By Kevin O'Shaughnessy January 18, 2016

Rediscover Your Creativity

In “The Necessity of Creativity,” we learned that good creative work is often the difference between spectacular success and bankruptcy for any company. Now let’s examine how we can become more creative and understand the relationship it has with happiness.

Are You Naturally Creative?

Almost everyone likes to think they are somewhat creative. But is it something that comes naturally to you?

The topic of creativity is of great interest to psychologists, but it is hard to study for many reasons, primarily because it is hard to assess creativity.

Many researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, including the late Dr. Harrison Gough, studied many creative people: musicians, artists, scientists, architects, and writers, all of whom were peer nominated as highly creative by experts in their respective fields.

Gough found their personality types tend to be:

An ArtistMore Intuitive than Sensing

More Perceiving than Judging

More Extroverted than Introverted

And more Thinking than Feeling

The most heavily weighted factor favoring creativity is the preference for intuition.

There is less energy required to use intuitive knowledge than knowledge that requires conscious efforts, so the more intuitive we are, the easier it is for us to find inspiration, and avoid perspiration!

In regard to intuition, programmers are no more or less creative than the general population.

In the area of creative writing, the creative participants tended to be more Introverted and Feeling. The best creative works are those that pull on our heart strings and make us ponder on the deep questions in life. Often these great works are born out of tragic personal circumstances.

If you would like to know more, The Psychology of Creative Writing goes into much further detail on these studies.

Another attribute that researchers have found in creative people is a high tolerance for ambiguity. According to cognitive psychologist Dr Mark Runco, having a tolerance of ambiguity may allow people to deal with the ill-defined nature of problems that have creative potential. In his book Creativity: Theories and Themes, he suggests that a tolerance of ambiguity leads to a wider range of options under consideration.

Having a low tolerance may mean feeling uncomfortable with the uncertainty of an incomplete solution to a problem, leading to accepting the first adequate solution. Those with a higher tolerance are more likely to postpone the final judgement until a range of options have been assessed.

Regardless of your current personality type, anyone can be creative. It is often found that many creative writers showed little creative talent at school. Creativity can be developed at any stage in our lives. In fact, you could describe creativity as an attitude toward life.

Creative people are those willing to redefine the ways in which they look at problems, who take risks and overcome the intimidating obstacles that others run away from.

“Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it.”

– Dr. Russell Ackoff

Creativity and Perception

The type of thinking often described as creative thinking is more formerly called Divergent Thinking. It is your mind's ability to generate a variety of solutions to a given problem. The opposite of this is Convergent Thinking, or the ability to give the “correct” answer to standard questions.

candle in the darkPerhaps the most famous creativity test is the Candle Problem, where a researcher gives the participant a box of thumbtacks, a candle, and a book of matches. The aim of the test is to attach the candle to the wall so that it doesn’t drip on the table below.

Most people attempt solutions that ultimately fail to solve the problem, such as trying to tack the candle to the wall. The simple solution is to tack the inside of the box to the wall and place the candle in the box.

The reason most people fail to see this is when they are handed the box, they see it as a container. Once the function of the box is registered in this way, it takes a conceptual leap to see it as a platform. Creative people possess the ability to see things in these different ways.

If you’re interested in testing your own creativity, you can find more classic tests here.

In the book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser gives an example of a great scientist who was also a great creative: Niels Bohr. At University, when asked how a barometer could be used to measure the height of a building, Niels was able to provide 5 solutions:

  1. Tie a string to the barometer, lower it, and measure the string.
  2. Throw the barometer off the building and count the time until it hits the ground.
  3. Measure the length of the barometer and its shadow, then measure the building’s shadow and calculate its height.
  4. Tie the barometer to a string and swing it at both ground level and from the top of the building to determine the difference in gravity.
  5. Use the barometer to calculate air pressure (the standard answer).

What is unusual here is the ability to associate the barometer with concepts that it was never designed for. This is what separates the most creative people from everyone else.

Although geniuses such as Niels Bohr are a rare find, you do not need to look very far at all to find creative talent.

“You will never innovate if you focus on following standards.”

– Sandro Mancuso

Childhood Freedom

Happy man covered in powder paint on a sunny dayIt is often said that children are more imaginative and creative than adults, but why is this? It is because they are not aware of the impossible.

As adults, we are burdened under the weight of things that we have either been told we cannot do, or tried and failed at. We actually have more freedom than we had as children, but in our minds we have lost a lot of the freedom that we had. The adult world we live in is full of rules, regulations, and laws.

The very same things seem so much more complicated than they were when we were a child. But are they really so complicated, or are we just overanalyzing the situation? Children remind us that many of the constraints we live by are just mental constructs. We live in a world with more opportunities than ever before.

The Internet makes it even easier to connect with anyone else in the world, and modern travel makes it easier than ever to travel anywhere in the world. New experiences beckon us, but we don’t take them. We have complete freedom, but if we fail recognise and act on it, then we are in a sense living in a self-made prison. Jason Lowenthal has many more examples of how children should serve as an inspiration for you in Sometimes, Children Really Get It Right.

If you’re skeptical about how creative children can be, you’ll be surprised to hear that Microsoft credited a 5-year-old as a security researcher after he hacked into his dad’s Xbox Live account.

Creativity and Professionalism

CreativeProfessionalAlthough children tend to be highly creative, they also make a lot of mistakes and are not professional. If you employ the tactics of the 5-year-old security researcher in your own company, you can expect to be fired and perhaps arrested as well. The process of growing up teaches us to be more responsible.

The goal of becoming more creative is not to become completely child-like, but to find the sweet spot between creativity and professionalism.

John Sonmez has some further thoughts about this area in his article, “You Have to Master the Rules Before You Can Break the Rules.”

For instance, when writing good code, there are many rules, but every rule has its exception. When it comes to professionalism, however, there are no exceptions. If there is ever a conflict between professionalism and creativity, or anything else, always, always choose professionalism. Without personal integrity, you have nothing.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”

– Warren Buffett

This doesn’t mean that we are never allowed to make mistakes. Honest mistakes will be made from time to time no matter hard you try to avoid them. Professionalism is about not mistaking the dishonest mistakes.

Rediscovering Your Creativity

The key to creativity is to approach life in a creative way. And the way we approach life changes dramatically over the course of our lives.

Let Go of the Fear

Brave superkidThe first step in rediscovering your creativity is to lose the fear of being wrong. You need to take some chances and not worry about looking like an idiot. There is little satisfaction in doing anything that is guaranteed to be a success, but it is immensely rewarding to try something new, knowing that there’s a good chance that you may fail, only to eventually succeed.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

– Sir Ken Robinson

Ask yourself: what are you afraid of? Imagine what would happen if you tried something but it didn’t go according to plan. How would you deal with it? Could you deal with it? Of course you could!

Bad things sometimes happen to us in life, whether we look for them or not. So let go of the fear and take the plunge. It might just work out a lot better than you think, and even if not, we can learn a useful lesson that we would have otherwise completely missed.

Change Your Routines

Life is all about having new experiences. Perhaps you have a favourite restaurant that you always go to. Try somewhere new instead. Why should you do this? New inputs encourage your brain creatively, because it creates new connections in your brain.

If there’s something that you’ve been wanting to try for a while, whether that be a new hobby or a holiday of a lifetime, don’t tell yourself that you can’t because the time isn’t right. Because the time is never right, and that excuse will always stop you from doing what you want to do with your life.

Finding Those Connections

Have you ever thought up an interesting new idea when drunk? Would you have thought of it otherwise? Creativity is about finding new, interesting connections, and this happens inside your brain. Alcohol intoxication is just one way in which your brain becomes more “plastic,” promoting creative or inspirational thoughts.

There are, of course, more healthy ways to achieve this. You’ve probably had a creative idea when you are just about to sleep or even in a dream. You might even have found it annoying that the idea came to you when you were too tired to do anything about it, and then you couldn’t remember it clearly.

There is a scientific explanation for this, regarding our brain waves and its activity at different times of the day. The details are highly technical, but putting it simply, the more your brain is able to make new connections, the more likely you are to find new ideas and inspirations.

Activities that have been found to encourage this include exercising, reading, meditating, and even playing video games!

Choose Happiness

Happy hipster with laptop in the forestThe best news is being creative makes you happier, and being happier in turn helps you to be more creative and less stressed.

“Increases in positive mood broaden attention and allow us to see more possible solutions to creative problems.”

– Dr. Shelly Carson

How to becoming happier is a big topic. There are many books dedicated to this topic. I am currently reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It is a major work, and has been recommended here more than once already. If the concept of flow states is new to you, start by learning how to keep your code flowing.

For a short, easy-to-read, and practical guide on being happier, try The Secrets of Happiness by Lois Blyth.

Learn a Foreign Language

There have been several scientific studies that have found multilingual people to be more creative.

As part of learning a new language, we often find that literal translations do not work.

The process of learning a new language teaches us more about language itself and the  relationships that different words have with each other. This leads to an increased ability to think in multiple divergent ways and to come up with creative solutions to problems.

Step Away From the Computer and Leave the Building

Kent Beck once said some of his best ideas come when he’s out feeding his goats. There are several reasons why creative inspiration is more likely to strike in the great outdoors. Any exercise can help you to develop creative thoughts, and being outside, especially in new places, increases the chances of discovering and exploring new ideas further.

Work Both in and out of a Team

Opinion is divided on the extent to which teamwork leads to greater creativity. While it can lead to an increased number of creative ideas, it can also result to more crazy ideas. Occasionally, a crazy idea is also a genius idea, but most often they are just plain crazy.

Having a variety of views from many different people can often weed out the weakest ideas and help identify the stronger ones.

Effective collaboration is essential in any organization, but you must also leave some room for individuality. Teams tend to moderate opinions. The wild ideas get thrown out and the safer ideas get approved.

This can work well, but at its worst, teamwork devolves into groupthink, where consensus decision is reached without enough critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, due to the desire for conformity in the group.

“Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
– Steve Wozniak

Ultimately, working both well on your own and as part of a team are vital skills for all programmers. If your team has a strong tendency to groupthink, it may be time to rotate the team, bringing in one or two fresh faces with new ideas, and moving one or two of the existing team members onto a different team with fresh challenges for them.

If team rotation is not an option, the existing team can still become more creative by looking into what went wrong and discussing ways in which the team can work more effectively together.

Turning Theory into Action

Actions speak louder than wordsWe’ve covered a variety of ideas. I think of them as a pick and mix selection: you can try as many of them as you like. Some, such as abandoning your fears, can be implemented straight away.

Learning a foreign language on the other hand is not something that you can do in an afternoon. Depending on the language, or how fluent you want to be, it will take either months or years.

Before attempting to learn any huge topic, it’s important to learn about how to learn effectively. John Sonmez covers this in his book, Soft Skills, and also has a course called 10 steps to learn which could help you to learn much more effectively.

For many projects, the ideas stage will be the easier part, and there will be frustrations when trying to turn ideas into a real product. Especially at the early stages, the product will look a lot cruder in reality than it is in your imagination. Along the way, you may need to make some concessions to your original vision.

Don’t think ahead to this while at the ideas stage. Giving up an exciting idea due to practicality is a shame, but giving up prematurely is far worse.

As programmers, we can often be too quick to dismiss an idea, saying, “No, that can’t be done. No, that would not work,” because we cannot currently think of a way to implement it. Instead write down all of your ideas, and assess later which ideas are the most feasible. Even if the creative project is very tough, it may still be well worth the effort. All of history’s greatest creative works have involved something extraordinary.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this creativity series as much as I have enjoyed writing it. The single point that I want to reiterate is, even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative person, everyone has creativity within them waiting to be unlocked.

I will leave you with the immortal words of Steven Pressfield:

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

– Steven Pressfield

About the author

    Kevin O'Shaughnessy

    A senior Web developer based in the UK. Kevin runs a blog at www.zombiecodekill.com and is also a regular guest blogger at Outlier Developer. He believes in continuous learning and improvement. Kevin is also active on Twitter @OShaughnessyKev.