Creative Spark Blog

Insights and inspiration to make you more creative.

A creative life means opening a lot of small doors

Posted by Tanner Christensen

Photo by Marietta Varga.

“Art is the big door, but real life is a lot of small doors that you must pass through to create something new.” — Jean Giraud

To be creative is to be open to the idea your ideas—your way of understanding the world—are limited by what you have experienced.

A simple way of looking at it is: if you don’t open the door, ideas can’t get in. I got a good reminder of the importance of being open recently, of how being close minded or restricted by your beliefs can hinder creative thinking.

I was in Indianapolis talking to students about how to life a more creative life. I’ve been writing about creativity for 10 years, a reasonable amount of time to get my ducks in a row on the matter.

And yet, during the visit I ran into a few people—specifically: adults—who found themselves struggling with the notion of being open as a means of gathering more points from which to form ideas. They wanted to be more creative, they wanted to inspire others to be more creative too, so they asked me how to do it.

My response? I told them what I’ve learned, about helping students be open to new and different things, to change routine for the sake of changing it, taking the time to think about experiences. I mentioned failure and the importance of having small failures and how to overcome setbacks in order to uncover novel and useful ideas.

When I explained all this, a few of the people I talked to looked at me kind of skeptical, like none of the things I was talking about would make any difference.

I can’t blame them for their skepticism, it’s hard to hear anything that might stand in the way of your beliefs, or how you’ve always thought of things.

But I couldn’t help but think: maybe that’s your problem right there. You aren’t willing to consider different perspectives so you end up thinking how you always have. You exist inside a tiny bubble you’ve created for yourself with your own thinking. So when anything sharp comes along—a different opinion, someone who says you should try the thing you failed once at—you run the other way.

It’s no wonder so many people struggle to uncover a really insightful idea, or fail to learn means for overcoming life’s setbacks or difficulties. So stuck in their own way, they can’t see that the easiest way out of a bind, or routine, or block, is by opening up to new and different perspectives.

The quickest route to thinking creatively isn’t protecting your ideas or way of thinking. It’s accepting the fact your ideas, your perspectives on the world, are just one small blip in the much larger scheme of things.

If you want a way out of the monotony of your standard method of thinking: try picking up a book you’d never consider reading, and read it. Talk to people on the other side of the world (it’s easier than ever to do thanks to the Internet), or if you can afford it: go to the other side of the world and talk face-to-face with them. Try the frightening, hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street. Do anything to broaden your perspectives.

If you do nothing, nothing happens

Posted by Tanner Christensen

If you want to be creative: you’re better off doing things than waiting around for inspiration to strike.

Too many people say they want to think more creatively—they want to have ideas for making money, turning their art into their livelihood, or how to have an impact—but end up doing little to nothing because they wait around for inspiration to strike. If you wait for the perfect idea you’ll end up with nothing.

On the other hand, something I’ve learned over my years is that if you take a chance and put in just a little work, you’ll get so far ahead of everyone else. While they’re waiting to be inspired by something (they don’t know what) you’ll have already learned more than enough to keep the ideas coming.

Doing nothing teaches you just that: nothing. But when you try something, when you dabble and experiment, you learn. You learn what might not work and what makes you feel good. You learn where creative energy might come from and what pulls it out of you.

Of course you have to find time to step back and reflect on whatever it is you do, but as my old peer Jez Burrows once said: if you do nothing, nothing happens.

Limit what’s possible and you’ll have more ideas

Posted by Tanner Christensen

The painter always sits down with the tools he has available to him, in front of a canvas with a set size, knowing what his abilities will enable him to create. A chef comes to the table prepared with ingredients and supplies at the ready. It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the constraints are in either case. What matters is that the creative knows there are limits and has familiarized themselves with them.

A problem many people face when it comes to thinking creatively is that the possibilities seem infinite.

There’s so much that might be that it becomes paralyzingly to try and imagine what could be. Anything that can be dreamed can be a solution to a problem. In our imagination, anything goes.

But that’s not how creativity works, that’s how imagination works. And while the two are inexplicably linked, the distinctions between the two are important to learn.

Creativity deals with what is possible based on real-world constraints. Imagination is limited to our mental constraints or knowledge. Imagination can influence creativity, and creativity can exist within imagined scenarios, but the distinction between the two is what enables or hampers our ability to use them.

If you approach anything with the intent of being creative, but fail to research and acknowledge the constraints you’re dealing with, you’re going to run into disappointment. Expecting to be creative without limits isn’t being creative, it’s being imaginative.

Instead, moving into a problem or space with the full knowledge that creativity will be grounded in what you know and have available to you is going to power you through it. How exactly do you do that? One tried-and-true approach I’ve found is to make a list outlining everything you know about the problem or project, along with everything you have available to you in order to get through it.

Such a simple list allows you to create a resource you can refer to throughout the work of ideation, not from a place of anything-goes, but from a real and sound foundation. And the list you make doesn’t have to be anything formal or even structured. A quick list of top-of-mind constraints and considerations can do more for your creativity than a well thought-out and formal list of pros, cons, or possibilities.

Creativity isn’t just what you think, it’s what you do with what you think

Posted by Tanner Christensen

My life changed when I realized just how powerful simply showing up and trying things can be.

I remember one time coming into the office and, upon hearing how I liked to dabble with web design during the weekends, my boss asking if I could create a little project for the office. The deal was that if I could learn how to create an online game our customers could play in order to unlock special offers, I’d get a small bonus and an opportunity to keep doing that type of work moving forward.

The problem was: my job had nothing to do with design or development, I was a marketing specialist who spent my time writing web content. The other problem was I only had two days to design and figure out to program the game.

What did I have to lose? In my mind the biggest fear was merely coming up empty handed, maybe letting my teammates down, and wasting a weekend. I got to work immediately, browsing online tutorials and forums to figure out how to program a simple web game.

Come Monday, I had done it. We launched the game and customers absolutely loved it. That one small decision, to try something I had no place trying, changed the way I was perceived at the office. No longer was I just another marketing specialist, I was the kid who could do anything. That turned my entire career around. So much seemed possible suddenly.

Time and time again I’ve learned that showing up and trying something is immensely powerful. It’s the reason I regularly preach the notion that ideas are mostly worthless until we get them out of our heads to see what they can do.

Ideas are worthless until you get them out of your head to see what they can do.

Often what sets one creative person apart from the rest is not only their willingness to be open to new ideas, but their willingness to try things too.

I’ve seen what action can do in my own life, and it’s something I’ll never stop preaching. Even if what you act on doesn’t result in a clear victory, you still learn from the execution. The idea evolves or changes how your brain thinks about similar ideas. When we show up and take action, change is inevitable. It’s only by not showing up, by not trying, that nothing changes.

As an old peer of mine, Jez Burrows, once said: “If you do nothing, nothing happens.”

How to get out of a creative rut

Posted by Tanner Christensen

Originally posted to Quora.

What does it mean to be “in a rut”?

By definition, a rut is a deep track made by the repeated passage of a person or thing. It’s like going out for a walk every day of your life and always taking the same path. Over time that path becomes worn and deep, no matter whether it’s over rock, dirt, snow, or sand. The path will show and its edges will be notably tall.

Your brain is filled with ruts. When you were younger you began to see the world and learn things, over time the more you saw similar things or experiences the same thing, your brain began to develop patterns or ruts to make accessing that information easier to do. Like waking the same path every day, the more you think in the same patterns the deeper those patterns get.

Over time the ruts we find ourselves thinking in have really tall walls in our mind (figurately speaking). Often these walls can be hard to break from or see over. We lead ourselves into believing that there’s nothing else outside of our tried and truth paths. We’ve been thinking this way for so long, and it’s worked out pretty well so far, why try anything else?

The result is of course we start realizing that the path we’ve been taking maybe isn’t the most ideal, or that it doesn’t get us where we always want to go. But the walls are so high now! How do you get out of a rut? How do you glimpse over the edges of thinking you’ve created for yourself?

You get out of a mental rut the same way you get a vehicle out of a real rut.

First, stop spinning your wheels. If you feel as though your efforts aren’t getting you anywhere, take a break and reserve your energy for what comes next.

Try rocking back and forth. When a car is stuck in mud or snow, it can be helpful to slowly rock the vehicle back and forth until you can get traction to get moving again. The same method can be applied to your thinking. Mentally rock back and forth by thinking about where it is you want to go (out of the rut, into a new space) and where it is you’re coming from (your past experience in this area). Keep jumping back and forth between where you want to go and where you’re coming from and you may find yourself surprised by what insights make themselves known as a result.

Finally, give yourself a wedge. Probably my favorite technique for getting out of a rut: find something sturdy to put under your wheels and help you get traction and point it in the direction you want to go. What’s this mean for your brain? It can be anything new or different, support from a friend or peer, or just a quick mental thinking exercise.

Go somewhere you’ve never been before and spend some time doing whatever it is you want to do there. Try a new dish at your favorite restaurant. Start a new hobby (I recommend trying Online Classes by Skillshare for a week). Pick up an old hobby. Try using a different tool or resource than you usually do before. Anything you can do differently to wedge a gap between where you are and the edge of your rut. My favorite thing in this arena is small creative challenges. I actually wrote a book filled with 150 of them to help you get unstuck (you can check it here: The Creativity Challenge if you’re interested, but you can also just Google “creative thinking exercise” online to find hundreds for free).

You’ll find that getting out of a rut is surprisingly easy to do once you understand what a rut is in the first place. A rut is simply a path that’s been dug deep, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get out of, it just takes a little work. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a great article on getting out of a rut for vehicles, I’d challenge you to try and see how the advice relates to mental ruts too: 4 Ways to Pull a Truck from the Mud.

To be creative, start with what’s missing

Posted by Tanner Christensen

There are a lot of reasons to get into cooking as a profession, being hungry isn’t one of them.

Instead, a reason to take up cooking is to learn the art behind the dish, or to help satisfy others, or because you really enjoy a finely crafted meal, or—and most likely—to fill a void you felt in your own life. When you went to the restaurant and they didn’t have the dish you wanted, or when you realized they could have easily improved what they offered with just a few fresh ingredients, that’s when you decide to pursue the life of a chef (even if just on the side). Those are the moments you decide to become a chef. Your hunger wasn’t the real problem, it’s not really enough to motivate you to stick with the years of schooling and experimentation to become a chef.

The same is true of creativity. Nobody decides to “be creative,” that’s a myth those at the top have drummed up to keep everyone else in-check and in line.

Those who dabble in creativity didn’t wake up one day feeling hungry and deciding that was enough to put in the work.

In reality, you decide to pursue creativity when you realize there’s a better way to do something, or when something is curiously missing. You embrace creativity when the void you feel inside as it relates to your life, the lives of those you love, or the work you’re doing, starts to grow. When there’s a void.

Nobody wakes up thinking “today is the day I’m going to be creative!” Because the result of that is more of the same, work without depth or meaning.

It turns out that if you want to be creative, the first place to start is to look at what’s currently missing or broken in your life. It’s when you realize there’s something that can be improved, or added, that creativity starts to rear it’s head. Not with the intent to do it, but because it serves a clearer need or desire.

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