If there’s one thing to learn from poring over the daily rituals of history’s greatest artists, it’s that creativity is elusive, even for the best of us. Long stretches of unproductivity, agitation, even full mental breakdowns are par for the course; the hope being that in between all the anxiety and suffering, a glimmer of inspiration will eventually break through the noise and make it all worthwhile. Though they have very different methods of summoning their muses, successful artists, writers, scientists and thinkers seem to understand that creativity rarely appears to those unwilling to sweat for it. “You can’t wait for inspiration,” the author Jack London once said. “You have to go after it with a club.”
But contrary to how it might sound, being creative doesn’t necessarily mean logging countless hours becoming an expert. Consider the criteria used by the U.S. Patent Office when reviewing new applications: In order to be considered, an idea must be novel, useful and — most importantly — surprising. Any expert in a given field can come up with something original and meaningful. The ideas that are awarded patents come from somewhere beyond technical training.
This isn’t to say that expertise achieved through “deliberate practice” — the “considerable, specific, and sustained efforts” to excel at a particular skill — isn’t beneficial. But it isn’t the whole story.
“Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again, writes Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American. “But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors.”
Entrepreneurs face the same challenge as artists in that they’re under constant pressure to subvert the norm. While there is no silver bullet for harnessing creativity, there are strategies you can use to create the ideal environment for it to flourish.
Remember that creativity is often messy
If cultivating expertise is a straightforward process characterized by repetition, consistency and reliability, creativity is the opposite. As Kaufman put it, “If only creativity was all about deliberate practice. We could all just practice our way to creative acclaim.”
Unfortunately for the structure-obsessed, creativity involves lots of trial and error, and doesn’t even come with the benefit of helpful feedback. It’s this — the solitude, the uncertainty, the lack of a roadmap — that London is talking about when he says you have to chase inspiration with a club.
This means looking the messiness in the face and not giving up. To do this, I recommend starting small. Breaking up your creative projects into bite-sized, manageable tasks will leave you more likely to push through the uncertainty and discomfort that comes with making something surprising. Remember, every great novel you’ve ever read was written one page at a time.
Cultivate broad interests
One great way to trigger your own creativity is to appreciate the creativity of others. Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, suggests going on “Artist’s Dates,” which can be anything from watching a foreign film from a country you’ve never been to, or reading a short story if you usually read non-fiction.
The point is to stretch your mind in ways that it doesn’t usually stretch, taking in experiences and triggering thought patterns you might not otherwise have. This sort of mental exposure isn’t just for artists. Psychologist Howard Gruber found that rather than pursuing one research question single-mindedly, the most creative scientists had their hands in “networks of enterprise,” pursuing several loosely connected projects. He points to Charles Darwin as an example, writing that,
“Darwin was a pigeon fancier, but he had no need to strive to be a great breeder. For him, consorting with pigeon breeders was a way of steeping himself in the art and lore of breeding, the knowledge that he could turn to good account in other enterprises, in the zone of his greatness.”
Whether you’re exploring interests adjacent to your main field of expertise or something totally different, getting outside your mental comfort zone is essential to growing your creativity.
Too much knowledge isn’t helpful
Another argument for maintaining diverse interests is that too much knowledge in one area can actually work against you. Research has found that the relationship between knowledge and creativity can be represented by an inverted U-shape curve: Some knowledge is good, but too much begins to hamper flexibility.
This was also the point made by UC Davis professor Dean Simonton, who conducted a sprawling study that looked at creative geniuses born between 1450 and 1850. His subjects included a range of thinkers, from philosophers like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and René Descartes to artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt van Rijn. In comparing the relationship between their education and eminence, he arrived at the inverted-U, and subsequently concluded that, “The most eminent creators were those who had received a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college.”
This isn’t to say that dropping out of college will make you the next Beethoven; it just means that after a certain point, too much knowledge has diminishing returns.
Give yourself unstructured time
Everyone — artists, yes, but also programmers and everyone in between — has the potential to be creative. As the CEO of a company that makes online forms, my creativity certainly isn’t the “tortured genius” kind. But it does take creativity to grow a company, and I couldn’t have done it without making sure I had unstructured time to let my mind wander.
Anyone who has ever felt mentally refreshed after a walk can attest to the power of doing nothing, but science also backs it up: In one creativity test, researchers gave participants two minutes to develop new uses for everyday items, like bricks and shoes.
During a 12-minute break, some people had to complete a difficult memory task, while the others were given an easy task that encouraged mind-wandering. And guess what? The participants with the easy task performed about 40 percent better the next time they had to think of new object-uses.
It’s good to develop a deep knowledge of the things that you care about. But if you want your thoughts to surprise you, you’ve got to step back and give yourself the time and space to explore the unfamiliar. It’s out there that some of your best ideas are waiting.