Be tuned in to the world around you: creative observation

(This is the 6th of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

Creativity rarely, if ever, occurs in a vacuum. Rather, it comes from tuning in to what is happening around you.

Close your eyes for a moment. What color are the walls in the room surrounding you? What type of handle is on the nearest door? Are there any particular marks on the floor?

That was a simple test of your observation skills. How well did you do? How well are you tuned in to the world around you?

Creative observation

There is no one right way to do creative observation. Some people prefer to go out and experience things before researching data that might explain, affirm or expand on what they experienced. Others prefer to dig into data on trends and ideas before they go out to experience their learning. (Perhaps the former are “right-brain” and the latter are “left-brain” thinkers?) The Coursera course Creativity and Observation emphasizes the importance of exploring outside of your comfort zone.

In any event, creative observation involves gathering both soft and hard data, and allowing that data to “incubate” and mature. Remember that ideas spring from other ideas. The more you observe, the more you explore beyond your comfort zone, the greater the potential for creative insights. It’s an iterative, integrative process.

Creativity is connecting things

Creative observation

Well-known innovators acknowledge this stepping-stone process. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, stated: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it; they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Henry Ford was quoted as saying: “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable.”

Creativity is observation

How to be a better observer

So, how can you become more aware? Start by allowing yourself to be bored occasionally. Don’t feel compelled to spend every moment being “productive” or playing games on your cell phone when you are waiting in line or have a down moment. Stop multitasking.

Pay attention to the people, sights, sounds, and even smells around you. Listen to nearby conversations (without eavesdropping obnoxiously). Can you spot opportunities for new products, services, or solutions?

Modify your routines

Change your daily routine. Tune to different radio stations (or listen to different music) during your work commute. Or take alternate routes. Skim through publications you don’t normally read. Try hobbies that are unique to you. Travel to varied locations. Cultivate a habit of noticing things you never paid attention to before. Challenge yourself to experience something unfamiliar each day – whether it’s striking up a conversation with a person you’ve just met, eating at a new restaurant, or taking the bus rather than driving to work (or vice versa).

Become an expert

Work to become more of an expert within the area you are trying to be creative. Listen to TED Talks (or similar sources on YouTube). Network with experts and lead users whenever you can. Look for mutual advantages within the network to keep it dynamic. Compile statistics, projections, assumptions, forecasts, expectations, and other data to inspire and inform your creative efforts. Feel free to beg, borrow and steal ideas (ethically and legally, of course!).

Avoid NIH

Creativity suffers when a Not-Invented-Here (NIH) attitude dominates. Don’t allow your ego to be an obstacle to new ideas. Be open to the unexpected. Creativity doesn’t just happen on command. Rather, the more you tune into the world around you, the more likely you will have provided your subconscious with the necessary stimuli to connect concepts in creative ways when the time is right.

And when is the time right? The time is right for creativity when you are motivated – and I’ll discuss motivation in the next post.

What makes YOU creative? Intrinsic motivation and creativity

(This is the 7th of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

What makes YOU creative? This post looks into the “I” of CREATIVE: introspection.

Intrinsic motivation and creativity

In prior posts I discussed curiosity and the freedom to explore and evolve creative ideas. But I haven’t talked about why you would even care. That requires introspection. Look inside yourself. Acknowledge what you value. Define your personal and unique motivators. No one has exactly the same motivators as you do.

Intrinsic motivation and creativity

Intrinsic motivation comes from the satisfaction, enjoyment or challenge you get from doing something specific. Decades of research have shown the link between intrinsic motivation and creativity. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to incentives, rewards, or penalties that are external to the individual. They are not  similarly effective for stimulating creativity. In fact, people sometimes become less creative when provided with external motivation for a task they already enjoy because they begin to externalize the motivation.

Flow sparks creativity

Think about times you have been completely lost in what you were doing – so  absorbed and immersed that you lost track of time and felt almost engulfed by the process. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to this as flow, or completely focused motivation.

What is it that gives you this sense of flow? Do you enjoy the process of rebuilding old cars? Or get excited supporting a social cause? Perhaps you relish solving mathematical algorithms? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment after completing a strategic plan? Are you driven more by a need for self-expression or a need to find solutions? Answer these questions thoughtfully. Creativity is more likely to happen when you are in flow.

Passion sparks creativity

Creative people are supremely passionate. As cellist Yo-Yo Ma stated, “Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.”

You are more likely to be intrinsically self-motivated (in flow) when you are involved with a task or project you are passionate about. Even if you are not enthusiastic about every aspect of a project, look for specific parts that interest you.

The environment sparks creativity

Next, envision your environment. Do you become more creative when you are in solitude? Or when you are surrounded by people? Are you more of a sunrise or a sunset type of person? Do you need quiet? Or does background music help you think? What kind of music? Be as specific as possible as you define the ideal stage for you to spark your inspiration.

Distractions can inhibit creativity

Finally, remove distractions. We live in a world of continuous partial attention that makes it difficult to focus totally on creatively challenging activities. Clear your desk. Mute your cell phone. Suppress the urge to check email, respond to messages or clean your garage. Train yourself to focus on the creative task for as long as possible before taking a break or shifting to non-creative work. Then – when you’re done – think about how it felt to be in flow, so that you can continue to self-motivate and benefit from your unique intrinsic motivations.

Part of your motivation will come from your dreams and visions, as I will discuss in the next post.

Creative visionaries: Imagination, originality, foresight

(This is the 8th of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

Visionaries are viewed as impractical dreamers, geniuses, or quirky entrepreneurs. They can be very future-oriented, or focused on the here-and-now. Some start businesses. Others are creative outside of business. But in general, creatives are visionaries.

Definitions and themes

Let’s start with definitions of vision and visionary.

  • Merriam-Webster defines vision as: “something that you imagine – a picture that you see in your mind.” It defines a visionary as: “one having unusual foresight and imagination.”
  • Dictionary.com defines vision as: “the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be.”  A visionary is defined as: “a person of unusually keen foresight.”
  • Oxford Dictionaries defines vision as: “the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.”  A visionary is defined as: “a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.”

The common themes in these definitions – imagination, originality, and foresight – are what I’d like to focus on here. Creative visionaries use imagination to create mental pictures. They use original thinking to challenge the status quo. And they use foresight to connect their concepts to the future.

Imagination of creative visionaries

Imagination is the gateway to creative intuition. It starts with dreaming and daydreaming. We do it all the time in an unfocused way. Sometimes it’s referred to as creative visualization. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute, imagination is “the conscious representation of what is not immediately present to the senses.”

creative visionaries: imagination

Your goal is to experience the outside world inside your mind. First you ask a lot of “what if” questions. Then you use your imagination to connect the answers together into a virtual tapestry. When you use your imagination, you form and manipulate mental images in the sophisticated neural network of your brain.

Einstein believed intuition and imagination spawned achievements in both science and art. He suggested the main difference was that science is conveyed in the language of logic. Art is conveyed through the senses. But imagination is the starting point for both.

To become better at imagining, practice visualization. Look out the window. Pick out an object (a car, fire hydrant, sign or anything). Mentally rotate it as a 3D image, “seeing” it in your mind from all angles. Or take two objects (either physical or non-physical such as music) and reflect on how you could combine them into a single complex item.

You can also build your imagination in other ways. Write stories, especially fiction where you need to connect with the characters. Practice photography. Manipulate the images with digital software. Remodel your home. Your imagination goal is to work on activities that require complex, holistic connections.

Originality of creative visionaries

Originality is the next theme of being a visionary. While it’s important to “think outside the box,” originality is more than that. You should probably know what’s in the box first. I have found that people often mistakenly believe they have created something original simply because they haven’t taken the time to discover what’s actually out there.

creative visionaries: originality

So rather than isolated creativity, give your brain significant mental stimuli. Then let it incubate in an effort to create fresh ideas. Original thinking may simply be “seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”  Reconfigure existing gadgets. Try unconventional applications of current things. Give them new life.

The main point is, originality simply means viewing things in novel ways.

Foresight of creative visionaries

Finally, being a visionary means looking into the future.

creative visionaries: foresight

Creative thinkers need hindsight, insight and foresight. Hindsight consists of the data describing what happened. Insight is the interpretation of the data to explain why it happened. Foresight is your analysis of what might happen. Use foresight to ground your creativity not just in the present, but also in how the idea fits into a future scenario.

Being a visionary – tuning into your dreams, aspirations and inventiveness – can be both energizing and exhausting. So it’s worth taking a look at energy management in my next and final post of this 9-part series.

Energy for creativity: More than time management

(This is the 9th and final segment of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

You need energy for creativity. It’s obvious from all my prior posts that creativity is really demanding. And unfortunately, it really, really wilts without conscious energy renewal.

energy for creativity

This post is about managing and recharging your energy. You need energy to get out of creative ruts. No matter how strong you are in the other traits of creativity, your inventiveness will suffer if your energy has been depleted.

Health is part of energy for creativity

Let’s start with a few common sense items – the basics of wellness.The link between creativity and health is well established by research. While I’m not sure whether creativity improves health, or being healthy improves creativity, they are nonetheless linked. So improving your wellness matters.

First, eat a balanced diet. Now I’m not going to promote any specific foods. You know what your diet should look like. Just eat more of the healthy items (fruits and vegetables) and less of the unhealthy ones (fats and sugars).

Exercise regularly. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain.That improves critical thinking, memory and other brain functions. Exercise also clears the mind, giving your subconscious the opportunity to think through problems. In that way it helps with the incubation of ideas (as discussed in my post on the process of creativity).

A rested brain is more creative

From a creative perspective, exercise is a form of rest because it is a restorative activity, even though it’s not passive. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang discusses this in Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. While the title is a tiny bit misleading, it highlights why creativity cannot simply be forced.

Here’s another point to consider. Most exercise programs and personal trainers utilize interval training to allow recovery times for our bodies. This involves interspersing high-intensity workouts with periods of rest. Our bodies are designed to alternate between high focus and periodic rest. We benefit from similar recovery for our brains.Experts recommend breaking every 90 minutes or so.

So, build intermittent breaks into your creativity routine. Breaks can come in the form of total rest, or as energy-giving buffers. If you anticipate a particularly stressful period (with people or situations draining your energy) plan for recovery time. Then incorporate energy-giving activities as buffers between energy-draining activities. Energy-giving activities are those things that boost your energy. That could be a walk in the park, reading a novel, or stopping to watch the sunset on your way home from work. Plan for it.

Finally, get sufficient sleep — in addition to rest and breaks. Even small amounts of sleep deprivation reduce creativity. (As a side note, sleep plays an important role in the incubation of ideas. I discuss that in my post on the process of creativity.)

Patch together time for creativity

Detach creative (conceptual) time from concrete (task) time. Freeze time chunks for creative thinking. Cluster meetings (and other concrete tasks) adjacently so you can carve out blocks of uninterrupted time for the more abstract tasks.

Limit focus shifts during your creative time. When you have several tasks demanding your attention, your conscious mind keeps bouncing back to them. Your focus is therefore not fully creative. To minimize the pull, record the interrupting tasks on a to-do list. Force yourself to “forget about them” for a while. The sheer act of writing the list helps convey to your mind that the tasks will not be forgotten totally. They thereby demand less of your mental energy.

Set aside one or two hours a week (or more as suits your needs) for pure idea time. Limit interruptions. Prevent distractions. Stop multitasking. As I’ve discussed in other posts, multitasking drains creative output. Don’t feel compelled to fill every single minute with doing (i.e., being efficient). Try to focus on effectiveness (being creative). Overemphasizing time efficiency (over effectiveness) can acutely damage energy for creativity.

Relationships matter

Build social networks that stimulate your creativity and boost your energy. These networks can be online or offline, work-specific or leisure-related, colleagues or friends and family, and close-knit communities or a patchwork of far-flung connections. The point is to find the type of networks and frequency of contact that energizes you. Steer clear of the creativity vampires — people that suck the creative energy from you.

Creativity at your peak times

Be honest with yourself about whether you are a morning person or a night person. Try to do your creative, abstract work when you are at your best. Do cognitively less demanding work at other times. While it’s true that “getting into the flow” can sometimes energize you when you are tired, it’s not a long-term solution to energy management. You will generate more and better ideas when you are fresh, than you will when you feel depleted. In other words, these are the times you will have more energy for creativity.

However, that doesn’t take into account incubation time. Even if you start the creative process in the morning, the true a-ha points may occur later. An article in Scientific American suggests that eureka moments are greatest when we are NOT at our best. According to the article:

“Insight problems involve thinking outside the box. This is where susceptibility to “distraction” can be of benefit.  At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information.”

So, not all creative output happens when you are at your best. Be alert to the serendipidity of ideas whenever they hit you. Energy for creativity comes in many forms.

This is the end of my 9-part series on characteristics on creativity. I will address other aspects of creativity and innovation in future posts.

Meet Linda Gorchels

Thanks for stopping to meet me!

Linda GorchelsI’ve helped thousands of people (actually more than 10,000 people) update their “knowledge systems.” Think about it. You routinely upgrade your computer system, but do you continually rejuvenate your brain? I try to help people do just that. Both in person and by providing “brain snacks” on my website.

For 25 years I was part of the UW-Madison management education faculty.  I worked hard to make “academic” principles accessible to professionals in their everyday jobs.And from what I’ve been told, my efforts were pretty successful.

Not only that, I learned new ideas from my classes — from you — and shared these ideas with others. (It was sort of a crowd-sharing function before the internet made that much easier!) Now I am an emerita director and continue to share ideas as well as reinvent myself.

I’ve won some awards  and have written several books. (The number keeps changing, but you can see them on Amazon).  I have copies of these books translated into quite a few languages that I’m not really sure what to do with!They represent what I have learned from providing training to companies in the United States, China and Europe.

And I worked in a bunch of companies before I started at the university. But that’s ancient history at this point.

Now it’s time to reinvent myself. I’ m slowly turning myself into a blogger, mystery author and Creativity Curator for my own company, Tomorrow’s Mysteries, LLC.