How to Live a More Creative Life

Throughout my life many people have said to me, “Justin, you know, I’m just not a creative person!” and for the longest time I’ve always wanted to say something. Today, I am finally breaking the silence. When we were children we were always learning, and creating new things. We bravely explored new ideas and we weren’t afraid to fail. We are all creative. To be human is to be creative. It doesn’t matter if you are a fast-food worker or an engineer. Through creativity, we can come up with unique solutions to the world's problems

Go back far enough [in your family tree] and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.
— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

1. Practice Your Craft Everyday

I recently read a study where the creativity of three groups was tested:

  1. People who created music on the piano
  2. People who played pre-written music on the piano, and
  3. Non-musicians

The goal of each group was to come up with different uses for an object. For example, a rock could also be used as a paperweight. The group that came up with a greater number of uses was deemed more creative. 

creative uses for objects

Group 1 performed better when it came to listing alternative uses for musical objects. In other words, they were musically more creative than the other two groups. This almost seems obvious. However, there were individuals in group 2 that had been playing piano for 10 years or more. They were good. Often we see an individual that is gifted at playing music and assume that they are also creative. Clearly, that’s not how it works. We have to actively work on our craft. We have to actively create things to be creative. Also, the study concluded that the 3 groups performed the same for non-musical objects. In other words, creativity doesn’t always transfer to another field. Someone who is creative in music, won't necessarily be creative in painting. The first key is to create everyday (or as much as possible).

2. Don’t Be Original, Be Authentic

There are around 7 billion people in the world. The chances of any one of us having an idea that no one else has ever had before is slim. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all the individuals who come up with unique and innovative ideas too. They deserve all the praise they get! I just don’t think originality is something worth striving for. Authenticity is a much better goal. Although someone may have a similar idea as us, they don’t have all the same unique life experiences as us. They aren’t us. To be authentic is to inject our very selves into our creations and make it our own. A reflection of ourselves. Originality is something that will come naturally and with time if it is meant to be. Being authentic makes it easier for people to relate to us. I’m not saying we should steal other's ideas and call them our own. We also shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Creating is meant to be fun and it’s about exploring ourselves. Sometimes we will find ourselves inspired by another and we should follow this path. The knowledge we gain by following others will eventually allow us to create our own paths. After creating our own paths, others will follow us until they can create their own path. 

3. Use “Combinatory Play” 

combinatory play

Combinatory play is the practice of shifting our focus away from a problem onto another activity. The main idea is to stop consciously thinking about a problem. This allows the unconscious mind to take over. Our unconscious mind “plays” with all the ideas. It runs through experiences, and feelings that we have had over our lifetime. It combines all the above to come up with new solutions. A commonly cited example for this practice is Albert Einstein. When Einstein came across a difficult problem, he would walk away from his work and play the violin. Solutions then seemed to just spontaneously pop into Einstein's head. 

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought - before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others…
— Albert Einstein

It isn't just Einstein either, many great thinkers have had a "eureka" moment. For example:

  • Henri Poincare - French mathematician, discovered solution for "Fuchsian functions" after drinking coffee before bed one night (not his usual routine). He couldn't sleep and ideas just rushed into his head
  • Archimedes - Figured out that objects with a certain volume would displace an equivalent volume of water when placed inside a container of water while taking a bath (famous story of him jumping out of the bathtub naked)

Think about your own life. Have you ever given up on a problem to do something else? For example, wash the dishes or take a bath. Did the solution to the problem seem to just come to you? Lots of my own ideas for articles actually come to me when I wake up in the middle of the night. When I go to use the restroom, I’m usually in a dreary, unconscious state and ideas just randomly pop into my head. Lots of these ideas are illogical but a few are actually great. This article was one of those ideas that approached me in the middle of the night! George de Mestral, the creator of Velcro, came up with the idea when he took his dog for a walk. He noticed that burr was getting caught in his dog's fur. After examining the burr under a microscope he noticed something interesting. He saw that they had hooks that were getting caught in the loops of the dogs fur. As a result he came up with the hook and loop fastener for watches (velcro). Combinatory play isn’t always as simple as walking away from the problem (although it can be). We have to seriously distract ourselves from the problem at hand. We have to then allow our unconscious minds to incubate and play with solutions to the problem.  

Jonathan Schooler conducted another study validating the connection between mind wandering and creative insight. He found those who spend a period of time engaged in undemanding activities that facilitated mind wandering performed better on tests of creative thinking. A follow-up study confirmed these findings among creative individuals including physicists and writers
— Victoria Stevens, To Think without Thinking

4. Share your work

Our creations can be a gift to the world. We owe it to the world to put our work out there. I know lots of creators are scared to put their work out there, for fear of being judged. Have you ever thought that it may be selfish to not share your creation? We never know the effect our creations will have on others. Even if it inspires or moves just one person, it has done more than enough. I like to trust in the butterfly effect.

It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world
— Chaos Theory

Your work may inspire someone, who inspires someone, who inspires someone, who ends up solving a major problem in the world. Or no one may ever hear, see, listen, or experience your art. NOTE: art doesn't have to be a painting, anything you create can be art. It doesn’t really matter and we never really know. Art is not meant to save the world (although that’s great if it does). The best we can do is just put our work out there and hope for the best. Art is both serious and not serious as the same time, this is just a paradox all artists should learn to live with. 

5. Manage Your Ego

In order to live more creative lives, we have to keep our egos in check. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic” she offers an interesting idea. She believes that people aren’t genius’ but that they actually have genius’.

...you cannot expect it to be there for you all the time. It will come and go, and you must let it come and go.
— Elizabeth Gilbert on her creative genius, Big Magic

She believes that these genius’ have work or idea’s that they want to manifest. If we are lucky and determined enough they may choose to manifest that idea through us. I feel that this is a clever way of keeping the ego in check. If you have an amazing idea and it works, that's great! But you can’t really take full credit for it because it was your genius that manifested the idea through you. But, if you come up with a terrible idea and it fails, that too is not your fault. Your genius just didn’t happen to show up that time. This allows us to prevent ourselves from being arrogant. It prevents us from having an overinflated ego when we succeed. Likewise, it prevents us from being depressed when we fail. Furthermore, I don’t really believe in such thing as “high” art. I believe that all art is art. An overinflated ego can make us fearful that we will never produce an idea as great as our greatest idea. A depressed ego can make us never want to create again. To keep creating we have to stay open minded, and just let the ideas constantly flow through us. Sometimes we will come up with amazing stuff, and other times we won’t. It’s just a part of the creative process. The less attached we are to the outcomes the longer we can keep at it, and the more consistent we can be.

6. Don’t Punish Yourself - “live life like a trickster, not a martyr”

An interesting idea Gilbert offers in her book  is to live life like a trickster and not a martyr. A martyr is someone who takes their art very seriously and believes in creative suffering. The martyr is the tormented artist. They believe art is pain and that pain is art. This is a dangerous game to play with oneself. It’s sad because many great creators take their lives when they adopt this mindset. They are attached to their successes and failures. I’d rather all of you live to see another day and to continue putting your creations out into the world. Whether you know it or not, the world is a better place for you putting your work out there. It takes a lot of bravery to do that. So I hope you choose to adopt the “trickster” mindset. The trickster is “light”, clever, and sees creativity as a game. I believe Gilbert said it best when she said:

[The trickster] trusts his own cunning, his own right to be here, his own ability to land on his feet in any situation. To a certain extent, of course, he also trusts other people (in that he trusts them to be marks for his shrewdness). But mostly, the trickster trusts the universe. He trusts in its chaotic, lawless, ever-fascinating ways-and for this reason, he does not suffer from any undue anxiety. He trusts that the universe is in constant play and, specifically, that it wants to play with him
— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

7. Have an Open Mind

Lastly, I believe it’s important to have an open mind when creating. The best thing we can do is not get too attached to one idea. I produce music with one idea in mind only to end up with something completely different. If I was attached to my original idea, I may not have ended up with a song at all. Only by letting go of the first idea, can I fully appreciate the second one. Creativity works in weird and mysterious ways. By keeping an open mind, we can stay flexible and embrace new and better ideas when they come to us.


What are your tips for living a more creative life?