Most “how to be creative” advice is self improvement advice. I’m going to flip the script a bit, and tell you how your environment is preventing you from reaching your creative potential.
Your creative blocks are probably 30% you, 70% them. It’s not necessarily your fault, but if you want to change things it is your responsibility.
To properly diagnose the issue, let’s zoom in on the components of creativity:
Volume of Ideas
When most people say “I’m not really a creative person”, what they’re really saying is “I don’t have a lot of ideas”. But the irony is that most people do have plenty of ideas — just not ideas they feel comfortable sharing.
Keith Johnstone is one of the pioneers of improvisational theater, so he’s seen this conflict in action repeatedly, leading to a wealth of insight on creativity. One of those insights still stays with me: a creative block is often just a fear of being judged.
Johnstone would run a simple free association exercise at the start of his improv workshops: Person A says a random word (“cat”), Person B then says the first word that comes to mind (“milk”).
Members of the workshop would visibly hold back their first idea and then scramble to come up with an alternative. This was the fear of being judged in action. What if the group thinks my response makes me boring? What if they think I’m a pervert? Etc. etc. etc.
The same fear applies to almost any creative endeavor. What if my teacher laughs at this really heartfelt poem I wrote about my dog? What if my boss thinks my ideas are stupid?
Your innate ability is not the problem. The problem is an environment of low psychological safety.
You may be creating this environment for yourself. Or you may literally be stuck in an environment where new ideas are viciously attacked. So if you want to be creative, that’s the first problem you have to solve.
This is a broad issue, so it’s impossible for me to offer prescriptive advice that will apply to everyone’s situation. But questioning the environment is the first step.
So often, we’re told to change and edit ourselves relentlessly to suit the environment. But we would get further, faster if we pushed back against “the rules” or walked away and found a new game to play.
Quality of Ideas
Maybe you have progressed beyond your creative block, but none of your ideas seem to go anywhere, or turn out quite how you imagined they would.
To have good ideas, you need to truly understand your medium at the level of first principles, a concept has been popularized by Elon Musk. Here Musk explains how the first principles approach was used to make a better battery for Tesla:
“People would say, ‘Historically it’s cost $600 per kilowatt-hour, and so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’ And you say, ‘No, what are the batteries made of?’ First principles means you say, ‘Okay, what are the material constituents of the batteries?’
“You just have to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
This applies to any creative or business pursuit. You need to understand what a good painting/song/movie is, and what makes it good. If you’re trying to solve a business problem, you need to understand the components and how they relate to your company’s business model.
Three things stand in the way of first principles thinking:
- The nature of the US public education system, which primarily focuses on memorizing facts and process steps without context or explanation.
- A business climate where most employers display a lack of true differentiation and invest almost nothing in training. Few C-level people understand the first principles of their business, so what hope is there for the rest of us?
- When it comes to creative pursuits, most modern education and criticism focuses on how to reverse-engineer an artist’s financial success vs analyzing the building blocks of the medium.
If you want a higher quality of ideas, find a way to dive deep into the first principles of your medium, even if it means going against the grain.
I hope these ideas have resonated with some frustrated creatives out there. I have found The Artist’s Way to be very helpful for understanding these issues more deeply and gaining the confidence to push back against your environment.
If they want the goods, they need to respect the process.