Methods I Use To Jumpstart Creative Thinking

Over the years, there are a couple of techniques I've used to kick my thinking over into different lanes, which is my definition of creativity. There is nothing new under the sun, so no one is truly creative in the novum sense. What we are creative about is mixing up what is already there. The demands of daily life, of limited resources, and of mediocre expectations combine to keep us thinking safely in the ruts that work. (They may not be optimal, but they work.) Creativity runs outside the lines. Here are a few ways of making that happen, in no particular order:

Adjust your abstraction. You can take anything and adjust between concreteness/quiddity and abstraction. These are called levels of construal, where concrete is low construal and metaphysics is high construal. Picking up crafts for your kid's Sunday School class is low construal. Carrying on the pedagogical tasks of instructing the young in the faith is high construal. The same act can be viewed along either, but high construal provides a motivation and an awareness of purpose that low construal does not, and low construal carries the energy of movement and activity in a way that high construal does not. So, adjust your abstraction.

You already know. (Das weisst du doch!) Ninety-nine percent of the time, we do not express or act or communicate or own-up-to what we already know. My wife calls this "working at the top of your intelligence." That is true, but it isn't all of it. We are always playing games like we don't know things when we do. We just do not want to be honest about whatever it is. Just today, for example, I was in a meeting and someone suggested we look into whether shorter marketing copy is better. We already know that. The paper we need to research. The repair we need to make. The question we need to ask so-and-so. Often, we already know. We can already write that paper, make that repair, and we already know what so-and-so would say. We just are afraid to act. You already know what to do. You already know what you want to do. You have it already mapped out, listed out, and sorted in your head. You are just afraid to admit it for some reason.

A friend of mine has another way of putting this. He says we need to learn to call experts. And by this he doesn't mean other people, but ourselves. He tells the story about a motorcycle repair he was doing, and he could not get something to work. So, he stepped back and imagined that he was a motorcycle repair expert who had been called in. He looked at the bike in front of him through the imaginary eyes of this expert, and he was able to make the repair. He already knew how to do it, but he needed to find a way to unlock that and act. I think of him sometimes and tell myself, "Ok, take the next hour and act like you are brilliant."

Trace the margins and find the best solution. Whatever a problem is, someone else in some other field of humanity (or nature itself) has already found an elegant solution. You think that because you are working in a new technology or because your problem is complex that this cannot be the case, but I assure you it is. There are only a handful of real problems. Like Plato's ideas, they infest nearly everything. Likewise, there are only twenty years worth of problems and these just get recycled over and over again in every field and endeavor. So, whatever it is that you are working on, abstract out the problem so that only the bones of the outline are there. Then, when you have simplified it so that it is almost a template or a shape, like a cut-out moon or octagon or star, look around and see if that pattern exists in other fields. I especially look to fields that have been around for thousands of years. Ask farmers and fishermen, ask weavers and cooks and storytellers and dancers. Ask the insects in the yard or the trees growing beside the walls. There is a good chance that if you will seek and wait, you'll find as elegant a solution as any you would have come up with after expensive trial-and-error.

Incidentally, this inability to discover new problems is frustrating and sad. Most people think there are a lot of problems, but there aren't. When you investigate the coolest programming language or scientific discoveries, they are mostly moving pieces around on the same board but with different jargon. Most businesses talk like they want to be innovative--they don't. Most systems talk a good talk, but they like things the way they are. Real experimentation is alien to human homeostasis along every dimension. We kill prophets and ridicule artists in their lifetimes. Most of the time, I just let myself sleep in the ebb and flow. But sometimes, I wake up. I feel the infinite possibilities of things shimmering underneath every atom and second. And I hunger to get with others and tackle creative problems. But I do not know who these others are, and I do not know what those problems could be. And so, befuddled and unable to act practically from my temporary lucidity, I am sad for a bit, and then it passes. I suspect the problem is a class problem, and that were I not working-class (basically), I might know what to do or have the means to do or at least to stay in that place until I do know what to do. But I don't and it is best to get on with things.

Get in front of a whiteboard (or whatever does the same). There is something about standing there with a marker in your hand and writing that opens up the mind. Wrestle in a different medium. Get your muscles involved. Muscles have memory. They can work problems out. The anecdotal and experimental data on walking and thinking is legion. Let your body help.

Sit with it. People do not appreciate the value of simply sitting with a problem. Bundle it up in the front of your head, and then toss it to the back and let your subconcious masticate on it for a while. Then go about your life. But, be ready. When your subconscious is done, it will throw back some kind of an answer, and you'd better be prepared to record it somehow. Pull the car over. Record it on your phone. Borrow a pen in a restaurant. Whatever. And get it all out because it will not make sense to you partially when you come back and look at it in the morning. You have to get it all out--every weird and funny idea about it, because only the whole thing has value. And then, honestly, it may only be ridiculous, but it may not be. It is the subconscious after all. What can you expect!

Throw Out the Easy Stuff. When considering any real problem, the first few solutions you think of are probably junk. Where solutions are easy, there are no problems. You obviously have a problem, so distrust easy solutions.

Get clear on details. Building from the last point, quick fixes that pop easily to mind or when you are tempted to wonder why people don't just solve using x because isn't it so obvious are signs you need to dig into the details. Creativity requires a clear grasp of the details. Creativity is not an escape from reality; it is a different way of framing what is there. Get curious about everything. The process of acquiring insight stirs up curiosity. Sometimes, though, you'll need to stir the pot with willpower. If your curiosity fails, come at it a new way. But ride that curiosity to clarity.

Remove something. When you are trying to find a way into a solution, remove something and see what happens. Have fun blowing it up and taking it apart. Discover what is necessary and what is not.

Go Fish in the Desert. Try applying your hypothesis to an unrelated example. Sometimes changing the color of the background makes things pop.