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.
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.
Being a Kid Again
A couple of days later, I enroll in a creativity class. This seems like an oxymoron. Isn’t it like taking a class in how to be tall or have a smaller nose? But I guess creative people are open-minded, so I want to give it a shot.
I arrive at the Creativity Workshop, in New York City, for my one-on-one training with the directors, a ponytailed artist named Alejandro Fogel and his partner, Shelley Berc, a novelist. Berc asks me to sit on the floor, as a kid would. She says I need to be more playful.
My problem is that I’m too logical, Berc tells me. I like to analyze and compartmentalize. “We’re going to try to make you think less,” she says in a soothing voice. “Logic is important. But if it comes in too early, it ruins things.” Neuroscience backs her up: According to Jung, creative people know how to mute the volume on the frontal lobes (the buttoned-up, analytical portion of the brain), freeing the rest of the brain to make unexpected connections.
Fogel and Berc lead me through a series of exercises to help unburden me from linear, sensible thinking. I draw doodles with my eyes closed. I make up a story about 10 random objects, including a penny and a plastic lobster. (It’s a love story in which the lobster is really a beautiful wizard.) I feel dorky, but that’s my analytical side talking.
I pledge to try the techniques at home. The next night, I tell my wife that I can’t watch Downton Abbey. I have a date. Fogel told me, “Make an appointment with your creativity.” We can’t wait for creativity to strike us like lightning, he says. We have to build it into our lives as a discipline.
My goal is to brainstorm article ideas about fatherhood. As my gurus instructed, I sit on the floor. I look around the room, at the towering lamps, at the underside of the table. This is what the world looks like to my sons, I think. Hmm. What if I wrote an article from the point of view of kids? Or, better yet, an article of kids’ advice to dads? It’s a lightbulb. Not the brightest bulb, but not bad.
Flipping the Problem Over
I’m in charge of my five-year-old twins, and they’re about to come to blows because they both want to play with the lone plastic light saber. I need to engage in some creative parenting. “You guys can take turns,” I say. “I’ll flip a coin to see who goes first.”
They agree. And then get in a fight over who is heads and who is tails. This could get ugly fast. I know I should remain calm. Research shows that a positive mood is most conducive to creative thinking; negativity inhibits ingenuity. I take some deep breaths. (Sniff the flower; blow out the candle, as I tell the kids.)
I think of a classic technique I read about in Cracking Creativity ($20, amazon.com), by creativity expert Michael Michalko: reversal, in which you turn the problem on its head. Take Henry Ford. In the beginning, carmakers kept the vehicle stationary and had factory workers congregate around it to install parts. Ford’s idea was to keep the workers stationary and move the car from worker to worker. Thus was born the assembly line. Maybe instead of discouraging my kids’ argument, I should push it further.
“I know how we decide who gets heads,” I say. “We need to roll a die. Who wants evens, and who wants odds?” As predicted, the twins get in a fight over evens and odds. To decide that fight, we use the spinner from Twister. To settle the Twister, we use dreidels. Then playing cards. The boys are having so much fun, they forget all about the light saber.
I’ve been trying to become creative on my own, which has its advantages. According to writer Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking ($26, amazon.com), some of the greatest innovations happen when people have the chance to sit with their thoughts. Steve Wozniak invented the Apple computer mostly by himself in that now legendary garage.
But a group’s collective brainpower can also foster creativity. Wozniak got started only after he had been swapping ideas with other nerds. So I decide to hold my first salon: a gathering of people having an old-fashioned exchange of ideas. The more diverse the group, the better, so I invite a TV producer, a banker, a personal trainer, and a theater manager.
I start with a story about the creative power of groups. In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works ($26, amazon.com), writer Jonah Lehrer tells how advertising executive Dan Wieden and his team were trying to brainstorm a new slogan for Nike in 1988 and coming up empty. But later that night Wieden found that the brainstorming had yielded something worth using: He remembered a colleague’s comment on Norman Mailer, which made him think about Mailer’s book on the serial killer Gary Gilmore. (Stay with me here.) Gilmore’s last words before being executed were “Let’s do it.” Eureka! Wieden’s version—“Just do it”—would be the new Nike slogan. Weird, but fascinating.
I ask my fellow thinkers for creative ideas on how to write my creativity article. The TV producer says, “You should just write it stream-of-consciousness.” The theater manager says, “You should write it in orange crayon on a paper-towel roll.” Intriguing, although likely to result in being asked to return my paycheck.
The conversation takes some strange turns (we discuss klezmer music at length), but in the end no breakthroughs. And yet, the next day, one of the trainer’s stray comments pops into my head. “When I’m trying to bulk up, I do everything I can. I lift weights, drink protein shakes, take supplements—all cylinders.”
What if I fired on all cylinders? What if I tried all creativity enhancers at the same time? And that is the story of how I came up with the first paragraph of this article. Thanks, salon.
Playing the Fool
I save the truly painful experiment for last. I’m going to sign up for some public humiliation in the form of an improv class. As you probably know, improv is unscripted comedy in which performers make things up as they go along, letting one absurd situation build on the next. I’m terrified, but as adman Jim Riswold—another Nike mastermind, who created campaigns starring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee—told me, “You cannot be creative unless you’re willing to walk around with your pants around your ankles.” Isn’t my creative growth more important than my dignity?
At the Magnet Theater, in New York City, on a dimly lit bare stage, there are 16 of us, ranging in age from 20s to 60s. We learn the first rule: It’s not just OK to make a fool of yourself—it’s encouraged. We do a series of exercises designed to maximize our foolishness. We make crazy bodybuilding poses. We confess our most absurd pet peeves. (One woman says hers is when charities ask her for money. “I couldn’t give less of a crap about other people,” she says. I make a note to myself: Maybe she’s not the ideal partner for team exercises.)
Our teacher, Rick, tells us the next rule: “Yes, and…” Whatever your partner says, your job is to affirm it and add to it. If he says there’s an arm coming out of your forehead, you say, “Yes, and isn’t it wearing a nice glove?”
I’m paired with a guy from Boston. Rick gives us our assignment: We’re drivers fighting over a parking space. Now go! Everyone is watching. My palms are sweaty.
“My wife’s leg is broken,” says the Boston guy.
I remember my “Yes, and…” How can I take his idea further?
“Yeah, so what?” I respond. “My kid has the runs.”
I’m ashamed of myself for going lowbrow. But the audience laughs. I’m a genius!
The Finish Line
After all this schooling, I haven’t created my magnum opus yet. I don’t sit down to write in a sweaty Mozart-style flurry of fevered inspiration. (My workday still involves a lot of staring into space, followed by snacking—I imagine it looks more like Salieri’s.) But I have to admit that writing this story felt less tortured than writing usually is for me; I even chuckled a little, which I rarely do when I’m working.
And, in fact, I have spent the last few days in a creative frenzy of sorts. I came up with a name for a friend’s business, figured out novel ways to stop compulsively checking e-mail, and decorated my son’s wall. Inspired by a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I hung my son’s drawings and put plaques next to them: Orange Man With Purple Car, by Jasper Jacobs. We both think it’s a masterpiece.
7 Habits of Highly Creative People
How some of history’s greatest minds got their biggest ideas
Feeling the need for speed, Ben Franklin, as a boy, crafted one of the earliest sets of swim fins. Architect Frank Gehry, who designed the gravity-defying Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, has been known to construct model buildings out of crumpled paper instead of using a computer.
2. Borrow Ideas
William Shakespeare famously filched plot points for many of his plays, including King Lear. (As French author François-René de Chateaubriand wrote, “The original writer is not he who refrains from imitating others, but he who can be imitated by none.”) Steve Jobs copied the idea of the personal computer from a Xerox prototype and ran with it.
3. Sleep on It
Salvador Dalí once said, “All of my best ideas come through my dreams.” Sigmund Freud’s fascination with his own dreams led to a new avenue for exploring psychology.
4. Collect Every Seed of an Idea
Martha Graham, grande dame of modern dance, kept copious notebooks scribbled with quotations from Plato and Virgil, alongside choreography notes. Woody Allen stuffs scraps of paper with script ideas (“Man inherits all the magic tricks of a great magician”) in a bedside drawer.
5. Embrace Constraints
In 1907 asthma-suffering janitor James Murray Spangler was in search of a dust-free vacuum cleaner, so he concocted a machine from a box fan, a soapbox, a pillowcase, and a broom handle. Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was challenged by his publisher to write a book using only 50 words. Green Eggs and Ham was the result.
6. Commune With Nature
Ludwig van Beethoven heard symphonic melodies in the sounds of the countryside. In 1941 Swiss engineer George de Mestral invented Velcro after observing the burrs that stuck to his clothing and his dog’s fur during a walk in the woods.
The Beach Boys and the Beatles had a rivalry that led to each band’s greatest albums. Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Brian Wilson created Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney tried to outdo with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.