We put “geniuses” like Maya Angelou, Frida Kahlo and David Bowie on a pedestal because their acclaimed creations live on — and they shared them in a highly public way. But, creativity doesn’t require a public body of work. It’s misleading to think that some people are creative and some are not.
I believe that everyone can be creative if they have the right environment and an open mind. That’s because creativity is a mindset and a way of processing the world. As author James Clear puts it:
“Creative thinking is not about generating something new from a blank slate, but rather about taking what is already present and combining those bits and pieces in a way that has not been done previously.
The creative process is the act of making new connections between old ideas or recognizing relationships between concepts.”
Let’s look at it another way.
In his 2011 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote that world-class artists, musicians and athletes achieved mastery by practicing for about 10,000 hours.
Somehow, we extended that premise to all creative activities, even though it best applies to repetitive, rule-based fields like chess and sports.
In response, many creatives began striving for that magic 10,000 hours, even though creative work isn’t just an “expert product.” According to author Scott Barry Kaufman, “Creativity must be original, meaningful, and surprising.”
Original: the creator goes beyond the norm
Meaningful: the creation is functional or offers a new interpretation
Surprising: the result surprises not just the creator, but those who experience it
This three-part definition applies to startups, entrepreneurs, writers, designers, UX specialists, and just about everyone I know.
When I launched JotForm in 2006, I didn’t think much about creativity. I was a developer — and coders are just analytical tech nerds, right?
Growing my idea into a company with over 3.5 million users and 100 employees certainly took creativity; just not the tortured-artist-creative-genius version.
1. Start small
Creativity is problem-solving. But if you’re trying to tackle too many things at once, your brain can feel like it’s hosting a small tornado.
You can’t think straight, let alone combine ideas in surprising ways.
When my team is struggling, I always advise them to solve one small problem at a time. This applies both to collaborative projects and your own work.
You can’t write a novel in one sitting. Start with one page. Then another. Step away from it and let the ideas gel.
Not only do small, consistent steps add up, but they allow you to brainstorm and go deep into that piece of the puzzle.
2. Create or embrace constraints
In 1960, Random House publishing founder Bennett Cerf bet one of his authors, Theo Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), that he couldn’t write a great children’s book using just 50 different words.
Dr. Seuss took the bet and created Green Eggs and Ham, which has sold over 200 million copies since its original release.
Talk about constraints, Sam-I-am.
Much like narrowing your focus, constraints fuel creativity. They force you to think broader, wider, and make quirky associations that often lead to innovative solutions.
So if you’re frustrated by constraints, try to embrace them instead. Use them to your advantage. And if you’re floundering in a sea of possibilities, try to impose constraints on your work.
For example, we’ll give our designers specific size requirements, or say they can’t have more than 10 elements on a screen.
Put yourself in a temporary box and you may soon find an inspired escape route.
3. Let your mind wander
Most people have had an a-ha moment while showering, washing dishes, walking the dog, or potting a plant.
It’s so relatable, it’s almost becoming a cliché — but the effect is real, and it’s backed up by science.
In a Harvard Business Review article by David Rock and Josh Davis, the authors explain that mind-wandering can trigger important insights. They cite a creativity test where 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 tough memory task. Other participants were given an easy task that encouraged mind-wandering:
“The people in the latter group performed approximately 40% better the second time they completed the creative object-use task.
Conversely, the participants who completed the demanding task failed to show improvement.”
The brain needs time to process and explore.
Try to schedule breaks, walks, or anything that gives your grey matter some breathing room. Expose yourself to new sights and sounds.
Changing your thought patterns can often turn on the creative lightbulbs.
4. Automate and systemize (yes, really)
Creativity needs time and space to grow. That’s where automation comes in. When you can systemize repetitive processes, steps, or tasks, you free yourself up for better problem solving.
I know this might sound simple, but it can be the difference between swimming through your day and merely treading water.
We have an awesome marketing and operations team that creates landing pages and email blasts. It’s one of their key responsibilities. Until recently, they were sending these emails manually and they had no time to think creatively.
We’ve since automated the process, and now, they’re A/B testing and applying their best ideas to larger goals, rather than repetitive daily tasks.
If you’re struggling to find room for creativity, look at what you can automate. Where can you implement reliable systems? Clear out the clutter and make room for divergent thinking.
5. Find metaphors and parallels
I love a good metaphor. Comparing otherwise disconnected ideas or concepts can deepen understanding. They can also spark real creativity.
Whenever our team is stuck on a design feature, for example, we try to find a helpful parallel.
If we’re looking at conditional logic, maybe we compare it to programming. What are the elements of programming? Well, programs have versions. So, maybe we should apply versions to our conditional logic features. And so on…
I’m getting into the technical weeds here, but metaphors are a great tool to loosen up your thinking and break through creative blocks.
6. Ask “what if?”
Constraints make the problem smaller.
You can also tease out new ideas by imagining something that doesn’t exist — and bonus points if the suggestion seems slightly outlandish.
One of Google’s nine core principles of innovation is that everyone should aim to be ten times better. Not just a little better. Ten times better.
Imagine you’re developing a new service offering. Instead of nudging the bar a little higher, what would blow the current version out of the water? You can apply this principle to so many problems:
How could we multiply profits by 10 times?
How could we have 10 times the social impact?
What would make this experience 10 times more fun for our customers?
Now your wheels are turning. Keep going. You might come up with some slightly ridiculous ideas, but chances are you’ll also turn up some gold.
7. Make changes and build momentum
We all know the Newtonian law that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, while an object in motion stays in motion.
That’s why the third mile of a run is so much easier than the first, and the couch seems to have a magnetic pull when you’re watching Netflix.
The same logic applies to products (and services, too). Once you start tinkering with one part, you begin to see other problems that need fixing.
The momentum you develop bleeds into new aspects of your work and can inspire creative solutions.
Changing up an established routine, practice, or even your physical space can also lead to breakthroughs.
Every time we move to a new office, we end up hiring more people — even if we hadn’t planned to grow the team. There’s something about the fresh space (and the new possibilities it implies) that triggers a growth spurt.
So, think about how to build momentum. Look for changes, both big and small, that could lead you in a new direction. Switch up your assumptions.
8. Look to your customers — and your team
Remember that your brain is not the only wellspring of creativity. You can also turn to customers and users for a fresh perspective.
When our product team starts working on a new feature version, they usually have strong ideas about how it should look and behave. Then when they dig into user interviews, bug reports, and surveys, customers often have a totally different opinion.
The teams have to reconcile their own expectations with real user requests — and that’s often where the magic happens. Focusing on the customer (not the competition) brought us over 1 million new signups last year.
The people who use your products and services, or who consume your content, often have ideas you’ve never considered.
Ask for them. Aim to understand how they think.
This isn’t just about basic testing or market positioning; it’s an ongoing practice that can re-invigorate your creative process.
9. Nurture trust
We’ve all heard about hard-drinking, hard-living artists who sacrificed everything for their craft.
There’s an alluring romanticism to these stories, yet they’re dangerous, because they separate us from them.
It can be easy to doubt your creativity when you think it’s paired with destructive habits. On the flip side, if you believe meditation, a macrobiotic diet, and monk-like discipline will elevate your brain into creative nirvana, you could face disappointment.
More than any of these external factors, I think trust expands creativity. You have to feel secure about where you are and what you’re doing.
You have to trust in your own abilities. You need to trust that you will find a solution, and you will come up with the answers you need.
If you’re a founder or you have a team, make sure they feel secure in their roles. Empower them with the tools and the confidence they need to bring forward genuinely creative ideas.
Nurture trust — in your thinking, your team, your purpose — and see just how much you can accomplish. You might surprise yourself.