5 Ways to Cultivate Creativity When You're Not a Creative Person
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
I have a confession to make: I am not a creative person.
Gasp! But Morgan! You’re a painter and a writer and an athlete; you do all these things, how are you not creative?
Okay, number one, how do you know so much about me? You must be super cool and subscribe to Mo’s Midweek Pick Me Up (which you can at the bottom of this page here). And secondly, yes, I do all these things, but that’s just the end result you’re seeing. You don’t see the inner workings of this padded-walled mind of mine.
A cognitive neuroscientist at Georgetown University, Adam Green, PhD, says that as a culture, we need to “move away from defining creativity based on a person’s creative output and focus instead on what’s going on in the brain.”
The hamster spinning on your wheel is creativity. The product produced by that hamster of yours is not creativity but a manifestation of it. The good news is that you can get your hamster off the couch and start logging some miles on the wheel. It just takes some work.
We’ve all felt the need to be creative whether it’s at work or school or while playing dress ups with 4-year-olds. The pressure to perform, to be original and clever, is a very real problem everyone experiences at some level or another. Creativity is a highly sought after skill. Nearly every job description includes “creative thinker” or “creative problem solver.” But does anyone actually know what creative means? What it involves? Psychologists do.
Scientists define creativity as having two characteristics:
It needs to be original.
It needs to be effective.
I hear the question marks sounding in your head already. So let’s break that down, shall we? We understand that creativity is about being original, being new. It’s why it’s so hard to be creative because everything’s already been done before.
In fact, the American Psychology Association is studying creative anxiety. In this study from 2020, “from science to arts, anxiety was greater for situations that required creativity than similar situations that did not. Notably, this effect was especially pronounced in women.”
It’s easy to dream up ideas to make your dog fly or the next best American novel. But those ideas aren’t viable, they won’t work, until you’ve explored how they solve the problem you’re solving.
For example, Dr. Kwang Ki Kim from the Department of Neurology at Dongguk University Ilsan Hospital explains the effectiveness of creativity in saying, “Even if a person's idea is original (e.g., it is worth 1000) but its usefulness, in reality, is zero, then creativity does not exist (1000×0). Also, if the idea has a high practicality (e.g., it is worth 1000) but it is not differentiated from the existing idea (resulting value is 0), then too creativity does not exist (1000×0).”
For an idea to be creative, it must be new and satisfy the question at hand. It has to be appropriate for the situation. Now that we know the criteria for being creative, let’s get the blood flowing to that hamster wheel upstairs and build some muscle. Here’s 5 realistic ways to cultivate creativity when you’re not a creative person.
1. Write down everything that comes to mind
There is an abundance of studies detailing the benefits of journaling. The act of writing allows the thoughts stored in our minds to take up space on the page so we can move on. So when you’re faced with needing to be creative, write wildly and with reckless abandon. Write everything, and I mean everything.
When I’m in the middle of a scene and suffering from non-existent writer’s block, I’m actually just stuck. I’m torn on how I want to approach the choreography or the exposition that the reader needs to know to move the story forward. When that happens, I just insert a new line, highlight the cursor so I know that it isn’t actual writing for the manuscript, and just let my fingers fly.
What I end up jotting down varies from what I think needs to happen, what previously happened, where a character’s headspace is at, what could be foreshadowed, and none of it is eloquently and none of it is pretty prose, but somehow in the paragraph I just word vomited, there’s a couple of hidden, usable gems.
By honing in to one detail and writing down everything you can about it, you free up your mind to make room for new connections, emotions, and understanding. Amy Tan describes creativity as “the inability to repress.” So go micro. Let your mind wander. Write everything you can think of about a single topic, and follow wherever the white rabbit leads. No idea is too left field, everything is fair game, and nothing is as it seems. You thought you had a train of thought before this? Wrong. You now have a roomba. Creativity thrives in the unexpected. So let that little robot bump into thought after thought.
2. Learn everything you can about the topic
So, we’ve gone micro on a subject and unleashed our hindered thoughts. Now it’s time to go macro. Go big or go home, okay? If you’re wanting to be more creative, let’s say, at work, and you’re looking for ways to maximize your time or drum up a pitch for that marketing meeting, you’ll have to do something that’s never been done before. Which means learning everything you can about what has been done before.
It’s often suggested to new authors that they read copious amounts of published works. Painters are consumed with studying the works, techniques, and even lives of those that have come before them. And it’s because learning the past allows you to build the future.
In this study from the International Journal of Educational Research, it was found that students who mastered content taught within a lesson were able to take that knowledge and generate new ideas and alternative solutions. Creative thinking is all about forging connections between things that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, and those connections can only be made when there’s a strong foundation of knowledge to build from.
One of my favorite quotes from Steve Job reads, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”
So learn! Soak up knowledge like a sponge. Check out books from your library, watch YouTube videos, and find credible leaders in your field so that you can take their knowledge and put it on its head. You’re free to think of it like homework, but I prefer to think of it as creative research.
3. Work on projects outdoors
Spending time outdoors isn’t only beneficial for physical health or even mental health. It also improves your intellectual health. Dr. Anna Abraham, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia, stated in an interview that “a lot about what triggers a creative mode as opposed to an uncreative mode is situational. The creative mode is called for in contexts that are unclear, vague and open-ended.”
Nature is about as open-ended and organic as it gets. Taking a walk around the block, going on a hike, or kayaking the nearest river all present situations out of the ordinary for the mind to overcome.
It’s known that exercise provides a release of endorphins and dopamine which in turn motivate your creative drive. Dopamine is intimately connected to the brain’s executive function system (the part that deals with planning and problem solving) and coordinates with the default mode network system (the part that’s most active during daydreaming) in order to devise creativity.
This study from 2017 further explains, “the default mode network generates ideas, the executive control network evaluates them, and the salience network helps to identify which ideas get passed along to the executive control network.”
If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is (for those of us who don’t have a psychology degree). It’s a lot easier to think of creativity as the allusive muse that comes down like a Greek God and strikes the poor artist that has to now follow through with the idea. But in a study led by Washington State University professor Dr. Janetta McCoy, high school students designed more innovative collages in a direct sunlight and natural wood setting than in a space finished with manufactured materials like laminate counters and drywall.
The next time you’re facing an standstill at work, school, or a passion project, try a change in scenery to jumpstart your brain’s default mode network and develop some ideas.
4. Let your mind wander
Have you ever been showering and the greatest idea to ever grace the planet Earth popped into your head only for you to completely forget it by the time you stopped showering? Or maybe it was while you were driving, you suddenly realized that you were driving and have no memory of the last three minutes?
That, my lovely art lover, is the power of daydreaming. When your brain is on autopilot, or you’re preoccupied with a task that doesn’t require exuberant amounts of thought, it allows you to spend that energy elsewhere. One study found that “ideas that occurred during mind wandering were more likely to be associated with overcoming an impasse on a problem.”
Reports show that people who engage in useful daydreams, like fantasizing about a future vacation or career change, receive greater inspiration, and people who engage in fantastical daydreams, like inventing alternate realities or imaginary worlds, produce higher-quality creative works and demonstrate higher overall creative behavior.
Daydreaming with a purpose allows those brain networks mentioned earlier to work together and form stronger bonds. Daydreaming requires that ideas be presented and evaluated in a seemingly never ending cycle. Like an ongoing choose your own adventure flowchart. Or a March Madness tournament bracket.
The best part about daydreaming is that when you get stuck, you can go back to those other methods of invoking creativity. You can go outside, write it all out, surf the web, read an almanac, interview a war veteran - I mean, the possibilities are endless. Not even the sky’s the limit here. Daydreaming is the key to unlocking creativity.
5. Welcome Boredom
Last, but not least, but definitely the hardest of methods available that bring about creativity is to sit with the damage you’ve done. You’ve dreamt up some ideas, you’ve gotten caught up on a couple of them, now wait.
Experts recommend distancing yourself psychologically from the issues you’re attempting to solve. “Creativity requires collaboration, but the incubation phase demands the opposite.” Mulling over problems one at a time gives them the space to breathe, expand, and even condense into their simplest of forms. Evaluating the current ideas, and resources on hand to draw inspiration from, enables those ideas to be tossed out or built upon and transformed into an entirely new idea.
The biggest way to give yourself this breathing space is by reducing multitasking. We’re always on and plugged in and refreshing feeds and it cramps creativity’s style. Instead of listening to a podcast while cleaning, try just cleaning without any external stimulants. Notice what concepts come to mind and observe what that roomba of thought bumps into.
Isolating tasks is about giving yourself the room to try different ideas on for size and see what looks good. Boredom is an opportunity to strengthen your creative muscles and get the default mode network up and running.
A word of warning
It can be frustrating to see others produce content or generate works of art or even succeed professionally due to their creativity. You’re deserving of those things, and you can have them by ramping up your creativity.
But creativity is not a one time event. It’s a process. Just like everything else, you have to learn how to do it before you can use it. The brain’s creative process involves multiple functions like imagery, insight, conceptualization, overcoming knowledge restraints, and analogical reasoning. But just because that’s your brain’s creative process doesn’t mean that it’s, well, your creative process.
Experiment with journaling and spending time outside. Practice tolerance with yourself as you let your mind wander. Be open to new experiences and stay curious. Repeat and intertwine these methods as much as necessary and allow boredom to inform the process.
Creativity is neither left nor right brain. A or B type personalities. Creativity could never deal in absolutes, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a skill available to everyone, especially you. As long as your idea is original and serves a purpose, my guy, it’s a creative thought and you’re a creative genius.
PS. I really wanted to name this article, “Highway to the Creative Zone” but, you know, SEO means I have to be responsible.
How do you get into a creative zone? What sparks your creativity?
Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you there.