It was early morning and the cafe was bustling. I grabbed a table and started reading a book. After a few minutes, I checked my phone. The guy I was supposed to meet was late.
I went back to reading, and ironically got to a part of the book called “angels that aren’t.” Then, speak of the devil… the guy I was supposed to meet arrived. We chatted for a bit, and I tried to get to know him. He wasn’t having any of it. He was here to see my app, that was it. I’d sent him a link beforehand, but he said he missed the email. So, tapped the app to open it, and slid my phone across the table.
He scrolled through the app I’d designed, then placed the phone down on the table. I started to explain what we were doing, but instead he blurted, “This is okay… what are you looking for anyways? Like a hundred thousand dollars?”
“I don’t need money yet,” I said. “First, I want to figure out if–”
“No, no, no. Go big or go home.”
As he cut me off, I nodded and listened politely. He went on a long monologue about swinging for the fences.
This guy was an actor, uncomfortable in the role he was playing. I recognized it because it’s where I sometimes find myself. Self-awareness is hard, but it’s the first step towards our own brand of creativity.
He kept talking, and I tuned him out. At tail end of his tirade, I heard him say, “It’s all about creativity.”
Amongst all the words spilling out of his mouth… he got that last part right. I don’t know anyone who would wish to be less creative and imaginative. As a species, we’re at a point where we desperately need creativity if we want to survive. What we need most is creativity couple with courage. Translating our imagination into the real world is tough. It’s so hard, that often it’s much easier to take a role as an actor instead of a creator. But sometimes we wake up and find ourselves playing a role we didn’t choose. When we do, we have to build up our courage and creativity to break out.
In that spirit, here are twenty-two tips to help unleash creativity.
1. Recognize and Define
What’s the most useful definition of creativity? It might be hard to agree on a singular definition. Perhaps the creativity we need only comes into focus once we’ve zeroed in on where we’re going. Trying to articulate creativity and imagination is tough, but recognizing their emergence when we face a huge challenge is easy. The better we articulate, recognize, and define what we’re seeking to create, the better we’ll be able to utilize any creative ideas that emerge along the way.
“I was born here and I’ll die here… against my will.” –Bob Dylan
Dylan captures the ultimate rebellion, that we’re all here against our will. But there is a spectrum of rebellion, and we get the choice to choose what we’ll stand up against. It’s easy to fall into the trap of rebelling by mindlessly rejecting everything. This type of rebelling produces clickbait, digital lynch mobs, or plotless stories. The alternative would be rebelling against specific, well-defined evils. This aspirational rebellion produces a powerful brand of creativity. Test how much you’re able to boost your creativity by rebelling against evil that others blindly accept. Reformation is driven by those who confront evil, and reap the massive gain in creativity.
3. Be the Idiot to the Insane
Joseph Campbell said something along the lines of, “The hero finds himself playing a fool in front of the jury with sober eyes.” Epictetus said something similar, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” Campbell is kind in his words and says, “jury with sober eyes.” But in this stage of the hero’s journey, the hero has seized the truth, and returns to integrate and share it. This return is the alternative to damning the populace, and refusing to return with the boon. It’s hard because many times the jury or populace isn’t sober, they are insane. Our brief human history is studded with examples of adhoc juries, both tribal and religious who have killed, sacrificed, isolated, or ostracized our most creative. If you’re leveling up your creativity, remember it’s a badge of honor be seen as an idiot in the eyes of the insane. Besides, the recognition that we’re hated often brings the greatest creative gains.
4. Iterate and Reinvent
“So now I am back — in my next iteration, you might say.” — Ian Malcolm
Dylan reminded us to rebel, to fight, to always keep becoming. We must constantly become new iterations of ourselves. One of my favorite authors is Michael Crichton. One of his most famous characters and ciphers, is Ian Malcolm who inspires us to explore, iterate and reinvent ourselves. There is nothing more anti-evolutionary than trying to cling to memories of who we used to be. Iterate, reinvent, and leave weaker versions of yourself behind. Evolution is exhausting, but it yields creativity and new insights.
5. Deep Respect
There is an endless river of ideas running through our minds. It’s impossible to dam them up. Our ability to fuel and direct this river of ideas is our greatest power. But like many things in nature, we don’t see its full power daily, so it is hard to respect its might. Only by respecting our creative power can we properly channel it, direct it, and eventually, dam it and tap it for hydroelectricity.
6. Reverse Your Stories
I used to think I couldn’t tell stories. Then I realized this was because all my mental bandwidth was consumed in personal storytelling. I was telling myself an endless narrative of my life, imagined shortcomings, limits, and hypothesizing about fearful events. I was using all my storytelling energies to limit myself and was toxic to those around me. When I started directing those energies outwards, storytelling became easier.
7. Scrub off Self-Censorship
This is a slow process. In order to get to a place where ideas can emerge easily, we have to scrub off the years of censorship we’ve faced. Scrub off the worry about grades, approval, and anything Education directed you to think important. The invisible social and cultural bonds are hard to shake.
8. Build New Hardware
If we think of ourselves as technology, we can better care for all the components. Our bodies are hardware, and our minds produce the operating system and software we use to interact with the world. So why do some people take better care of their smartphones than their bodies, and minds? In order to be creative, we have to value the most valuable technology in the world: our bodies and brains. We get this hardware free at birth, and nobody demos it for us like a Steve Jobs keynote. Often, we’re exposed to far more demos of those who are slowly destroying or neglecting their hardware. Valuing our bodies and minds appropriately is tough, but once we get maniacal about upgrading them, creativity is just a byproduct.
9. Update The OS, and Clean Out the Apps
Awhile ago, I noticed I had put off updating the OS on my phone. Worse, I noticed I hadn’t bothered to clean out old apps that I no longer used. It’s the same with our minds. It’s easy to fall into the additive trap. We think we always need to add knowledge (apps) and miss chances to sort, or go out and get experiences that convert knowledge into wisdom. When we learn, take action, study our results, we update the mental OS we’re running. From time to time, we need to delete apps we no longer use, and focus on updating our underlying OS. Updating our OS can come from reading, doing, philosophical discussions, extreme sports, or my favorite, direct experience.
10. Direct Experience > Secondhand Experience
I sum up direct experiences as travels out into the real world outside our comfort zones. Ideally, we venture into places we can’t leave immediately. This type of forced experience forces us to notice, to be present. It might mean going out into nature, traveling in foreign countries, or embarking on whatever adventures excite us. Direct experiences forge creative insights. Michael Crichton was obsessed with direct experience, travels, and followed his interests all over the world. If you ever read his stories or speeches about his personal experiences, you’ll see how they were translated directly into the plots, stories, and characters of his books.
11. Use or Be Used?
Sometimes when my wife is driving, I’ll look at the drivers around us. It’s terrifying how many of them have their eyes glued on their phones. You’ve probably noticed them on the interstate, with kids in the car, or as they speed through crosswalks. They’re all risking killing others or themselves for one more tiny hit of dopamine. If you can resist the human predilection of exogenously dosing dopamine, creativity will flourish. We all will either use or be used by technology.
12. Consume or Create?
When we eat to eat, we get sick. When we eat strategically, we gain nourishment. As creatives, anytime we consume information, we have to ask what are we consuming and why? When we forget we’re consuming information from the never ending firehouse of the internet, we tend to get sick, burned out, depressed, or anxious. When we consume information strategically, we can use our consumption to create.
13. Karmic Proof
My own creativity gets sparked when I find out that something I’ve done has helped someone else. This type of karmic proof green lights a virtuous cycle of creativity. There is no better way to set off a virtuous cycle than by doing a random act of kindness for others. Do good for others, forget your did it, and eventually… good will turn up in your own life. I’ve found that when I get this karmic proof, my creativity jumps, and I go to work scheming up new ways to be helpful.
14. The Source is Unlimited
When we view the source of our imagination as unlimited, our creativity gains permission to grow. When we lose the mindset of the hoarder, we gain new ideas in abundance.
15. The Sea is Deep
“The sea gets deeper the further you walk into it.” –Nassim Taleb
Truly embracing imagination can also be treacherous. Don’t let this stop you from leaving on that hero’s journey to find new and important ideas, but make sure you return to the world and synthesize what you’ve found. The sea is deep and vast, make sure you respect it’s power.
16. The Greatest Piece of Capital Equipment
We have the most complicated piece of technology in the known universe… our brains. We each get access to this priceless technology, that all the venture capital in the world can’t recreate. Even with AI, does anyone really think it will arrive without any unintended consequences? We each already possess the most expensive, valued, prized, and powerful piece of artificial intelligence in the known universe.
17. Good Art Fuels Creativity
When we take in good art, we prime ourselves to create. Just like food, the better we eat, the better our bodies function, the less mental fog we face. Art is the same way. For instance, take music. When we diagnose how we’re currently feeling, and decide how we want to feel, all we then have to do is listen to a song where the artists voice exemplifies this feeling. So if you need confidence, listen for it in the voice of another. It’s no accident that white surban kids raised in a nihlistic culture gravitate towards rap music, it’s the first definite voice they’ve heard that tells them it’s okay to be confident.
18. Reality Is One Piece
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” –Albert Einstein
If we view reality as meaningless, we’ll drift into ennui. But if we view it as one part of a bigger masterpiece, it carries power. Our perceptions are a small slice of a dynamic universal pie.
When we seek to create, we meet a backlash of contempt. It can come from anywhere. We’ve all encountered the person who reacts violently to new ideas. Creation is alien to these types who are hold onto the past with white knuckles. The prospect of you creating will prompt terror in them. “YOU! Make something new?! Can’t you see I’m trying to hold onto what I already have!?” Best to politely acknowledge them, and then escape. A backlash is a good sign that you’re onto something.
Beware… creativity once sparked is a fire that must burn. Creating is an addiction, but fortunately it’s much healthier than all the others. If we don’t allow creativity to flow through us, we risk becoming blocked. All of us have experience being around an artist who isn’t creating. It’s not pleasant. Once you develop and build your creativity, you must allow it to burn! Daily.
“Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.” –Bill Watterson
The best way to recharge our creativity is by learning something new. Our minds are far more powerful than we realize, and instead of zoning out when we’re exhausted, we can speed up our recharging by learning something new.
22. Down or Up?
“Humankind has an open-ended account in the Bank of Time. Anything can still happen.” –Frank Herbert
Humanity constantly faces a choice. Will we go down or up? We’ll either stagnate, or we’ll create. The call to harness our creativity for positive inspiration sometimes isn’t popular. For every thousand people dreaming up cynical or dystopian horrors, there is one artist imagining positive change. If humanity will move up, we must harness our creativity to defiantly and definitely build a better future.
Creativity is central in humanities ongoing battle against extinction. Ultimately, ninety-nine point nine percent of species go extinct.
“It’s time to start speaking about the unspeakable, it’s time to articulate these options. It’s possible we’re going to sink into the quicksand of extinction with the answer clutched in our hands. That would be a tragedy too much to bear.” –Terrence McKenna
The good news is, the larger the challenge, the more our creativity rises to the occasion. If nature has taught us anything, it’s that she is infinitely imaginative in her creations. We might not be able to match her, but we can view her creations as a call to step up our own game.
No matter where we find ourselves, there is always reason to boost our creativity, and in turn, create. When we do this, no matter at what scale, we’re fighting the noblest fight of them all.
So no matter how long you’ve played an actors role you didn’t want, and no matter how loudly the actors are shouting around you… We need your creativity, for all of our sakes.