How to Be More Creative

If you think some people are just born that way (and you’re not one of them), think again. Experts say we all have a wellspring of creative energy. The secret is how to tap it. 

By A. J. Jacobs
Illustrations of personal journalsMark Todd

I am not typing this article at my desk. I am sprawled on my floor, because an artist told me a change of perspective would boost my creative thinking.

I’ve spent the last hour warming up my imagination muscles: I devised 50 new uses for a spoon (drumstick, mini catapult, ineffective shield). I surrounded myself with blue, since a University of British Columbia study showed it’s a creativity-enhancing color. I played the violin as Einstein did. (Actually, I don’t own a violin, so I played my son’s ukulele.) In short, I am using as many creativity-boosting strategies as possible. (Well, I’m not taking LSD, which may have helped Steve Jobs achieve those world-changing insights.)

I’m in the middle of a monthlong project to see if I can reignite my creative spark. I’m a writer, so creativity is part of my job description. But in the last few years I’ve started to worry that my middle-aged brain is ossifying. And as I’ve discovered, continued creativity may be crucial not just for my livelihood but for my longevity, too. A 2006 George Washington University study of 300 senior citizens found that creative activities, such as art and writing, slow the aging process, resulting in fewer doctor visits and better mental health.

Every day, even those of us who aren’t Left Bank watercolor painters engage in creative thinking. “Creativity is critical to solving problems in all parts of our lives,” says Richard Restak, a neurologist in Washington, D.C., and the author of Think Smart ($16, amazon.com). That includes work, parenting, and arranging our medicine cabinets.

And here’s the good news: “Just as you can learn techniques to improve your memory,” says Restak, “you can learn techniques to be more creative.” We’ll see.

Welcoming Bad Ideas

My first call is to Rex Jung, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, who specializes in the brain and creativity. He tells me that we tend to think of creative people as churning out one work of genius after another, but brilliance is a numbers game. Creative people tend to be prolific, and usually the misfires far outnumber the hits. “I recently went to a museum in Germany, and they had a Picasso exhibition,” says Jung. “But the paintings were terrible. I think I saw every lousy Picasso out there. He created about 50,000 works, and not all of them were masterpieces.”

It’s a powerful lesson: Accept failure. Enjoy it, even. Embrace the suck, for the suck is part of the process.

That night I spend 20 minutes cooking up ideas for my parents’ 50th anniversary. I write down whatever absurd notion pops into my brain, then read my wife the list.

“It’s their golden anniversary, so we could do a gold theme. Everyone could dress up in gold clothes.”

“Sounds tacky,” my wife responds. OK. No problem. Remember—Bach wrote some shoddy concertos.

“They have a total of 100 years of marriage between them. So we could do ‘A Century of Marriage,’ ” I say.

“I’m worried that might make them feel old.”

Embrace the suck, I tell myself.

“Maybe if we did a graph,” I suggest. “On one end, we can have Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage. And on the other end we could have my parents’ 50-year marriage.”

My wife pauses. “That could work,” she says.

I feel my confidence swell just a bit.

 

 
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