creative process

The Joy of Discovery

It’s so easy to get stale in your business practices—even if you’re a creative professional. Our minds get locked into specific programming and ways of doing things.

Then, autopilot is triggered. The wonder and curiosity of the Child within gets imprisoned deep in the psyche, sometimes never to be heard from again.

The drive to learn and discover, however, is a prerequisite to the creative process. When the Child’s innate curiosity—an aspect of any well-integrated adult—and his attraction to learning is re-activated, life’s adventure takes on new meaning. What was once dry and pre-set becomes fun and spontaneous. Our habitual old patterns give way to a renewed sense of inner joy as the discovery process takes hold.

If you’re afraid to break free from social programming and cultural norms—if you resist the creative soul within you—keep in mind what you’re sacrificing. It’s a rare soul who defies convention to truly embrace his or her bliss (in Joseph Campbell’s use of the term).

Your adventure awaits. It begins once you re-ignite the joy of discovery innate to all of us. If you’re already on this path, then perhaps this message is simply a reminder to keep the flame blazing and to reaffirm your quest for higher understanding.

Relinquishing Control of the Creative Process

The more you try to be creative, the more creativity will elude you. Trying to capture the creative impulse is like grabbing water in your hand—the tighter your hold, the less water you retain.

The human ego has a constant drive to control its environment. Secretly believing that it is the source of the universe, the ego willfully looks to change everything. From the ego’s perspective, it is the source of creative inspiration.

Consciousness and psychological research, however, has demonstrated that the ego actually blocks creative expression. The more humility you possess, the more you are able to get out of your own way. As the ego’s hold is minimized, your creative potential is realized.

Instead of attempting to control the creative process, let go trying to change anything.

As a Student, your job is to explore the problem from every angle. But then, the Wanderer must step in. In the state of the Wanderer, the creative genius surrenders to the problem to something beyond himself and awaits the Muse’s answer.

When confronted with a difficult problem, seek to understand the nature of the problem. But then, simply allow the problem to be there. Your creative output can soar.

Incremental Innovation

We tend to think of innovation as explosive ideas that produce radical change. Apple is the poster child for innovation. In the last decade, they reinvented the computer industry, music industry, and mobile industry—and the iPad may create a new mobile computing industry. Not bad at all.

But for most businesses, innovations can be far less sexy and monumental—yet still lead to positive change. The drive behind innovation is to constantly find ways to improve. The operative word is constantly as the innovation process for businesses is never-ending.

The Japanese have competed brilliantly against American manufacturers over the last several decades, utilizing their concept of Kaizen—“constant improvement.” The Toyota production system had been studied by academia and American businesses for years, and yet American car manufacturers continued to lose ground. (Recently, however, even Toyota fell prey to the seduction of the “rush to grow.”)

Kaizen is a philosophy in action that American workers have a difficult time integrating into their businesses. Why? We’ve been programmed to “swing for the fence” every time we’re at bat instead of trying to hit a single. We expect massive change immediately; otherwise we abandon our strategies.

How many brilliant ideas have we failed to capitalize on simply because we don’t have the discipline to execute?

Learn to honor the creative process, live one day at a time, and commit to constant improvement in both your business and personal life. It’s not sexy or glamorous but it produces sustainable results.

Let go of the programming that says it has to happen now. Most “overnight” successes take at least a decade. Accepting this reality brings tranquility; it also leads to a more mature and disciplined approach to business and our personal lives.

Minor improvements compound into significant positive changes over time.

Fear versus Caution

Is fear crippling your business?

Fear is a primal emotion associated with a low level of consciousness. Some people think fear is an important part of our survival. It’s not. Caution is what’s important. Caution and fear are not the same. We survive in spite of fear, not because of it.

Fear shuts down our executive functions—our ability to think and make decisions. Fear causes paralysis, kills creativity, and limits our growth.

People who operate from fear are unhappy. Businesses that operate from fear may survive, but they never thrive.

Caution means that you’re aware of potential pitfalls and take precautions when necessary. Caution keeps us alert. Caution doesn’t tangle us up in a web of emotions like fear does. Caution doesn’t hinder our ability to stay relaxed and focused. We can be cautious and still think and act with reason and accountability.

Fear can be pervasive within any person or business. When fear becomes our default position to act, think, talk, and make decisions, we are debilitated.

Caution is used only when needed, like after a fruitful brainstorm where many ideas are created. Caution helps Black Hat your ideas, searching for the potential pitfalls you missed in the idea generation stage of the creative process. In fear, creative ideas are rarely discovered.

Let go of fear and utilize caution when appropriate. The benefits you’ll reap are beyond measure.

Dancing with Creativity

Creativity doesn’t happen through brute force. When you try to force the creative process, you usually move backwards. Yet, you can’t remain passive either.

Learn to dance with the creative process. Listen to the music and trust you will find a way.

Above all else, learn to be patient. This will be the most difficult task for many of us because we tend to want immediate gratification. We demand results now—and may skip steps to get “there” quicker.

The creative process is an elegant dance with no true beginning or end. The beauty and magic of life is in the dance itself—unbridled and always changing.

When we learn to embrace each moment of the dance as if it was our first, we open up to an incredible new world. Only then do we possess the power to create what we want and have a whole lot of fun in the process.

In The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav had this to say about the dance: “This is another characteristic of a Master. Whatever he does, he does with the enthusiasm of doing it for the first time. This is the source of his unlimited energy. Every lesson that he teaches (or learns) is a first lesson. Every dance that he dances, he dances for the first time. It is always new, personal and alive.”

Uninhibited, passionate and playful, we dance onward, reveling in each step, each note and each fluid movement. Our dance partners are faith and intuition; our dance floor is Planet Earth, and the dance itself is our own true creation.

Are you ready to dance?

When to Share Your Ideas

In his classic Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill wrote: “Tell the world what you plan to do, but show them first.”

It seems contradictory to current business philosophy that touts open communication and the continuous sharing of ideas. In truth, there’s a time and place for both philosophies.

Why shouldn’t you always talk about your ideas and dreams with others? When you talk about your ideas, you put yourself in a position to defend them. This brings your ego into the conversation; this natural defense mechanism can deplete your energy and enthusiasm for the idea.

Even your well intended, loving friends and family, in an attempt to protect you, can stifle your greatest ideas and life-altering plans.

In business, it is usually important to have open communication of ideas and strategies, however, be cautious here too. Unless you surround yourself with a highly empowering team, great ideas will be shot out of the water.

Colleagues are generally more likely to give you Black Hat critical perspectives than Yellow Hat positive outlooks on your ideas. Humans are wired for survival, so caution is an innate human quality. Most humans are not optimistic, so be careful with whom you share your ideas.

Naturally, there is a point when the idea needs to be shared in business, like prior to the execution phase that requires financial resources. Discern when to unleash your ideas on others.

One caveat: If you can find a person or group of people who can be a positive “sounding board” for your ideas and will only provide empowering feedback at early brainstorming stages, this can greatly help the creative process.

Incubate your ideas first. Mull them over. Twist them. Turn them upside down. Shake them around. Free your mind, entering a boundless universe where your ideas can run and play.

Stay Devoted to the Discovery Process

As perpetual students, creative geniuses exhibit an extraordinary level of commitment to their craft. Knowing there is always more to learn, they remain open to new realizations.

Their unwavering commitment differentiates their “way of being” from the masses. For example, 80 percent of people in America feel that a book is inside them, waiting to be written. But how many people will work diligently on their writing? No one would pick up a brush and expect to paint a work of art. Each endeavor requires study, training and a never-ending resolve for excellence.

Although creative inspiration may arise at any moment, it favors those who have prepared for it. Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Howard Gardner notes that it takes at least ten years of consistent study/work/practice on a discipline or craft before genius surfaces, pointing to the works of Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, among others.

Creativity researcher Howard Gruber concurs: “Perhaps the single most reliable finding in our studies is that creative work takes a long time. With all due apologies to thunderbolts, creative work is not a matter of milliseconds, minutes, or even hours – but of months, years and decades.”

This intense commitment may deter the weak-at-heart from pursuing the creative process, but fear not. The lesson for mere mortals is to be patient with ourselves, nurturing our progress and whenever possible, committing more time and energy to our pursuits.

Exercise: Ask yourself, What am I committed to learning this year? Perhaps you know a few things about creative writing, gardening, painting or quantum mechanics and would like to explore these areas in greater depth. Schedule time in your calendar for personal study and practice, classes or a weekend workshop.

Allowing Ideas to Enter Your Mind

Our Western culture is busy. In fact, corporate America has mistaken busyness with business. With an onslaught of e-mails, text messages, phone calls and meetings, there’s no shortage of busyness. There is always something to do.

Little of our daily communication supports the creative process, which tends to favor allowing over doing. You’ve probably experienced a great idea popping into mind as you’ve aimlessly walked through the woods, showered or cruised the highway. It’s the power of allowing at work.

Consider giving your employees space to wander, play and create—even on non-work-related activities. Reverie and play are often the precursor to breakthrough ideas.

Google engineers, for example, spend 20 percent of their time working on whatever they want. Google trusts their talented employees to build useful and innovative things—some of which will become new projects in Google Labs.

The lesson: Sometimes it’s best to focus on allowing instead of just doing.

Honoring Creative Genius

They enchant us, surprise us and serve us. We don’t understand them, yet we marvel at their extraordinary creations and discoveries. They are the world’s creative geniuses.

They come from every background, culture, nationality, occupation, religion, and age. Trying to find mysterious commonalities in their personalities is futile; creative genius is as diverse as the work it produces.

Creative genius is revealed in all forms of art, invention, scientific breakthrough, philosophy, business, medicine, engineering, and even sports. Virtually every endeavor has its pioneers and gifted souls who transform how we think, feel and live our lives.

If brilliance is so elusive, how can we learn from these creative and artistic souls?

Read first-person essays of extraordinary individuals to learn how they view the mysteries of the creative impulse. First person narratives of creative geniuses will teach you far more about the nature of creativity than academia’s top research papers on the topic.

A book like The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences, edited by Brewster Ghiselin, illuminates personal reflections on creativity by geniuses like Einstein, Mozart, Kipling, Henry Miller, and Jung.

We have a lot to learn from creative geniuses. Honor them, learn from them and emulate them to discover the creative genius within yourself.

The Creative Process Revisited

If you review the academic literature on creativity, you’ll undoubtedly come across English psychologist Graham Wallas’ 1926 classic, The Art of Thought. Wallas summarizes the creative process in four basic stages:

  1. Preparation: The mind must prepare for the creative solution, which requires study and thinking intently about the subject.
  2. Incubation: A germination period follows where the person steps away from the problem and engages in some form of activity unrelated to the problem.
  3. Illumination: Often as a flash, a brilliant idea shoots across your mind, frequently during a mundane task or when involved with some other activity.
  4. Verification: The idea must be tested to determine its validity. The musical composition must be scored or the mathematical formula proven.

Although variations of this creative process were developed over the last century, Wallas’ four-stage framework remains. Does this mean anyone can go through these stages and discover brilliant, life-altering ideas? Not necessarily.

Creativity doesn’t magically appear through a linear, step-by-step process. If it were that easy, more people would be creative.

Instead of looking at Wallas’ model as sequential steps, consider them as conditions set in place for creativity to manifest. For example, it’s difficult to go through a period of incubation if you haven’t done your homework—if you haven’t taken the time to examine the problem and understand the context from which it has arisen.

Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” We might also say creativity favors a prepared mind.

The stages of creativity do not cause creativity; rather, they represent some of the conditions necessary for creativity to emerge. When creative insights are discovered, these four conditions are generally present, setting the stage for creativity to unfold.

(See Creativity Revealed: Discovering the Source of Inspiration for a detailed discussion on the creative process.)