The Odds of Being Creative

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why the theme of creativity makes me behave like I’m on a mission to discover the secret of mankind or something.

Maybe, I am – or maybe I’m just acting on my impulses like an alien just visiting planet Earth for a limited time. Whatever the reason, it’s fun so I will carry on. 

This transcendent act of creativity feels exhuberant. It anchors my life and pivots me in different directions of inspiration. It’s like a wave on the shore – you can’t catch it, or hold onto it but you can see the energy, the momentum, the cause and effect it has on all things it touches. And, I came to a conclusion that the reason why creativity can be trixy is because we sometimes restrict its natural flow. And, the flow originates from inside each and every one of us – even you, yes you. 

Let's start at the beginning
When you were first creative – you might consider the creation of you. It was pretty unique. In fact, the odds of you being born is about one in 400 trillion. I’m not down with the latest miracle this side of AD, but on the originality scale, it’s better than Uber, Snapchat and the iPhone put together. 

So, with those incredible odds why do so many of us shy away from being creative and feel unoriginal? 

And, I'm not talking about creating a drawing, dress, novel or product. I'm talking about creating the version of yourself that feels right, connects to your core and is inexplicably and undeniably you. Dr Suess said it best;

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

But E.E.Cummings nailed why being creative isn't easy;

‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, day and night, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.’

I just finished reading a wonderful book 'The Art of Creative Thinking' by Rod Judkins, an artist and lecturer at Central St Martins and he says;

‘Everyone is searching for originality, ironically it is right there within them, but most people are too busy being someone else. Creative people are prepared to be themselves. They make the most of their own experiences whether good or bad. The advantage of being themselves is that they are original. There is no one like them. This makes whatever they do unique.’

As a designer
I think in terms of patterns and shapes, colour and monochrome, flat and textured, landscape or portrait. But, that's just a tiny fraction of me. I also see the world according to my childhood, my parents, the battle of the roses and being the youngest of three sisters. The friendships and relationships I've been lucky to have and unfortunate to loose. The jobs, the places I've lived and the amazing communities visited. All of these experiences have shaped my world, in possibly expected and unexpected ways. But, the point I'm making is that they are uniquely mine. And, so are yours. Own them with pride. No one sees the world like you do, so don't be scared of being different. That's what makes the world an interesting place to live.  

'In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different'. Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
The avant-guard french fashion designer Coco Chanel knew what she liked and what she didn't, she had a strong instinct and vision. In a world where corsets were the standard of good taste and stature, she believed that 'Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury'. She changed the face of fashion in the 20s and her little black dress is a staple in many women's wardrobe today. All it takes is to own your ideas, believe in them and don't worry what everyone else is doing. 

And, if you're still wondering how to connect to the raw creative flow. Go get a piece of paper, find a quiet comfy spot and write down all the things you loved when you were a child. Now, take time out to discover the things that pique your interest, engage your curiosity and go set yourself free and run with it.

Whether it's that you want to start roller-blading again after 19 years or have a desire to collect marvel comics. You want to start a charity to help neglected Guinea pigs (it's a thing) or you want to create the best party for your five year old son who loves Strictly Come Dancing or you want to start a coaching start-up for women in charity or improvisation classes in schools for disengaged kids. Don't wait for a sign or permission because you'll be waiting forever, just go do it. 

Finally, if you need an extra kick-start this is the quote from Judkins' thought-provoking book that inspired me to write this article.

'Don't be distracted by the views of others: focus on what engages and inspires you. The most exhilarating experiences are generated in the mind, triggered by information that challenges our thinking. If you're excited by a subject that no one else is, all that should matter to you is that you're interested. Revolutionary thinkers who create totally new ideas are driven by their interests, not whether or not others are as interested'.

Write it down. Read it everyday until you know every word and give yourself the permission you need, to be you.

Can your emotions influence your ideas?

Post it notes of feelings

Anxious. Confused. Stressed. You’d think these feelings were linked to waiting for test results, going for an exam or being trapped in a lift, right?

Wrong. They’re actually some of the most common emotions people experience when asked

‘What’s your idea?’

I’ve asked over 100 people this question, and so far I always get a similar response. I’m more likely to hear a negative response, like ‘horrified’ than a positive one ‘yay’. Of course, I do hear ‘I’m excited’ but they’re few and far between, in my experience.

The pessimist

It's natural for some people to be pessimistic or sink into self-doubt when it comes to sharing ideas, most people know that feeling and can often recall a time when their idea was squished right before their eyes, and it can come back to haunt us. Vulnerability kicks in and to get a little scientific the small almond shape structure in the brain called the amygdala goes into overdrive. Harvard business review explains

‘the amygdala responds powerfully to negative emotions, which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work’.

The switch

But, what if I told you that optimism and positive emotions can help generate better results. Would it switch you into a Pollyanna, where you believe your ideas actually, might just be, maybe brilliant?

‘Positive emotions and thoughts improve the brain’s executive function, and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.’ Havard Business Review

The Marshmallow Test

Back in the 60’s Walter Mischel conducted experiments with children called ‘The Marshmallow Tests’ to see if expectations about success help or hinder completion of a task.

‘The boys with high expectations for success approached the task more confidently, as if they had already succeeded at them. They wanted to ‘go for it’ and they were willing to risk failure because they did not believe they would fail. And evidently were more successful than the kids who thought they couldn’t do it before they had even started.’

Encourage your inner optimist

It doesn’t really matter what the ‘thing’ is we’re trying to solve, whether it’s a business thing, art, fixing a broken table or a relationship that needs some attention. It’s the ability to switch from a pessimistic mind-set to an optimistic mind-set. Where we listen to and more importantly believe in ourselves, that ‘I will find the answer’ and ‘my ideas are great’. And, if you give the optimist in you a chance you’ll notice generating ideas gets easier plus you’ll have a more enjoyable time in the moment.

Three things you can try  

  1. Try on the ‘go for it’ attitude next time you’re generating ideas.
  2. Improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of the day with Dr. Barbara Fredrickson quiz, we are looking for 3:1 ratio
  3. Don’t always listen to your inner critic he can be such an annoying cynic.

If you can do number 3, let me know how you get on! 


How dopamine plays a part in creativity

Flying monkeys. Talking lions. A whole city in green! Erm, I don't think so. 

All sounds a bit sceptical right? Well, one aspect of switching on our creative mode and seeking novel ideas is the ability to completely remove internal judgement (all the self-talk inside the mind that no-one knows about but everyone does) and external judgement (basically everything else in the world) on the novel ideas that pop into your head. Thank goodness L. Frank Baum the author of The Wizard of Oz could remove judgement so he could come up with a master piece. 

For many people, and this includes some of the most prolific creative minds. The ability to filter our thoughts can be the difference between carrying on with our creative project or just chucking it out the window.

But, while the mind can self-sabotage, the brain actually wants to help us out.

The science bit
Let’s say hello to Dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that likes to show up with a mild hit of euphoria when we have done something to aid our basic survival. Like, when we eat when we’re hungry, drink when we’re thirsty and have sex to reproduce. Because it makes us feel pretty good, we are encouraged to keep behaving in this way. Very clever stuff. But it gets better.

Your Creative Brain
After reading Shelley Carson’s PH.D, brilliant and fascinating book Your Creative Brain I learnt that when we are in a creative mode or absorb brainset*, you’re also rewarded with dopamine for paying attention to novel aspects of your external and internal environment. She says

‘This enhances your chances of coming up with novel ideas – perhaps Mother Nature’s way of making sure we survive by creatively adapting to our ever-changing environment.’

I love the idea that as a species we have evolved to reward creativity. It makes perfect sense really. If we didn't we might not have witnessed Judy Garland land on the Wicked Witch of the West. As the world evolves we need to adapt, shift and create to move forward. And the more we do it (which takes practice) the easier it will be to think up novel and new things. 

So, next time you start a creative project – remove all judgement and let the rewards happen. 

*Absorb brainset. 
This is an extract from Shelley’s book and explains one of the brainsets (there are 7 altogether) which she encourages for creativity. 'When you access the absorb brainset, you open your mind to new experiences and ideas. You uncritically view your world and take in knowledge. Everything fascinates you and attracts your attention'.

Shelley Carson’s book is fascinating so if you found this article interesting I’d recommend looking her up.