BBC Capital

Syd Weighs In

Has your creative muse abandoned you?

About the author

Sydney is a professor of strategy and leadership, and Dean for Executive Education,  at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the author of 16 books, including Why Smart Executives Fail. Follow him on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Recently I was helping a board of directors evaluate two internal candidates they were considering for CEO. They were smart, experienced, and interpersonally savvy. When faced with a budget shortfall, however, candidate one—I’ll call him Michael —  tended to apply his analytical skills to identify areas to cut back, while candidate two — let’s call him Simon – looked to generate new growth opportunities.

Which candidate would you select?

The short script doesn’t provide enough data, but my money will usually be on the creative leader who seeks to build rather than the analytical leader who reverts to deconstruct.

The reason: creative people create.

Anyone who has worked for both types of leaders knows only too well it’s much more fun to create than to cut. More importantly, creativity is the only pathway to growth that is sustainable. Sure, cutting back in a business can boost profits and please shareholders for the short term, but it doesn’t go much farther.

Born with an analytical mind and not a creative one? The wonderful little secret about creativity is that it is eminently teachable.

Let’s get something out of the way right from the start. Some people are more creative than others, just like some people are more physically fit, better looking, or faster. No matter how hard we try, none of us will ever be Picasso. But we can become more creative, at almost everything we do.

Each of us has incredible potential to come up with novel solutions to problems, to generate new ideas, and to look at the world in a different way. All that is required is that we try. In the end, trying — and succeeding — comes down to five easy steps, even for the least creative minds among us.

All in the timing

Start with time. While you can’t lock yourself in a room and force yourself to be creative, you can increase the odds by taking advantage of those natural moments when the brain somehow becomes free to make new associations that trigger ideas. For me, it’s during the mindless, automatic task of brushing my teeth in the morning and in the evening.

It may not happen all the time, but when it does it feels like corn kernels popping open, sometimes one after another. The biggest challenge for me is to keep up with the flow of ideas while it’s happening, and not run off to take notes. Why not do that? Because that shifts your mind from subconscious sparks to dull dictation.

You probably already know when your creative moment organically arrives. Take advantage of that time.

For many people, creative ideas bubble up just before falling asleep, or in the middle of the night. Keith Richards, the legendary guitarist for the Rolling Stones, used to have his guitar and a recording device by his bed, in case he “heard” a melody at night. In one famous example, he woke up, strummed a few chords, and went back to sleep. When he played the recorder the next day, he heard the opening strands to “Satisfaction,” one of the greatest rock-and-roll hits of all-time.

Five easy steps

The rest of us needn’t wait for the muse to strike. We can be much more proactive. Think about the work you do, or the challenge you are facing, and ask yourself these questions: 

  • How can you do it differently?
  • What can you borrow or how can you adapt ideas from other places to your needs?
  • What could you add to make your product, or job, more valuable?
  • What can you eliminate?
  • How can you change the pattern, or re-arrange the process, to create something new?

There’s nothing sacrosanct about these questions; others are possible. Sometimes just starting with a mindset that gives you permission to “do it differently” can start the floodgates.

Years ago when I was writing one of my first books, I had the incredible luxury of a one-year sabbatical from my university job, where I could live anywhere I wished. I chose Paris, certainly not a hardship but a place where the language, customs, and people were not at all the same as in the United States. I wanted some adjustment from what was standard, pushing me out of my comfort zone, precisely because writing (even a business book!) is a creative endeavor.

Perhaps the best way to be more creative is to just be more creative. Our brains thrive on novelty and variety, yet we usually offer up the same old routines and patterns to ourselves, our work, even our families. And we do it without thinking. By now most of us have heard that learning a new language or musical instrument is a great way to stay fresh. It is, but who has time?

If you want to be more creative, challenge yourself more. Exercise is good for the body, but it’s also good for just about everything, including our thinking process. Diverse experiences, activities, and people are also good. Just decide to change how you do five everyday things you often don’t even think about.  How about starting today?

Take a different route to work or school, talk to different people when you get there, schedule lunch with someone you don’t often see, go for a walk after work alone and just watch people going about their business, or take a class on something you know nothing about.

The truth is that anyone can be creative. All it takes is the willingness to learn.

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