That’s right. I said super-strange. If you thought creativity was a normal process that required normal ideas, I’m afraid you’ve been misled.
But before I go into my list of five let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding the meaning of the word “creativity.” If what you conjure up when you think of creativity has to do with things like writing songs, choreographing a dance, inventing a novel marketing plan, or directing a play, then my use of the C-word will be entirely different from yours. What I’m talking about is getting yourself in the best frame of mind to access, both your proven skill-sets and the stuff that lies just beyond your conscious mind.
1. Don’t miss out on mornings
Most people drag themselves out of bed without giving themselves time to think in that rarified window between consciousness and dream state. To picture what I’m talking about, imagine it’s morning; your alarm clock goes off—or your cat swats you on the head—it’s all the same. You’ve just opened your eyes and you’re looking up at the ceiling or at your alarm clock. What I’m suggesting here is that you linger in this in-between-state for three to five minutes to see what kinds of thoughts come across the transom of your still-blurry consciousness.
See, for instance, if you can solve some problem you’ve been having. Without losing the sort of dreamy sense of the world you’re experiencing, let your mind wander to arrive at solutions. Maybe you need to think of a title for a book; perhaps there’s a need for a better marketing angle for a product of service you’re involved with. Maybe you need to repair a rift in a relationship with an important business contact or a loved one.
You are likely to find that early-morning thinking doesn’t follow the same pathways and processes normal daytime thinking does. It’s by not treading the same old mental ground that you’re many times more likely to come up with unique solutions and creative ideas.
2. Spend more time looking out the window
It’s quite possible you'll think of this idea as a waste of time, something that a lazy person does to avoid getting to the hard work of getting things done. I get that. And while that may hold true in certain instances, for creativity to flourish, you need to experience stretches of time that are de-routinized and de-mechanized. Of course no one can expect to get anything done if they’re spending the bulk of their time staring out the window (or talking a walk in nature, stopping to read a verse of poetry, or spending time in prayer or reflection).
But without taking time to strategically break away from your routine, you are not allowing your mind to access anything it doesn’t already consciously know. And of course, if you’re not accessing things you don’t consciously know, you are by definition, not in a creative state of mind.
3. Make someone happy
This simple idea might sound confusing. What in the world does making someone happy have to do with creativity? Here’s how and why it works.
The biggest hindrance to your creativity is fear of judgment. You—along with the rest of humanity —are deeply fearful of negative judgments. It’s the way our brains have evolved to keep us safe in a world where a stampeding woolly mammoth might be charging up the next hill. While there aren’t many mammoths, woolly or otherwise, these days, there still are threats. Threats to job security if we say or do the wrong thing, threats to our social standing if we aren’t as high achieving as we think we should be… The list goes on and on. And whether or not these are actual lethal threats makes no difference at all. Our brains become narrow focused on survival in any case. But what happens when we've just written to one of our kids, for example, to tell them how proud we are of them (and by the way, this works best when they haven’t received any awards; when we are just proud of them for who they are) we become happy ourselves. When we become happy, the forces of fear, which restrict our creative thinking, are momentarily suspended.
It’s in those uplifted moods when we’re most capable of original thought.
4. Feel like a speck in the world
(I promised you these five ideas would seem strange—but then again, if it’s already “known” it’s not strange, and if it’s not strange, at least in some sense, it’s not creative.)
By “feel like a speck,” I don’t mean that you need to feel diminished or bad about yourself; it’s exactly the opposite. When we sense ourselves being part of a vast, wondrous universe, our minds expand and we become better able to think of and contribute our creative ideas. Conversely, when we feel that the world revolves around us, our thinking becomes myopic and narrow focused. Here’s one sure way to escape the feeling that it’s all about me!
I should add that it works in almost any environment. (I wrote “almost any environment” because in truth, it might be more difficult say, if you’re sitting on death row). But leaving that aside for now, let’s assume you’re sitting in your cubicle under a fluorescent light, feeling like the least creative guy on the planet. What I’m suggesting here is a two- to five-minute period wherein you contemplate the infinite mystery of that’s taking place at this moment in your cubicle.
The questions for "contemplation" might sound something like these:
Who did you speak to four years ago that lead you to the next person, and the next, and the one after that —that finally lead you to the position you’re in today?
How is it that you are able to write emails without ever once having to think about taking your next breath?
How are you able to take the thoughts in your head and communicate them to another human being through the mysterious process of speech?
The better you becoming at taking your mind away from its tendency see things only as you have always seen them—as opposed to the way they could be, the more creative you will become overall.
5. Think—thank you—all the time.
Of all the things on this list, gratitude may well be the single most significant driver of creativity. To be in a thankful state of mind creates a sense of fulfillment, and when we feel fulfilled our fear of judgment and our anxious sense of need is diminished.
Creativity’s greatest nemesis is active fear and anxiety. When fear and anxiety are lessened we have a more complete access to our skill-sets. If I’m a downhill ski racer, for example, the less fear I have the more in touch with my highly developed skills I’ll be. If I’m delivering a presentation to the board members of my corporation, the greater my sense of fulfillment, the more at ease I will be in presenting my ideas. No matter what it is we’re doing, a sense of gratitude will reduce our fear and open our minds.
A friend of mine challenged me on this point. She raised the argument that "Van Gogh was a severely depressed person who could in no way have been grateful for anything. And yet," she told me, "he was one of the most groundbreaking artists of his time." While it may have been true that for the majority of his time Van Gogh was in an ungrateful state of mind, what is equally likely is that during the time he was actually painting —the time, in other words, when he was most creative—he was in an extreme state of gratitude and fulfillment.
But how does one go about maintaining a grateful outlook?
Gratitude starts in the morning. So let’s circle back to the first suggestion: Don't miss out on mornings. Between that drowsy (and hyper-suggestible) period between sleep and waking, simply think of three things you’re thankful for. They don't have to big things. In fact the smaller, the more commonplace, the better.
Try this everyday for two weeks. And as you do, take notice of how you feel in general, and of how much more creative your overall thinking has gotten.
This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.