“Winners don’t do different things, they do things differently.” – Shiv Khera
While there’s no set formula for success; the general consensus is that practice, patience, and perseverance are some of its essential ingredients—and rightly so—but another factor that often gets overlooked is creativity.
Contrary to popular perception, creativity isn’t something that only people in the creative industry need. Even something as simple as fixing a leak in the bathroom on your own requires creativity.
Creativity simply means a person’s ability to readily come up with new ways of doing something. Apart from just getting things done, creativity has a lot of intrinsic value—it improves problem solving skills, increases curiosity, breeds individualism, and nudges you to be original.
Once the mind is trained to think differently, the effect of creativity will not just be restricted to recreational activities and personal projects, but will spill over into other areas of your life as well.
Now that’s all nice and dandy, but how exactly do you become more creative? Are there any specific things you can do? Well turns out there are. Here are six ways of being more creative in everyday life, backed by scientific studies.
1. Embrace your internal conflicts
Creative thinking often needs you to steer away from the established way of doing things and reject ideas that you’ve been trained to believe. At times, this can lead to uncomfortable feelings of internal conflict, which is called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is simply the psychological discomfort caused by simultaneously believing in two contradictory ideas. Dissonance occurs when the person is unwilling to let go of an old belief, but still behaves according to a new one, or when they still behave according to the old one knowing full well that the new one is true.
Grant Lichtman, in his self-help book, The Falconer, makes a compelling argument, that, “dissonance lies at the very heart of problem solving, and therefore is essential to the creative process”.
“Dissonance makes you question: Why, why not, what if, till the conflict is resolved or reduced to a level of acceptability,” he adds.
Lichtman believes that, “great teachers all do one thing well: They create dissonance in the minds of their students and guide them in the resolution of that dissonance.” While such teachers are few and far between, their teachings are the ones you’ll remember and quote much after you’ve forgotten your textbooks.
They bring you out of your comfort zone, make you question things, and leave it unto you to come up with a solution or give up, when deemed necessary.
This method, though often unpleasant, is one of the best ways to cultivate a creative, free-thinking mind. Think about artists, how many times has an artist attributed his success to an internal conflict?
2. Learn a new language
While scientific research between the correlation of bi- or multilingualism and creativity is still in the nascent stage, there have been some studies that suggest that both language and creativity are natural cognitive processes that develop with time and effort.
Human beings are often defined as social animals. We exist in a mixed society, and often teach ourselves or pick up different languages to communicate in an effective way, thereby breaking barriers, leading to better interaction, brain storming, and therefore newer ideas and innovation.
The European Commission has, over the years, conducted several studies to establish a relationship between multilingualism and creativity. One such study conducted in 2009 states that in an organization, multicultural or multilingual teams are often created to solve problems, find innovative solutions and develop new ideas.
“This approach is based on the idea that those who speak several languages have a broader perspective, which can lead to fresh and innovative approaches. Multicultural teams can bring different perspectives to problems, leading to new solutions that foster creativity and innovation,” the study states.
It also states that, “one of the long standing analogies about bilinguals is centered on them being able to see the world through different lenses.” A multilingual person can see different perspectives, weigh their options, and then make a choice.
Learning a new language is as good as a workout for the brain, as say, learning mathematics. It pushes the brain step out of its comfort zone and improves its ability to adapt better to unexpected circumstances. Much like the way muscles adapt in a person who exercises regularly.
The study adds that, “it’s widely suggested that a bilingual is not a monolingual with two languages, because knowledge of different languages amounts to more than the sum of its parts. The bilingual is viewed as having multi competence. It is a compound state of a mind with two grammars.” The study also posits that being multilingual helps the brain sharpen its ability to focus and multitask.
Today, where it is impossible to survive without being in touch with technology, multilingualism doesn’t discount the knowledge of digital languages and its effect on creative problem solving either.
3. Take a hike (…or a walk)
Persistence might be the key to a lot of things, but sometimes, walking away from a problem or a situation is what brings you closer to a solution. As the old saying goes, “sometimes you need to let things lie and be”.
When you’re stuck on a project or find yourself at ethical crossroads; step back and go for a walk. Call it a creative break even. According to research conducted by Indiana University, one’s mental representation of an event or object is a function of its psychological distance.
The study has explored that psychologically near events are dealt with more concrete and “set in stone” ideas, while psychological distance encourages, “abstract, deconceptualized and superordinate features of events”.
The experiment conducted in their study yielded a general observation that when people put some distance between themselves and the problem, “they were not only more fluent and flexible in their response generation, but also generated more creative responses”.
This result was in line with the results of psychological distance on creativity (Fhrster et al., 2004), which stated, “it was the psychologically distant condition that enhances creativity rather than the near condition impeding it.”
4. Bring the coffee shop home
Here’s some good news for people who like working out of coffee shops. A study conducted by the University of Illinois found that certain level of ambient noise is actually good for brainstorming. So, don’t shy away from coffee shops because of the hipster tag.
The study states that noise to the tune of about 70 decibels, similar to what is found in a coffee shop, aids creativity. The study reasoned that, “such moderate distraction, which induces processing difficulty, enhances creativity by prompting abstract thinking”.
It also states that around 50 decibel of background noise, which is pretty quiet, is conducive for work that requires extreme concentration, like accounting, but it doesn’t allow room for abstract or out of the box thinking.
And as one of the advantages of living in these times, there’s an app for everything—which in this case is a website called Coffitivity. The website has a playlist of prerecorded ambient sounds of a coffee shop that can be played at the work place to improve productivity. It includes options like “Morning Murmur”, “Lunchtime Lounge”, “University Undertones”, “Texas Teahouse”, and so on.
In fact, at the time of writing this post, the author actually played some of these recordings, and found them pretty conducive for uninterrupted writing. Personal choice: Morning Murmur.
And if you prefer nature sounds such as rain, thunderstorm, waves, wind, and birds, you can check out A Soft Murmur, which even has an Android app.
5. Take metaphors literally
Do you cringe when you hear, “Rome wasn’t built in a day…”? A lot of people are in the contention with clichés and stereotypes. But the fact remains that they have emerged from old adages, and there’s a reason they have evolved into stereotypes—it’s because there’s a ring of truth in them.
Motivational quotes aren’t just for a pick-me-up, and merely reading motivational stories or attending motivational talks will not solve your problems. Much in the same way that just reading this article won’t you more creative unless you apply each step consciously.
“Think out of the box”, “put two and two together”, “look at things differently”, “failure is the stepping stone to success”, “try and try till you succeed”.
Take any one of these quotes, and apply them word for word.
For instance, an article in Psychological Science listed the effect of following metaphors literally. Scientists, as mentioned in the article, asked a group to come up with ideas based upon the phrase, ‘on one hand…and on the other hand’, literally using two hands while speaking. Another group was asked to use only one hand while expressing.
The ideas presented were judged for, “originality, flexibility and fluency”. The subjects who used two hands to express themselves, it was found, came up with more creative ideas, that were both original and novel. Scientists said that using two hands to help elucidate their thoughts made the subjects look at the problem at hand from different angles, thereby making them think more freely.
Take, “failure is a stepping stone to success” for instance. This is everyday advice, but it is also logical; much like the expression, “you always find things in the last place you look at”, because, of course.
Now, creative thinking isn’t easy. It needs concentration and practice. And you’re bound to reach dead ends and make messy cupcakes the first few times you try baking. But the important thing to do is “to get back on the saddle” and “try and try till you succeed”.
6. If all else fails, get yourself a drink
No, we’re not suggesting that you drink your conundrums away. But studies conducted by the University of Illinois have found that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol leads to more creative thinking.
It’s a known fact that drinking a moderate amount of alcohol helps you put your guard down. It can make the introvert of the group, talk, and even dance. Now consider applying the same, no holds barred effect for coming up with new ideas.
However, it’s important not to dive in with an agenda. It may or may not happen. But evidence suggests that when you ease into a conversation over a few drinks or even just introspect, you’re better able to come up with abstract ideas.
Alcohol reduces the stubborn hold of the mind as a gatekeeper of everything and helps in creating a psychological distance from the issue at hand, which, as explored earlier, leads to interesting new ideas.
All said and done, creativity is not a skill that can be taught in a classroom. It’s also not something that you can learn by just reading this article (though it’s enough to give you something to work with). It requires practice, and lots of it.
Take up small projects to begin with; say home decor, for example. If you’re out of steam, don’t shy away from looking for ideas on the Internet or asking friends.
It needn’t be completely original, but the important thing is to make an effort to do something out of the ordinary. It’s important to consciously train the mind to step out of its comfort zone, to make space for new avenues. Who knows, you might just add a new dimension to the project and make it yours.
Also, always carry a notebook and a pen to note down ideas. You never know when the Eureka moment happens. And when it does, you don’t want to miss it.
Feature image by Johny Myko