Creativity isn’t just for writers, artists, or musicians. Quite to the contrary, anyone who is confronted with a personal or business challenge that requires a new and different solution is engaged in a creative process. The problem with creativity, though, is its elusiveness. It can’t be accessed on demand.
How to break the dam and get unstuck when the idea you seek won’t make itself apparent?
John Cleese and Brian Eno have some invaluable ideas to share. These two titans of creativity have made their mark on our culture in very diverse ways. However, they share a passion for the creative process and communicating their insights on the subject.
Cleese, of course, is famous as a founding member of Monty Python as well as the creator of the Fawlty Towers series and the film “A Fish Called Wanda.” His recently published book, “Creativity” offers thoughts on the creative process and how to harness it.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Brian Eno is not a household name, but he is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and influential figures in popular music who has collaborated with a who’s who of rock icons over the years. Eno published a deck of cards that many artists and creative types have enjoyed using to spark new ways of thinking about creative challenges.
Cleese’s book brings together the thoughts he’s shared in numerous interviews and speeches on the subject and offers some very interesting insights into ways to tap into your creativity and empower your “Intelligent Subconscious.”
Cleese’s observations are based on the work of two noted scholars on the subject.
Brian Bates, a psychology professor at Sussex University, was fascinated with creativity and how the creative mind works. In one of his studies, he researched the work practices of architects to gain insights into the creative mind. Comparing two groups of architects who were identified by their peers as either creative or un-creative, he discovered just two differences between the two. Interestingly, neither one of them was related to intelligence.
The first attribute of the creative architects was that they knew how to play. They could get immersed in a problem, like when a child gets absorbed in a game. The second finding was that the creative architects deferred making decisions as long as they could.
The playfulness contributes to creativity because, in moments of childlike play, you’re much more in touch with your subconscious. The mind is unfettered and uncluttered with the niggling details of daily life. On the second point, when you defer decisions as long as possible, it’s giving your subconscious more time, and possibly more information, to come up with the big idea. This “productive procrastination,” so to speak, gives your subconscious mind time to come up with something, according to Cleese.
The insights of Guy Claxton are also noted by Cleese. Claxton, another Sussex University scholar, is the author of “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind,” and says there are two kinds of thinking: one dependent on reason and logic, the hare brain, and one that’s less purposeful and more playful, the tortoise mind. These two ways of thinking differ on the point of clarity. The hare brain loves it. The tortoise mind doesn’t expect clarity and is comfortable without it. Its focus is more diffused.
What does this mean for people trying to flex their creative muscles more often and more effectively? It means that when trying to be creative, it is important to identify ways to free the mind from interruptions and find some time to focus and be mindful about the creative task at hand. More on that later.
In 1975, Brian Eno collaborated with British painter Peter Schmidt to create Oblique Strategies — a deck of 100 small white cards, each of which is imprinted with a cryptic thought-provoking message. The purpose of the cards is to provide creative thinkers with prods to think about challenges in a different light. Here are a few examples.
The deck can be a handy aid when struggling to find an idea. You can also view a version online. Give it a try next time you find yourself stymied by a vexing creative challenge.
Vincent Van Gogh had an interesting thought on being blocked creatively and the anxiety that can be created when you have a hard time getting started. He said:
“Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.”
In other words, just get going. For writers, that means start writing something, anything to get the gears turning. Don’t let the panic block your tortoise mind. Get going and play. Often these struggling starts seem pointless, but those ideas and ruminations can become invaluable raw material for your tortoise mind to process and eventually generate your idea.
In sum, there is a degree of creativity in all of us, and there are ways that we can maximize that creative spark. Exercise your creativity like a muscle by working at identifying the practices that bring your playful, dreamy tortoise mind to the fore and put them to work.