Greetings again! As we start out, I’ve been aiming to practice what I preach, and make a habit of writing as well.
Two themes, or skills, if you can call it that, that I encounter in every domain are:
- How do I cultivate creativity?
- How do I get unstuck?
These two questions are often different angles on the same fundamental issue. The sense of a lack of creativity is often tied to a sense of being stuck.
Three practices that have helped me in this regard:
- Perspective shifting and translation on the same topic
- Priming: setting your mental context
- Compression and Decompression: understanding the phases of creativity
Frequent writing has helped me organize my thoughts, and also think about things from a different perspective.
When writing, I think a little more prominently about an audience, a reader. It could be future me or past me. But there is a subtle shift from simply thinking the thoughts that is sometimes just enough to unlock creativity.
If I’ve come at the concept the same way in my head a million times, I may see nothing new from it. Shifting my perspective even slightly can help me see it differently enough to spot something I may have missed.
Tip: Try to explain something you know intuitively well to someone else. Or write it down. You’ll find that there are some pauses where you’ve overlooked things - assumptions that you’ve internalized because you know something so well, and your mind has put it on autopilot. Those discrepancies are an excellent place to begin your exploration.
Questions: Take a moment to visualize what it was like before you became an expert at this.
- What did intuition - or lack thereof - feel like back then?
- What were the sticking points for you as you began to learn?
- What would you explain to your past self to help you overcome those obstacles? How would you explain it?
- What did the start of intuition feel like?
- Consider something that you are a novice at now. What does that beginner, learning experience feel like? How is it similar to your prior novice experience? How is it different?
- Now envision the future, where you are an expert at the topic that you are currently struggling to learn. What does that look and feel like?
In these questions, I take a constant:
I am trying to learn something new, and I am struggling.
And then I shift my perspective around it:
- Time shift: Recall a past experience of what this was like before, for something I have since become an expert
- Analyze and apply: Distill experiences from that perspective shift and attempt to overlay that lens on your current situation
- Person perspective: pretending that you are telling this to someone else typically forces you into a different tone and frame of mind than how you might convey it to yourself.
Priming Mental Context
Another tactic I have discovered to be remarkably powerful is the effects of psychological priming. For example, if I read something about relaxation and mindfulness before starting my day, I am more likely to at least try to adhere to it as I am swept up in daily activities. It’s sort of like a reminder, but can be even more expansive, and if done well, can set the right tone for your entire thinking.
Naturally, your mind is volatile and ever-changing, so the effectiveness of this approach decreases rapidly with time throughout the day.
Likewise, have you noticed that reading too many news articles about terrible things in the world can put you in a rough mood for the day?
As a result, being deliberate about your exposure to different topics and concepts can serve as a powerful tool: both to protect your focus, and also to put you in the right mindset to be creative.
Exposing yourself to the right mindframes through reading or high-quality, high signal-to-noise conversations is like putting on different lenses that may highlight ideas, concepts, and approaches that were not so obvious before.
It’s a different way to shift your whole perspective.
Compression and Decompression
What you choose to do has a much greater impact on your outcome than simply how hard you work at your chosen goal.
For example: Let’s say you are driving from New York to Los Angeles to meet a friend. What will have a greater impact on how quickly you will arrive at your destination?
- A. Your average driving speed
- B. The route you choose
To be clear, both are necessary. Once you choose the best route, you can optimize by finding ways to increase your speed safely. But if you choose a route that is either hazardous or unnecessarily long, driving fast will still take a lot longer, and you may not even make it to your destination!
Similarly, we are often lulled into a sense that we must constantly be working in order to generate the results we seek. As with the example above, that planning and route selection phase is a multiplier upon your efforts. And if all your resources are spent constantly trying to move forward, there is no space for the necessary planning.
As with athletic training and physical exercise, performance gains come from a combination of a compressive phase (strain) and a decompressive phase (recovery). The recovery, or decompressive phase is where the gains are physically built.
But of course, no gains will be achieved simply by being in a permanent recovery phase. There is nothing to recover from.
Creativity is the same way. We can engage with the right ideas to work with, to mix together, and we must put in the work to actually get things going, and to gain the experiences through which we learn.
But the new ideas, those breakthroughs, tend to come during a decompressive phase. I find that there is value in the calm after the brainstorm. Once you have actively mixed everything up, you have to let things sit, settle and percolate. Once your mind is less active, you have the space for the new ideas to suddenly emerge.
It is why I also find meditation so insight-rich. This is not why I meditate, and it was never the intent. But I noticed that things ideas appear, or something that was just out of my mind’s reach comes into light. The ability to observe carefully allows the nuance and detail to become clearer, and that too, is often a source of creativity.
As a counterpoint, though, sometimes even with enough rest and decompression, nothing comes forth. That is typically a signal that it is time to simply get started with the active, compressive phase of ideation.