapers, blogs etc. — I explain why in this piece for Forbes.
The best book on all the different neuronal systems involved in creativity is the recently released How Creativity Happens In the Brain, by neuroscientist and pioneering flow researcher Arne Dietrich. But be warned, this is not light summer fare. Dietrich is funny as hell, but the book is dense and — because it’s published by an academic publisher — expensive.
Two: Know The Better Question.
A little while back author and investor Tim Ferriss walked me through the four things he does on a regular basis to support long haul creativity. His whole list is really good, so we’ll start there:
1. Daily Exercise: at least an hour, needed to lower anxiety levels and clear the head. Interestingly, the research shows that weight training is better than aerobic training for quieting the inner critic.
2. Keep a Maker Schedule: Carve out dedicated periods for key tasks that require creativity. If complex problem-solving or analysis is required, Ferriss recommends at least four hour blocks. And this also means no distractions — turn off email, phone, messages, skype, twitter, facebook and all the rest.
3. Long Walks: Without music or podcasts or distraction, purposefully letting the mind wander. This switches off spotlight attention and switches on the default mode network — aka, the imagination network.
4.Surround yourself with driven people who are good at spotting your assumptions. Ferriss explains: “The people who are the very best at this are the ones who hear my question and respond with: ‘You’re asking the wrong question. The better question is….’”
This last point is really important. While feedback can often be a hindrance to in-the-moment creativity, it’s essential for the long haul. But choice in feedback giver is critical.
This becomes doubly important the more successful you get. If you make a name for yourself in creativity people tend to trust your creative ideas a little more than they should and too frequently give you the benefit of the doubt. This is no bueno. To make sure he’s getting the feedback he needs, Ferriss hunts for folks who help him reframe his question, rather than just play devil’s advocate. This is spot on. People who play devil’s advocate often do so out of reflex — this means they tend to lack the technical sophistication to really help and often derail creativity through generalization. Reframers, meanwhile, take the idea farther faster. By providing a better question, they’re providing a new launch pad. This creates momentum. And for long haul creativity, nothing is more fundamental than momentum.
Tune in each day this week for more secrets on fight the good fight for long-haul creativity!
This article was originally published by Medium.
Featured image by Patswerk.