How Creativity Works


Creativity is the ability to make things, typically by using imagination or implementing ideas.

Creativity is a trained skill more than anything else.

To be creative, have an attitude that’s constantly curious, embraces new things, revisits old things, and finds new ways to see old things.

Creativity goes through a straightforward process:

  1. Ponder and consume information.
  2. Gather all the information together.
  3. Clearly define your problem.
  4. Digest and process everything.
  5. Leave it alone to let the ideas ferment.
  6. Wait for a spontaneously formed concept to appear.
  7. If the idea doesn’t come, delay as long as possible, then just start without a clear idea.
  8. Build on the idea as it develops into a physical object.
  9. Persevere with pursuing the idea through to the finish.
  10. Publish the idea.
  11. After finishing, take a break from building and give yourself time to recuperate.

Good ideas are valuable, but they often require hard work to pull off.

What is creativity?

Creativity is the ability to create, and it usually implies imagination or original ideas:

Our minds are messy, so most creative endeavors are messy:
  • Creative endeavors are an inherent mystery of their own.
  • Within the human mind, any sense of order is tailored and curated over numerous revisions.
  • Further, any simplicity comes from even more revisions.

While people often venerate creativity and imagine it requires talent, anyone can be creative:
  • In fact, if someone can create but they don’t, they prevent the rest of us from having an increased awareness of the world.

Creativity isn’t simply useful: all the consistent aspects of success require creativity.

Creativity is trained

Anyone can be creative, but it takes focused work.

Creativity has many misconceptions from so-called “creative” careers, since those careers only represent a small portion of creative endeavors.

While genius combines intelligence and creativity, legitimate creativity never requires inherent talent or advanced thought.

Creativity has a few universal qualities:
  • It’s finding an unconventional solution to a conventional problem.
  • Everything creative starts with a perceived problem or apparent failure.
  • All creations are an attempt to remove obstacles, minimize challenges, or add value.
  • In other words, creativity is always responding to problems.

The great misconception about creativity is that it comes effortlessly:
  • True creativity needs clear frustration about a problem, which takes lots of emotional energy to maintain that frustration.
  • You need lots of patient note-taking and writing skills to hold onto good ideas and connect them with other ideas.
  • While we don’t consciously create ideas, our subconscious mind is fueled by conscious actions that foster unconventional thought.
  • The more you link concepts, the more accessible and quickly your “a-ha!” moment will come, but it still takes patience to wait for it.

Attitudes of creative people

To find unconventional solutions, you must let yourself think outside the conventions of your culture and understanding.

Reacting to impulses or survival instincts always produces conventional results:

Stay constantly curious and perpetually interested in everything:
  • The only way to stay curious is to ignore any fear you might have.
  • You must be able to imagine every possibility available to you, which requires going where people are usually uncomfortable.
  • Question every idea, both your own and others’.
  • You’ll only discover things when you make mistakes.

Re-ask questions that, as a child, you forgot to have answered:
  • Why does everyone use money?
  • Where does canned cheese come from and how do they put it in there?
  • Who decides that policemen are allowed to arrest people?
  • Why are computer screens square?

Continually, constantly write down ideas:
  • 99% of your ideas are useless, but it builds mental connections for worthwhile ideas to take hold.
  • When you can, distill and simplify those ideas.
  • The first ideas you run across probably won’t matter, but they’ll mix with newer ideas later to create legitimately useful “third” ideas.

Consistently re-evaluate goals, values, and ideas:
  • Look at everything in as many ways as possible.
  • Instead of looking for new ideas, spend more time disagreeing with ideas you already know.

Stay constantly open to new things:
  • Force yourself to alternate between attitudes that thoroughly consider others’ thoughts and completely disregarding them.
  • Systematically consider the effects of breaking every rule, including the ones in your own mind.
  • Try teaching everything you know to other people interested in the subject.

Focus more on productivity than “getting it right”:
  • Don’t complain about results you don’t like.
  • Choose “good enough” over perfect.
  • Be decisive about anything you can.
  • Focus on mastering one thing at a time.
  • Use your boredom for boring tasks.
  • Stay organized, persistent, and disciplined.

Creativity is a process

Instead of focusing on producing a product, focus instead on having a very refined process.

In some ways, the medium is not that important:
  • The medium will match what you feel most comfortable with, and each one has pros and cons.
    • Visual elements (e.g., paintings, drawings, diagrams) are easiest for people to consume.
    • Writing permits complete flexibility with imagination and ideas.
    • Audio connects closest to subconscious feelings and thoughts.
    • Performance arts make the entire experience interactive with the audience.
    • Software (especially games) is the fullest form of audience involvement possible.
    • Creating systems permits other people to be creative.
  • Frequently, your talent in one medium can spill over to other media.

Every medium has its own rules for quality:
  • Learn the medium’s standards and limits.
  • Even experimental and trend-setting works acknowledge the rules by intentionally defying them.
  • Art can be time-based, static, or immersive.
    • For static art (e.g., novels, films, music), focus on what occupies the center of attention.
    • For temporal art (e.g., painting, sculpture), direct all your efforts to magnifying the very last observed event.
    • For immersive art (e.g., architecture, game development), pay extremely close attention to the user experience.

Across every stage of creation, nobody else will see your vision:
  • Each stage is an intermediate phase, and the creation only exists fully within your imagination.
  • Even after your work is complete, most people can’t see the full extent of what you’ve done.
  • Most people will end up only experiencing a small portion of the fullness of your creation, but that’s still enough to profoundly influence them.

Throughout the process, avoid distracting yourself with the consequences of the idea:
  • Don’t pay attention to the social impact of solving the problem or the challenges you’ll likely face.
  • Ignore how you feel in the face of what you will likely need to do.
  • Don’t daydream about the benefits of solving your problem.
  • Do not focus on the importance of the problem you’re solving.
  • Ignore what everyone else is doing or has done.

A. Ponder and consume

If you haven’t done it before, it takes about 6–12 months to build up a creative mindset.

Eat a healthy, oxytocin-rich diet (e.g., eggs, bananas, peppers) that feeds your brain.

Find something you’re passionate about:
  • Creative works must connect to one of your passions, or you’ll give up trying to address the perceived problem.
  • Devote 15 minutes to learning something new every single day.

Look for beauty in everything:
  • Pay extremely close attention to things you otherwise may have overlooked.
  • Simple patterns in nature.
  • Social trends throughout society.
  • Try to find beauty in everything, even things that are mundane or terrible.

Pull together tons of raw information from everywhere:
  • Go to a web search or video site and enter a word about something you don’t know anything about.
  • Browse a wide variety of sources (at least 2-3 at a time) and range them from general topics down to specific subjects.
  • Absolutely everything might be related, so pull from absolutely every source about every place you can think of.
  • Write constantly and frequently about whatever comes to mind.
  • Always include things that are different than your standard material.

Brainstorm to build more information:
  • Write out 10 ideas a day about anything.
  • Record your thoughts and play them back later.
  • Mass Brainstorm: write out 100 ideas as quickly as possible, irrespective of their quality.
  • Reverse Brainstorm: identify how to cause the problem or imagine the worst possible solutions.
  • 30 Circles: set a time limit of 3 minutes, draw 30 circles on a piece of paper, then doodle inside them.
  • Zentangle: draw a curvy line across a piece of paper, draw a pattern along the line, then build the pattern up stroke by stroke.

Question absolutely everything:
  • Ask dumb questions and find unconventional answers to them.
  • Step outside your expertise and experience.

If it’s at all possible, don’t focus on the problem for a while:
  • As soon as you see a problem, your mind will focus directly onto it, meaning you won’t see what it’s like to not have that problem.
  • The best time to learn about the problem is when your mind is racing with plenty of ideas, but without anything to direct it toward.
  • writing out information helps our memory, meaning it can enhance our ability to retain many unrelated ideas at once.

B. Gather everything together

As much as possible, consolidate the number of “containers” for your ideas and information:
  • Keep all the scraps of brainstorming-related paper in one box or cabinet.
  • Use only one digital service, like Evernote, OneNote, or a cloud storage system.
  • Organize the ideas loosely into where they’re supposed to go.

You will be going back-and-forth over the information a lot, so don’t obsess too heavily about organization.

C. Clearly define your problem

Explicitly clarify the problem you’re facing:
  • Imagine you’re trying to convince a friend of your idea or explain why it’s a problem.
  • Try to explain the problem with as few words as possible, or without big words.

Try to imagine the problem being solved and what it looks like:
  • Have the ending finished, then you can work backward to figure out the beginning and middle.

D. Digest everything

Sift and sort through the gathered information to find new patterns:
  • You’ll need to add and remove a wide variety of elements.
  • You’re forcing limits on your understanding that make you solve the problem from a different direction.

Add more viewpoints by shifting perspectives:
  • Imagine what other successful people would do in your situation, including historical figures.
  • Abstraction laddering – travel up and down the abstraction/implementation ladder:
    • Ask “why” to go up the ladder (e.g., “why is my problem here?”)
    • Ask “how” to go down the ladder (e.g., “how does this problem express itself?”)
  • Use the 6 Thinking Hats:
    1. White Hat focuses on information and data.
    2. Black Hat uses judgment and exercises caution.
    3. Red Hat connects to feelings and intuition.
    4. Yellow Hat finds reasons why something will work.
    5. Green Hat searches for alternatives, proposals, provocations, and changes.
    6. Blue Hat controls processes and focuses on the subject’s components instead of the subject itself.
  • Make a list of what’s not allowed to solve your problem, then ask why those things aren’t allowed.
  • Try lateral thinking:
    • Think of things the way a small child would.
    • Answer problems with “technically” correct solutions.
  • Pick a word tied to the problem, then make a list of all the synonyms of that word.
  • Whenever the feeling provokes it, draw and doodle.
  • Make an intentional effort to let your mind wander.

Add more viewpoints by shuffling the elements of your perspective:
  • Write phrases and ideas on index cards, then combine them together.
  • Mind-Mapping:
    • Each circle represents an idea, draw lines to connect them.
  • Use a word cloud generator to shuffle the words around.
  • Continually slice the problem apart into multiple smaller problems until you’re clear on what to do or know precisely why it’s legitimately impossible.

Use analysis to find more viewpoints:
  • Observe the structures that influence and reinforce patterns, as well as any connections between patterns.
  • Lotus Blossom Technique – start with a central problem and expand outward with possible solutions.
  • Look at where any two things create feedback loops:
    • Balancing feedback loops create stability any time one of two things goes too far toward an extreme.
    • Reinforcing feedback loops create instability and lead to further extremes.
  • Make a connection circle to look intimately into feedback loops:
    1. Draw a circle and place all the key elements and events chronologically around it.
    2. Draw arrows across the circle where things interact with other things, and try to find them all.
    3. If any of the elements create closed loops, they’re making further feedback loops that may need even more connection circles.
  • Make issue trees:
    1. Identify every issue as separate, smaller issues.
    2. Make a “tree” of sequential issues that connect with each other.
    3. Keep dividing issues until they all seem relatively straightforward.
  • Ishikawa Diagram:
    1. Write out a major problem.
    2. Describe the factors that feed into that problem.
    3. Describe the factors that feed into each of those factors.
    4. Repeat until you have every little part of the problem entirely clarified.
  • Consider the values, assumptions, and beliefs that shape the system.
  • The Five “Whys” – ask “why” at least five times to get to the first cause of everything.
  • Use the Iceberg Model:
    • Look at all the relevant events in the past, present, and future.
    • Note any patterns or trends that emerge from those events.

Try to make the problem worse to advance a different mode of thought:
  • Invert the problem by trying to find a way to make the problem happen, then focus strictly on breaking that method.
  • Use a bad solution that would make problems worse, then think of how to fix that instead.
  • Make a list of what wouldn’t happen next.

Remove perspectives to find new ones:
  • In the age of over-information, it’s easier to find new points of view by removing than by adding.
  • Try to break down elements of procedures and complex systems into their most basic components.
    • Make wireframes or diagrams with as few elements as possible.
  • Set arbitrary limits to prohibit familiar methods and solutions.
    • Force scarcity by cutting back the budget for your project or imagining how to work with those constraints.
    • Force deadlines to remove indecision by setting earlier dates than your deadline to produce.
  • Einstellung effect – clearly write out the problem you’re trying to accomplish, then get rid of any preconceived solutions to that problem.
  • Sometimes, having years of experience in an industry can actually make you worse at finding solutions.

If your deadlines aren’t severe, then use Richard Feynman’s incubation trick:
  1. Keep a dozen of your favorite problems in your mind for a very long time.
  2. Every time you hear of a new trick or find a new thing, test it against each of your dozen problems.
  3. Every once in a while, you’ll succeed at finding a solution, and people will think you’re a genius.

E. Leave it alone

Stop planning or doing anything about the subject after you’ve thoroughly explored your ideas:
  • It’ll happen at its own pace, so ignore the “blank page” problem screaming at you.
    • Now that you’ve let your conscious mind perceive it, permit your subconscious to work on it.
  • Let your impressions and thoughts fade away about the problem.

Drop the problem entirely and focus on something else that stimulates your imagination or interest:

This stage is usually the most difficult for people because the stress from uncertainty usually turns off further creativity.

F. Wait for the spark

Carry on with life and create in other ways:
  • Do anything you want that’s interesting.
  • To incubate more ideas, make new experiences in your life.
  • Learn to make days highly productive to make room for more freedom.

Use the sleep technique used by Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison:
  1. Take a nap in a chair while holding an object like a ball or spoon.
  2. When the object drops, it’ll wake you up when your mind has just entered the subconscious fantasy/reality hybrid mental state and will boost your creativity.

Make healthy routines:

Find new, fun, and unfamiliar things to do:
  • Dance.
  • Find a new hobby.
  • Get a pet.
  • Finesse something you’re already good at.
  • Hang out with friends.
  • Read books.
  • Sing.
  • Watch films.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Learn a new skill.
  • Listen to new music.
  • Take on a new risk.
  • Travel.
  • Try new food.
  • Visit a new place.

Break your conventions and routines whenever things feel stale:
  • Ask three random people from your phone list about an idea.
  • Break your routine.
  • Do your work elsewhere or do new work.
  • Start over with everything, just to see what happens.
  • Talk with strangers.
  • Try free writing or sketching something random.
  • Imagine you’re distant from everyone and everything.

If you must, dedicate yourself to mandatory creation time:
  1. Set aside time to create.
  2. During that time, do nothing else except create.
  3. If you can’t think of what to do, persist in doing nothing else.
  4. You’ll likely start imagining and playing in your mind out of boredom, which will provoke creatively useful thinking.

Avoid whatever stifles your creativity:

Don’t worry about having the “right” tools:
  • Fancy and expensive equipment, as well as fancy consumer items, don’t help the creative process.
  • Many times, luxuries or technological convenience
  • can suppress great solutions.

G. The idea will appear

The idea will appear out of seemingly nowhere.

Since you have no idea when it’ll happen, always keep a notebook with you.

H. …or it won’t

Learn patience and try to postpone any deadlines.

Talk out your problem, whether by writing, to a friend, or to an inanimate object.

If all else fails, you might have to begin without a good idea:
  • Since you’ll likely need to rework your solution later, work on things you must do regardless of what you decide.
  • As you start taking on tasks that may need some rework, do small projects to save your effort later.

Foster a routine to sit at your creative station, even if you’re merely waiting for an idea:
  • One sentence or two brush strokes is still worthwhile because you crossed the threshold and actually started the project.

As much as physically possible, never start anything until you feel that creative spark:
  • You must strive for a vision or everyone will see your frustration.

Many “creatives” destroy their future capability by using mind-altering substances:
  • While this might give you a new view of the world, it creates long-term health problems.
  • It’s far healthier to keep feeding your brain with healthy inputs instead of pushing it past its biological limits.

I. Build the idea

When you like your idea, research whether it’s possible:
  1. Consider your idea reasonably in light of all aspects of reality.
  2. If the idea is so big you don’t know where to start, divide that idea into smaller ideas.
  3. Find people who support you and value your work, and submit ideas for their constructive criticism.
  4. Carefully examine who you’ve shown your idea to and consider how it may still fail.

Avoid perfectionism and obsession:
  • Imagination is fiercely powerful and doesn’t require other people’s approval, but it’s inherently messy.
  • If you’re a perfectionist, shift your obsession to reality instead of perfection.
  • If the idea is sound enough, you can often rebuild smaller details of it later in the process.
  • Making many things is better than making 1 thing:
    1. Irrespective of what you create, your skills and self-confidence improve with each thing you accomplish.
    2. Finishing projects creates results people can see and provide feedback on.
    3. You can usually revisit and make adaptations of a lousy work later (and it’s usually easier the second time around).
    4. Finishing and delivering something is the beginning of your reputation.

Don’t worry about giving your secrets away:
  • Your “secrets” aren’t as valuable as the work you’re using with those secrets.
  • You’ll find new secrets as you keep exploring and succeeding.
  • Everyone loves to see your secrets, especially since most of them are relatively easy to explain.

“Authentic enough” is often just as good as being completely original, and often easier:
  • Since there’s nothing really new, good creations often feel like plagiarism.
  • Most people in creative careers hide who they’re imitating without even trying:
    1. We’re not very good at perfectly imitating.
    2. There’s usually a cultural gap between a creator and the person they’re imitating.

Build a plan for how to do it.

Keep your audience in mind:
  • It doesn’t matter whether it’s an investor, a CEO, or a small child: you’re making the finished result for someone.
  • Create it for 1 person, not simply an abstracted “audience”.
    • Since you know yourself the most, the best audience is yourself.

J. Stick with it

Most creative people have trouble finishing projects:
  • While most of them are unaware, they’re distracted by many other great ideas that arise as they start producing.
    • Too many ideas is as bad for the creative process as too few.
    • Jot down notes for other things that arise, since you must stay focused on what you’re doing right now.
  • To avoid discouragement, find the smallest finish line possible.
  • Your ability to stay organized and persevere determines whether you actually do what you want to see accomplished.

Build a routine, especially if you have a large project:
  • Cancel optional activities that may get in the way of what you’re trying to build.
  • Never push yourself past your productive limits, which depend heavily on your personality (typically 3–6 hours a day).
  • Don’t drain yourself every day, since you need to tackle it every day.
    • Instead, get away from the task when you still have motivation to keep going.
  • If you need to, mentally explore your next steps while going through other parts of your daily routine.

If you’re devoted to the work, you’ll have a strange, otherworldly mania to finish your task:
  • Often, if your creative project is significant, you’ll be spending more time making ideas happen than figuring out what to do.
  • To maintain your integrity, make sure you know beforehand what exact line you’re not willing to cross to see the creation through.

Designate time to focus deeply on your work:
  • All-day – dedicate a period of continuous days to build and create.
  • Bimodal – cycle in between a “deep” mode and an “everything else” mode.
  • Rhythmic – schedule a fixed period of time every day to perform deep work.
  • Sporadic – fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.

K. Publish it

Often, the people perceiving your work will not see how much effort you put in, but they’ll always feel it.

The best way to deal with disapproval is to not care.

If you’re afraid of criticism or rejection, create distance between you and your work:
  • Use a pen name name or moniker.
  • Create a gap in time between building and publishing.
    • That way, you’re referring to a work from “past you”, not your present self.

Accept the consequences beforehand, for whatever might happen, and move on:
  • Once you’ve done something, you can’t change what you’ve done.
  • All you can do is carry on with what you learned.

L. Take a break

Creativity is a cycle, so resting is as important to results as building.

You’ve expended all your energy into your creation, so you must consume more to create more.

If your resolve has wavered, do not finish what you’re working on:
  • By pushing through on something you’ve grown to hate, you’re creating something far removed from your original vision.
  • When you’ve lost the original spark, it’ll resurface if you give yourself grace.

Don’t kill yourself about what you’ve made:
  • The creative process is unpredictable, and you may have made a dud.
  • However, you’ve learned and grown from that experience, and you will succeed better the next time if you learn from it.

Have a predefined “to consume” list of things you’d like to explore in your recovery:
  • Seek and consume expert work by others (i.e., “masterpieces”).
  • Find ways to continue educating yourself on all forms of the concept.
    • Read books and articles.
    • Listen to music and podcasts.
    • Attend seminars for things that interest you.
  • Learn from a thinker by deeply devouring their content:
    1. Study absolutely everything that individual created.
    2. Find three people that person loved.
    3. Learn everything about each of those three influencers.
    4. Repeat as far as you can go.

There’s a type of calming effect from having a non-creative job that pays the bills:
  • Find a day job that pays decently enough to survive, but also leaves you with enough energy left over to create.
  • Daily activities add balance and the secondary effect of discipline to creative endeavors.
  • A day job has the added advantage of letting you finance your dreams.
  • You can also stop when you want (instead of the constant risk of selling out through financial hardship).

At the same time, getting paid allows you to make a living through creative activities:

Don’t sit on good ideas

The creative process is not the same as building it:
  • Great ideas are a wonderful start, but most of them require the tedium of hard work and dedication.
  • 95% of your ideas will be unused, and your notes will be how you release those thoughts.

As soon as you stop, you may lose it:
  • When we stop fostering our creativity for a couple weeks, we become stale and less effective almost instantly.
  • Like weight management, we must have a purpose for what we want to achieve and stick with it to the end.