If you’re reading this, you are creative.
Some of you might agree. Most won’t. We live in a culture that prioritizes achievement, status, and titles. Where every choice from kindergarten onward is an entrance exam for a future career. Along the way, “creative” becomes another word for “artistic,” and it’s what kids and people with weird Etsy stores do. You’re not a kid or a weirdo, therefore you’re not creative, right?
…we’re educating people out of their creative capacities. —Sir Ken Robinson
Wrong. Yes, kids are creative but so are most of those weird people. (Let’s face it, some of them are just weird.) But contrary to what you’ve been taught, creativity is a human trait, not just a skill. It can be developed and expanded, but everybody has it.
Why do I say that? For a lot of reasons (many of them involving scientific studies that take way too long to explain in this short of an article), but the biggest one is that it is how we are made. If you go back to the very beginning of humanity’s story in Genesis 1 of the Bible, you see God looking at the nothingness around him, and creating. Creating matter, shaping the trees, inventing the color green.
In its purest sense, creativity is an extension of this basic act—to see the potential, need, or opportunity for something new to exist, and then bringing it to life. Humanity is made in the image of God, and I believe that this innate need and ability to create is a huge part of that heritage.
Now with that being said, none of us are making planets out of thin air. In fact, most of us probably can’t think of the last time you did something “creative.” (You do it all the time, you just don’t realize it, by the way.) As someone who has spent the last decade being paid to create, to come up with ideas out of nowhere, and to present those ideas in a clear and compelling way—I’m here to tell you that there are habits that everyone can do to be more creative and to develop and grow your creative capacity. None of them are a silver bullet that will turn you into Don Draper overnight, but they are all habits that will bear fruit when practiced consistently over time.
Imagine it’s January and you’re feeling a bit soft and pudgy, much like your favorite binge watching sweatshirt. In a fit of disgust and inspiration, you decide that beach season starts now and that this is the year you reclaim your body’s youthful vigor. This is the year you’re going to put on a bathing suit proudly rather than covered underneath a towel, a t-shirt, and a muumuu.
So what do you do? You go get the gym membership, pay the extra dough for the personal trainer, and sit down for that first interview. If said trainer is even halfway decent at their job, one of the first questions they’re going to ask is, “What is your diet like? What do you eat regularly?”
And you’ll lie because no one in the history of the world has ever admitted to their trainer that they are only here because they polished off a whole large pizza last night.
We may not like it, but we know that it’s true in the physical world: you are what you eat. If you consume garbage, it will show up eventually. The same is true in the creative world as well. What you consume, and how you consume has a staggering impact on your ability to think and create. The shows you binge, the news you hear, the conversations you have, the books you read—all of these things are the raw materials that your brain will use for future problem-solving. We are what we eat, both physically and mentally.
The problem is that we mentally take in whatever feels good, in whatever quantities we feel like, without a single bit of critical thought about it. Then we wonder why we can’t come up with innovative ideas or clearly reason through difficult problems. Like it or not, the things we take in are our mental diet, and we have to treat them that way.
When I’m reading, I’m looking for something to steal. Readers ask me all the time the traditional question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I reply: ‘We are all having ideas all the time. But I’m on the lookout for them. You’re not.’ —Philip Pullman
By all means, watch Black Mirror or Game of Thrones. But pay attention not just to the story itself, but how it’s being told. How the characters are introduced, how the suspense gets ratcheted up, or even simple things like how they use light. If you’re reading a book, pay attention to not just the solution the author offers, but how they construct the argument. Watch how they make their phrasing familiar without being cliché. And to be clear, this doesn’t mean that every example is a great one—sometimes there is more to be learned from a failure than a success.
There’s an unspoken truth that everybody who works in any kind of “creative” field knows, but we don’t talk about it. Nothing is ever really “new.” Everybody is stealing, borrowing, and adapting from everybody else. Every “creative” thing you’ve ever seen—songs, books, advertisements, sculptures, fashion, all of it—is influenced by a thousand different sources and ideas that already existed before.
Simply put, everything is a remix.
And, no, this isn’t just plagiarism. (Well, most of it isn’t anyway.) The best creativity has always come from people who were able to see connections between disparate parts of the world, and have brought them together in a new and unique way. For example, take that pocket computer that you might very well be reading this on:
Before the iPhone, smartphones mostly copied the BlackBerry. After the iPhone, they all copied Apple: Most phones now have big screens, beautiful designs, and ever-improving cameras…And the iPhone Effect goes far beyond smartphones. In order to make so many phones, Apple and its competitors set up huge, whirling supply chains all over the world. Those same manufacturers now make the same parts to power drones, smart-home gadgets, wearables, and self-driving cars. They don’t look like your phone, but they might not be here without it. —David Pierce and Lauren Goode, The Wired Guide to the iPhone
So all that stuff you’re consuming—it isn’t just entertainment. It’s paint on your palette, ready to be remixed into something new, fresh, and interesting.
So, now that you’ve done the hard work of creating something new and bringing it to life, you now have to take the most difficult step of them all—you have to put it out there in the world and let other people judge it, praise it, use it, and ignore it. (And by the way, all of those things will happen.)
See, it isn’t difficult to make something. Everybody assumes that it is, but it really isn’t. What’s difficult is letting someone else see the thing you’ve made.
The uncomfortable truth about creating anything is that there’s a cost to be paid. Not just a cost of time, energy, or resources, but a personal cost. Creating takes something out of you—or more specifically, you pour a bit of yourself into anything you create.
You have to intentionally separate yourself from your creation, and recognize that that thing is not you. It doesn’t define you or represent your value and worth—good or bad.
Our identity, self-worth, and belief in our own vision and gifts—all of it can get wrapped up in the things we make. And the only way out of that identity trap is to put this thing you made out on the table and let other people look at it.
At the end of the day, I don’t care what your dumb fifth-grade classmates or that bitter middle school art teacher said—you are creative. You were made to bring new and innovative things to life. Your challenge now is to actually do it—to take the inspiration that surrounds you, shape those raw materials into something new and interesting, and share it with the world.
When you do, we’re all better and more creative as a result.