Is creativity a gift or a skill? Thinking of new ideas can actually be

 1 year ago
source link: https://www.fastcompany.com/90769066/is-creativity-a-gift-or-a-skill-thinking-of-new-ideas-can-actually-be-practiced
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Is creativity a gift or a skill? Thinking of new ideas can actually be practiced

Once you have a mountain of ideas, you may find that then, out of nowhere, lightning can strike.

Is creativity a gift or a skill? Thinking of new ideas can actually be practiced
By Susan Treacy5 minute Read

When we see a great idea, it often seems obvious in hindsight, kind of like looking at a Pollock or Rothko in an art museum and thinking painting that seems doable. But original ideas are hard to reverse-engineer to what now seems obvious.


So where do good ideas come from? There are rumors of lightning-strike ideas just coming to you, maybe in the shower. That myth can make creatives everywhere frustrated, impatient, and basically feel like failures.

As marketing creatives, we spend long hours thinking and crafting ideas. Yet when we talk about improving and getting to fresher ideas, we may work on our writing craft and film techniques and put a lot of effort into keeping up with emerging technology. But it seems many people don’t work on how to actually think of ideas.

When I ask creatives right out of school how they work, they say they just start writing in a Google Doc with their partner when they have 20 minutes between meetings. Can that ideation skill improve?



To find better ideas, get to them faster, and take a break from beating ourselves up, we can learn from what has been studied in other creative fields. To get to peak creative ability, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson studied violinists in Germany to compare their ability in relation to how they practiced. The most successful performers practiced for an average of 3.5 hours a day in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes.

Meanwhile, the moderate performers practiced for an average of 1.4 hours daily with no rest during their practice sessions. The top performers also rested more, sleeping an average of an hour more a night. Practicing nonstop did not make the moderate violinists better. Sometimes putting the proverbial pencil down is the secret to uncovering ideas when we pick it back up.


In computing, math, or strategy, they say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Creatively, it’s important to live this mantra. Inspiration snowballs from inspiration. While spending time reading, watching films, seeing concerts, or having a deep interest outside of work might not look like work, that time can widely contribute to ideas that don’t suck. It’s also just plain fun.

Double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” Keep in mind, that also means having a lot of bad ideas. The Onion generates over 600 headlines before getting to the 16 winners each week. Adam Grant explains in his book Originals that the most successful composers were also by far the most prolific.



An abundance mindset pays off in creativity. But from what I have noticed, most people generate about 20 ideas before presenting a few. There are dozens of shortcuts to be much more creatively prolific and do it fast. Here are a few ideation exercises to help generate a lot of ideas quickly:

• Analogies: Once you stall on ideas, think of an analogous person, place, or brand that has dealt with a similar problem. So, if you’re trying to get kids to think vegetables are fun, think of who else makes things fun for kids; McDonald’s introduced kids’ meal toys, Disney World made waiting in line fun, a good babysitter can solve a rainy day. What tactics do they use? Try stealing pages from others’ playbooks to ideate on your creative problem.

• Opposites: Since we are always trying to disrupt category clichés to get noticed and remembered, another exercise to try is listing all the expected ways to approach the issue. What are the tropes or clichés that everyone else is doing? Write those down, then go down the list and ideate what the opposite looks like. Just go with it, even if it seems ridiculous, and especially if it sounds like it’d get you fired. Coming up with those swimming-upstream ideas can spark entirely fresh lines of thinking.


• Building: Don’t forget the power of “Yes, and.” Building on others’ ideas is how we go from walking into a room with mediocre ideas to progressing them until they become new, better ideas. Create a Google Sheets doc for your team, and have them each ideate in their own column. After eight minutes, everyone shifts one column to the right and has to build on someone else’s ideas. Pass that line of ideas to the next person on the team, and in 20 to 30 minutes, you should have 100 new ideas.

• Handcuffs: Interestingly, putting your thinking into a tiny box can suddenly spark a lot of ideas. Try putting constraints on your ideas; for moms alone, moms with friends, couples, families together. Or free, then a $2 million budget. Try re-framing around one idea, then do variations of what it would be five years from now, or how it gets on Jimmy Kimmel. Moving from tiny box to tiny box can end up opening up the mind to lots of cool drawers of ideas that were previously shut.

• Mash-Ups: Creativity results from recombining existing ideas in an unexpected way. Make a list of attributes of one aspect of what you are working on, and another unrelated list of a different aspect, then mix and match. So if you are working on a seamless customer experience, make a list of attributes of a well-run emergency room next to a list of attributes from a high-end tailor. Or a caring doula. Or a pit crew.


In order to make these exercises work, keep a timer on, running each ideation at three to five minutes. Then, switch to a different constraint, frame, or build. The fast pace creates an urgency that can actually free your mind to just dump ideas out.

Of course, before this ideation, work needs to be done to understand your user’s needs and define the problem. After that, it’s time to generate this mountain of ideas. Filters then need to be applied to pick the most promising, feasible, or affordable ideas. But once you have a mountain of ideas, you may find that then, out of nowhere, lightning can strike.

Susan Treacy is Executive Creative Director at EnergyBBDO. She leads content marketing programs and facilitates creative workshops.

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