28 July 2016

What is creativity? How to be more creative? I don’t know. Do you know? I have some ideas about it, based on my observations of creative people and my efforts to write.

My hypothesis is that everybody can train and develop their creativity, through regular delivery of good enough art and craft, and ongoing increase in the quality and the frequency.

Lets me first talk about what I mean by creativity? For me, it is about making something new. First of all, making. If you only think about what you want to create, and not make anything out of it, then there will be no result of this creativity and it is pointless. It is not creativity, it is thinking. The result of the creativity needs to be in a medium different than your brain. This medium could be anything. It could be a piece of paper, a rock, or even the minds of other people. If you gather up your friends and give a speech or a toast, even if this speech is not recorded in a video or audio, your friends remember it.

The second condition is that the creation must be novel. Otherwise it is just copying. For example, if you take two ideas from two other creations and you combine them into a new creation - then it still counts as creativity! If you see an impressionist painter using dots to construct an image and you think it is a cool idea, and you make a different painting with the same technique, then this is not copying. The total combination is something new. But if you take a part of their painting and reproduce it exactly, then you are copying, and not being creative.

By my definition of creativity, the making of new things, I claim that you can train yourself to be creative.

Some people equate creativity with the generation of new concepts, styles, genres, etc. With having some major great idea that nobody else has had before. They would argue that we cannot create ideas at will but need to catch them when they come near us. They would argue that great ideas decide on their own when to come and in what form and we cannot manufacture them. Since they equate ideas and creativity, they might argue that we cannot manufacture creativity - it is something that we get externally, and cannot develop ourselves. Even though I don’t disagree that ideas are elusive beasts, and we cannot have a process for comming up with great ideas, I claim that we can get excellent at catching those beasts, setting traps for them, and hunting them down once we spot their shadows in the woods. And once we’ve caught some of them, we can domesticate and breed them.

But, as I said, ideas are not creativity. Making new things is creativity. Ideas facilitate creativity but it is not necessary to get a new idea every time you create. It is fine to reuse old ideas, in new combinations. Seriously. Look for example at the paintings. The idea that you’ll put a bunch of paints on canvas has been reused over and over. Each style in painting is an idea which combines with the idea of putting paint on canvas. Each individual painting is just a combination of previous ideas. And sometimes the painter is lucky and that combination in itself reveals a new idea.

You don’t need a new idea in order to create. Just gather up a bag of ideas, pick a combination that nobody has picked before and do the mechanics of setting this idea into reality. The mechanics are just mechanics and we can get more adept at them as we practice.

But how do you find a new combination of ideas? Aren’t they all taken already? Nope. There are so many possible combinations. If you have N basic ideas, wild or domesticated beasts, then you have 2^N possible combinations. That’s a lot. Of course, it gets harder to combine more than a small number of ideas together, so a more realistic number can be N to the power of K for some small fixed K. Given that there are thousands, if not millions of already known ideas, it becomes obvious that the number of viable combinations is too large to be fully exhausted.

And, I will go one step further to personalize creativity. Even if anyone else has done the same combination of ideas before, but you didn’t know about it, and you make it on your own - then I would still count it as creativity. So creativity is making things that are novel to the maker.

But hey, I said that you can train to be more creative, but I’ve been talking about combinations of ideas and copying. I’ve shown that you can be creative even if you aren’t good at catching wild ideas, but I’ve also not given any practical ideas about how to train to be more creative.

I think it is simple. I don’t think it is easy. My answer is - pushing yourself to create stuff with quality and quantity, over a long time. And I think that both quality and quantity are important and they help each other.

For example, I want to write one hundred decent essays in one year to achieve this. This is focus on quantity. I am not trying to write the best essays possible. I’m trying to write a lot. My plan is that if I force myself to write a lot, and I try to keep my writing improving, I will improve my ability to express myself eloquently in English and will improve my ability to think in detail about complex topics and to construct complex arguments on the fly. I believe that this focus on quantity will also improve the quality of my writing.

And so far, as long as I keep writing, I find it easier to come up with new topics to write about. When I’m getting one essay done every three to five days, and I encounter an idea, or a combination of ideas that I feel is worth trying to write about, I catch it and I remember it. I tend to notice more of those ideas soon after I’ve written as well. I then keep the catch in a priority list of one or two future ideas to write about. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t make sense for me to switch away from the current topic until I’ve finished it or have explicitly decided to abandon it.

I’m focusing on quantity, but I also avoid working on more than one thing at a time.

When I bite down on an idea I don’t let go even if I notice a juicier one around. I just make sure to finish eating every single piece of meat from it until I set my eyes on the new target. If it were that juicy and tender, I’ll still remember about it and go after it. To me it is important to finish what I’ve started, because I get easily distracted. Before committing to this simple rule of thumb, I’ve struggled for a while to start writing regularly.

I think that it is worth noting that focusing on quality can also improve the quantity, by increasing efficiency of certain tasks. But my intuition is that quantity improves quality a lot more than the other way around. And that’s why I focus on quantity first.

In summary, my recipe for becoming creative is to focus on quantity first, then quality, and moving to new projects only after completing the old ones. I think it is possible for anyone to be creative. It is not so much a matter of intrinsic talent, as much as being able to pay the price in effort.

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I write these posts to clarify my thoughts and improve my communication. They are mainly written for myself, and my future self, but I'd love to hear any comments you might have, especially if you disagree with what I've written, or if you've found it valuable in any way. Message me on Twitter @themitak or email me at comments@dimitarsimeonov.com.