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Can Creativity Be Taught? Part Two: Mastering the Creative Process

Can Creativity Be Taught

Photo by Zetson

Many people believe that highly creative individuals possess some sort of rare, special, almost magical talent. Somehow, mysteriously, they are able to conjure up new and remarkable ideas, produce extraordinarily inventive work and make a profound impact on the world. Such individuals are viewed by many as favored by Mother Nature and blessed with a special gene, the one most of us missed out on.

Businesses that must deliver increasingly innovative goods and services in order to stay competitive (which is just about every company today), rely heavily on such creative thinkers, and may take the appreciation of their enigmatic ability to even greater extremes. In many such organizations the “creative types” are allowed to play by a different set of rules. The sometimes unbusinesslike way they dress, the strange hours they keep, their offbeat language and behavior, and even the unusual ways they decorate their offices are all tolerated, for fear of somehow disrupting the wizardry that takes place inside their heads whenever the all-important big idea is needed.

In fact there is nothing mystical about what creative geniuses do. Their abilities are remarkable, to be sure. But they’re not magic. In fact we all possess many of the same talents and skills in varying degrees and areas of concentration. Each of us was born with the innate ability to imagine, conceive, pretend and exercise curiosity. These are creative traits. The problem is, most of us have simply forgotten how to make use of them.

Creativity is simply the ability to generate new, unusual or unique ideas. “What if my toothbrush had an mp3 player in the handle…then I could listen to music while I brush my teeth!” Of course, most meaningful and worthwhile creativity is a bit more involved than that. But there is actually a process one follows when coming up with such creative notions, a process many of those awe-inspiring geniuses are quite capable of verbalizing. Even those who aren’t are nonetheless following similar systems. There is abundant evidence that many of history’s greatest creators - da Vinci, Mozart, Picasso – all followed careful, meticulous processes in the development and production their work.

So just what does this “creative process” consists of? Five sequential steps that will not only result in a more inventive solution to any challenge, but also make the task of generating that solution more interesting and perhaps even more fun.

1. Preparation – Nothing begins in the middle; and creativity is no exception. Naturally creative people always prepare thoroughly for the arrival of their seemingly spontaneous sparks of genius. There are two aspects to preparation; one is ongoing, and the other is immediate, for the specific task at hand.

Ongoing preparation simply means “stocking the pond” with thoughts, ideas and inspiration. Creativity depends heavily on making connections between two or more ideas, where no apparent connection existed before - like the toothbrush and the mp3 player. The more interesting and provocative reference points you have in your head, the more easily you will make new connections. Continually expose yourself to new, original, thought-provoking things of all kinds: art, music, literature, contemporary culture. Maintain an ongoing sense of curiosity about the world, and when the time comes to get creative, your mind will be filled with all sorts of valuable and relevant experiences to draw on.

Immediate preparation is specific to the challenge you face. Once you know what you have to do, engage in some research. See what’s been done before, what worked and what failed. Ask others for their opinions. Gather as much information as you can, or have time for, and undertaking your own project will be that much easier, and more inspired.

2. Focusing – Sometimes known as “Incubation” or “Reflection,” this is the step where you let everything you’ve gathered in your Preparation phase marinate. It sometimes takes the mind a while to sort through and process all the information you have in your head, to separate the wheat from the chaff, make new connections and build upon ideas you already have. Some people say this process is completely unconscious; after they do their preparation, they simple “walk away” and put the task out of their mind. Others say it’s more intentional and thoughtful. Still others, a combination of the two. Whatever works for you, but give yourself a bit of space between Preparation and Exploration (the next step in the process), and just watch what kinds of ideas that start to percolate and raise up to the surface.

3. Exploration – Often called “Illumination,” this is when the stuff you used to believe was magic takes place. The creative spark, the “a-ha” moment, when all the dots get connected and you come up with the big idea. It’s said that Einstein figured out his famous equation “E-mc2” while riding on a bus, that Newton observed a falling apple and was struck (some believe, on the head) with the notion of gravity, and that Archimedes discovered the principle of displacement when he stepped into a bath, and then shouted, “Eureka!” – which is why this phenomenon is also referred to as the “Eureka Moment.” The reason we call it Exploration, though, is that the Eureka moment is often a long, Eureka slog. It’s true, sometimes a great idea comes to you like a bolt of lightning, seemingly out of nowhere. But just as often the masterpiece emerges after extended, sometimes tedious work. It’s a well-known fact that Thomas Edison conducted literally thousands of experiments in his search for the right material to serve as the filament in the first light bulb. Hardly a Eureka moment. Whatever way your exploration phase happens, your mind will be giving you what you want in the end: a great idea.

4. Verification – On rare occasions, creative geniuses nail it on the first try. I repeat, on rare occasions. Most of the time our brilliant idea needs quite a bit of testing (against our standard of quality and acceptability), and refinement. Often we have several contenders, and through this process we are ultimately able to pick the best or most appropriate one. The point is, once you come up with a great idea, you’re not finished. There’s still work to be done.

5. Completion – The best idea in the world is worth nothing if it isn’t carried through to completion. Yes, more work. But genius doesn’t come cheap. This is simply follow-through, getting the job done, and is quite often more craft than art. And the better you are at it, the more outstanding your work will be. Think through the steps you will take in transforming your idea into a new reality. What tools do you need? What skills will be required? Whatever you don’t have yourself, find. In a recent survey CEOs said that fewer than 25% of their organizations’ best ideas are ever implemented. Which means more than three-quarters never see the light of day. There are countless half-finished brilliant ideas out there. Don’t let yours be one of them.

You may not be destined to become a da Vinci, Mozart, Picasso or Edison (but then again, you may!). But you can most certainly unleash your own innate creativity and significantly improve the quality of your work, whatever it is. You may not be composing symphonies, painting masterpieces, writing Pulitzer Prize-winning novels or bending time and space. Your “art” may be a new business proposal, a script for an upcoming presentation, a corporate brochure, your backyard garden or new window treatments for your bedroom. It doesn’t matter; by following the creative process, you will almost certainly enhance the value, originality and effectiveness of your final product.