So, where are you when you get your best ideas?
At work, with others, trying hard?
If you’re like 90% of the leaders I recently interviewed, you will be answering no.
Most people have their best ideas on their own, away from work, when they’re not trying. So much for that gravestone of creativity, the brainstorm.
If the ideas come when you’re not trying, we know the subconscious of the brain plays a big part. Yet, this is precisely what we ignore when consciously trying to think about a solution to a problem. Our brains are great at working on problems even when we’re not aware of it.
There are those who think creativity is about new ideas, but really, there’s no such thing. The best ideas have been done before, so creativity could be described as ‘the history which you are ignorant of’. This is where reading is a key skill. Knowledge of the world and an ability to create are linear relationships.
The research part of the creative process is often foregone because, well, frankly it’s a bit dull. Yet, hindsight is the parent of insight. Its purpose is twofold. Firstly, it educates you about the challenge and secondly it allows you to convince the recipient. It also makes the subsequent stages more efficient. It is the foundations upon which the house of creativity is built. A creative strategy without research is merely an opinion. Sadly, an arrogant and ignorant opinion sold with force of character alone can still convince people.
The research conducted for ‘Too Fast To Think’ taxonomized the process into the 4’I’s – Induction, Incubation, Inspiration and Ignition. The ratio of each diminishes in the ratio 40/30/20/10. This suggests the majority of the creative process (Induction and Incubation) is not consciously thinking about the problem. It’s about research and then it’s about doing absolutely nothing. So when you’re doing nothing, you really are doing quite a lot.
If the ideas verifiably come when we are doing something else, we must learn to trust our minds to come up with the solution. The alternative is self-accusatory creative block or white page syndrome. This is just the evidence of the analytical mind at work – comparing, contrasting, analyzing and criticizing. It can be brutal.
If creative provenance is subconscious, then that tells us it’s coming from the synthetic, conceptual or right brain process. Our exact state when we are subconsciously preoccupied with routine tasks.
If we allow ourselves this space at all, we don’t take it seriously. Mostly, we allow ourselves to be constantly interrupted. Research suggests the average business user in the United States sent and received on average 121 emails a day in 2014, and this is expected to grow to 140 emails a day by 2018. If we assume a 10-hour day at work, even at today’s levels, that’s 12 an hour or one every six minutes. The number of worldwide email accounts is expected to grow from over 4.1 billion in 2014 to over 5.2 billion by the end of 2018. The total number of worldwide email users, including both business and consumer users, will increase from over 2.5 billion in 2014 to over 2.8 billion in 2018.
Interestingly, email is still not the most frequently used communication. WhatsApp has recently eclipsed SMS messaging with the company handling a whopping 30 billion messages every day from 800 million users. SMS (texting) is around half this number and declining.
When we allow interruption on this scale, we allow ourselves to be dragged back into the left-brain analytical process. You may enjoy looking at Ten Cats That Look Like Hitler, but at what cost, if you lose your epiphany? No ship can dock until one has sailed.
It gets worse. There’s evidence to say that the overload also forces us to filter news. Thus you may hear that your Cousin Kevin in Coventry has baked a cake. You may also hear of every terrorist attack on the planet. You will also hear of scandal and corruption and death and famine. You will not hear that some diseases have been almost eradicated however, or that the numbers of those living in poverty are declining.
Most people hearing the news perceive a world that has become immeasurably worse. The converse is true. Steven Pinker has written extensively on this in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’. Why does this matter? Because creativity feeds on positivity and optimism. Cynicism is like green kryptonite.
Perhaps the worst possible filtering of all is that which deprives us of other people’s opinions. No platforming has removed those perceived to be beyond the pale. Social media has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom provided that there are no tall poppies.
So how do we improve the creative process painlessly? Firstly, by recognizing all competence follows preference. We get good at stuff we like. We, therefore, have to learn to like the solitude because this is the provenance of deep insight.
This is Friedrich Nietzsche: “I go in solitude, so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not really think; after a time, it always seems as if they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul.”
We know this but we don’t practice it, and we definitely don’t teach it. It’s time that creative people stopped with the self-flagellation and started to trust themselves. We can start by understanding the creative process and affording it the same status as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. This is not new thinking. It was one of the greatest scientists Einstein who said that: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”
After all, if we can’t access our own potential to solve problems, what hope does our planet have?
Our future depends on it.