The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play
Napoleon Hill told the story of traveling quite a distance to visit a man whose creativity he admired. When he arrived he had to wait for some time. The explanation he received was that his mentor was in his chair in a dark, quiet room “sitting for ideas” without any set agenda.
I just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. I always thought that creativity had a life of its own, sparks of genius fusing into a new star in the night sky. I couldn’t make it happen if I wanted to and no amount of hard work could trigger it. Mozart, Einstein and Shakespeare appeared on the scene unbidden and unexpected in the course of ordinary human events.
Lehrer studied creativity in great detail and concluded that it is “the ability to imagine what has never existed.” It is easier to put into words than to comprehend. Is creativity a lucky stroke of genius or does it evolve over a period of time? Does it take place in a vacuum or as the result of a group effort? The answer seems to be all of the above. It turns out there are three steps in the creative process. Two involve hard work and the other seems to happen when we least expect it.
The first step is gathering ideas which works best when we are surrounded by a mix of those who think like we do and strangers with very different ideas. It helps to have our ideas understood but also to be among others who think and see things in ways we don’t. This is also a good chance to consider what doesn’t work and to set aside unpromising leads.
The second step is creative inspiration, epiphany or the eureka moment. This works best is a state of relaxation and letting go. A garden or a beach is much more conducive to inspiration than is a lab, library or computer. Letting our minds float freely encourages connections and realizations we never could have predicted. It turns out that people with ADHD are better at this part of the process. They don’t stay tied to any one idea but find it easier to let in new and seemingly unrelated ideas. They are also better at finding connections among these scattered thoughts.
The third step is fine tuning. Once the creative idea has arrived, the task remains of discovering its meaning, uses and practical implications. Our time of rest and reflection is over and it’s time to get back to work.
Creativity is not limited to a few lucky or chosen ones. All of us have a spark of creativity often lying dormant. We need to practice turning off our internal censor to let our creative ideas take flight in our own minds and ultimately to share them with others.
Life Lab Lessons
• Listen to your own inner voice and let it speak to you.
• Don’t be critical of your own ideas.
• Listen without criticism to others’ ideas.
• Do your homework first.
• Then find a quiet place to let your ideas percolate.