Cultivating creativity

You might think of creativity as something clever marketers or copywriters whip out when they need to come up with a compelling ad, or a personal ability only certain people naturally possess. 

Coming up with great ideas (or being creative) isn’t something that you can just leave alone, and then switch it on when required. It is a learnt skill – an ongoing experience with your mind and thoughts. If you don’t live a creative life, you’ll find it extremely difficult to switch it on when needed.

I believe everyone can be creative. Although, I’m not going to lie – it does take practice, time and focus to become your true creative self. To help everyone along their way I’ve developed a very simple ‘process’ that will help improve your imagination, originality and provide the tools to get you thinking differently.

I appreciate many of you are at different stages of creative ability. However, sometimes we all need to go back and remind ourselves of what the starting line looked like. With this in mind, here are a few steps that will help cultivate your creativity, build inspiration and provide direction when faced with your next creative challenge.

Ask the right questions

If you ask the same questions, you’ll get the same results. Let’s look at things differently. Here’s a classic question, that when you dive a little deeper and ask different questions, you will bring out very different results.

  • “How can I build a better mousetrap?”

This question instantly restricts you to just thinking about the mousetrap that already exists. If you remove the fact that there is already a mousetrap, and ask different questions, you may land on a more innovative and new outcome to the problem of mice running around your house. How about these alternatives;

  • “How do I get the mice out of my house?”
  • “What does the mouse want?”
  • “How can I make outside more attractive to a mouse than inside my house?”

This is a great way to start seeing and thinking about things differently. None of these questions relate to a mousetrap. But they all direct you into looking at the problem in different ways – don’t trap and kill the mouse, understand the mouse!

Debug your life

Criticise an imperfect product or situation you come in contact with every day – be brutal about it. Once you have a list, think of ways to eliminate each of the annoyances you’ve uncovered. Doing this well can amplify your creativity, as we all know it’s the little problems in life that are often the symptoms of bigger ones.

Become an expert

The secret to exceptional success doesn’t lie in natural ability, but in deliberate practice. It’s not just doing the same thing over and over again, however. It should involve pushing yourself to master tasks just slightly beyond your capabilities. You have to become an expert in an area before you can be creative in it.

Successful creators don’t just like knowledge, they thirst for it. They can’t stop asking questions, and they always go beyond what they’ve already learned. 

There are an abundance of methods to do this.

  • Listen to TED talksIf you’ve never experienced a TED Talk then you’re missing out. They’re free videos of inspiring, sometimes funny, and almost definitely fascinating speeches made by brilliant people. To get started, check out these TED talks about creativity and creative thinking.

  • Jump and delve into a subject. Don’t be content with just reading one article, or watching one video on a particular subject you’re interested in – go deep, real deep! Be a sponge, absorbing all the details, asking yourself new questions, discovering new answers, learning from individuals who are masters in the subject, forming your own opinions, and then challenging everything.
  • Get yourself a mentor Here’s a fact; nearly all Nobel Prize winners have a mentor in their lives, some have several, across various professions and abilities. A mentor shares information about their own career, as well as provide guidance, motivation, emotional support, and role modelling. A good mentor will help with exploring careers, set you goals, develop your network, and identifying resources to help you along your career or aspirational journey – plus a whole lot more.

Be open and aware

Creative people are always on the lookout for possible solutions to problems. By being more aware and practicing some simple mindfulness techniques, you’ll start intentionally noticing things that otherwise you wouldn’t have seen. It will also help you to avoid stereotyping things and people, removing many of the preconceptions you have and simply open your mind to different ways of understanding and interpretation.

  • Create your own luck. It has been found that people who describe themselves as lucky tend to notice things more than people who describe themselves as unlucky. They react to unexpected opportunities and typically put aside any introvert tendencies when it comes to networking with others – that’s because they’re curious. 
  • Embrace accidents and failure. Plenty of inventions–such as Penicillin, The Slinky, Post-it Notes and chewing gum–came into being because someone didn’t brush past an accident, but studied it instead. And failure is the one thing that will make you more successful.
  • Play with children’s toysPlaying children are really good at making new connections. So, go and buy yourself some toys to play with. My office is full of toys, be that desk games, models, musical instruments, computer games etc. By simply playing, you send yourself into other areas of your brain, that otherwise are left idle. That in turn, breaks the cycle of repetitive thoughts, replacing them with explorative, experimental and imaginative thinking.

Play and pretend

When you play, your mind can wander and your subconscious has time to work. This is why time off from work is necessary for creativity to bloom.

  • Explore the future. Imagine yourself being hugely successful five years from now. Write down as many details about what this success looks like. Then write the history of how you got there asking yourself questions like, “What was the first step I took that moved me closer to my goal?” or “What was one early obstacle that slowed my progress, and how did I move past it?”. You can be as broad or specific as you like with your questions.
  • Leave something unfinished. If at the end of the day you leave a problematic task unfinished, it may be easier to solve it the next day. That’s because we leave little cognitive threads in our minds; you know, the things that we think about when we shouldn’t be thinking about them. It’s these times that our subconscious kicks in and delivers some sudden insights into how to solve a problem. That’s when you know tomorrow will be a better day.
  • Become a beginnerLearn how to do something new, such as Hula-Hooping, juggling, carving wood, archery, a language, or musical instrument.

Generate idea volume

This is the part where you come up with ideas, and lots of them.

  • List unusual uses for common household objects. How many different ways you could use a paper clip, brick, or knife? Give yourself five minutes to come up with a long list. Don’t worry about whether your ideas are stupid or not.
  • Try toppling. This is where you use free association to keep generating new words. The trick, though, is to use a different kind of connection between each one. For example, if you start with “carrot” you can’t free associate another vegetable; instead, you might pick “stick,” as in the phrase “carrot and a stick,” then “glue” because you’re thinking of a glue stick. Another example: “Rock” might lead to “Whiskey” because you drink it on the rocks!
  • Set an idea time. Block out a regular time when you’re sharp, relaxed, and undistracted. Maybe take 30 minutes each morning to free-write in a journal. As you do, you’ll notice new ideas and thoughts creep in.


This involves combining things that don’t normally go together, or opposites if you like. 

  • Make remote associationsGo to page 56 in two different books and find the fifth sentence on each. Now create a story that tells the connection between the two.
  • Break from your crowd. We hang out with people who are like us, and while doing so may be comforting, it doesn’t really stretch our thinking. So go and spend some time with unfamiliar people – you’ll see some very different behaviours, and new outlooks on life.
  • Be someone else. Imagining yourself as someone else can be very helpful when wanting to see different perspectives. Try being a chef, a foreign student, a building inspector – put yourself in their shoes, to understand how they see the world around them.

Choose the best ideas

If you’ve followed the previous steps, you should have plenty of ideas. Now the trick is picking the best ones.

  • Know what you’re looking for. To do this, you need to trust your intuition – the sense that an idea has beauty. Go with ideas that are simple, elegant, and robust.
  • Make ideas compete against each other. Select two of them and define how they’re different, even in the most subtle ways. Or if you have more than 50 ideas write each one on a sticky note. Move ideas that seem related close together. You’ll arrive at idea clusters and can look at interesting and hopefully inspiring differences between them.
  • Look past the good. Once you’ve decided an idea is a good one, identify its pros and cons, assign each one a number between one and 10 according to how important it is. The pro total should be significantly higher than your total for cons. 
  • Never stop editing. Everything can always be made better. Find a devil’s advocate to come up with a bunch of reasons why your idea is a bad one. Or, ask people you trust who’ll be honest with you and get them to look critically at your idea and provide you with feedback.

Make something

If you can actually make your idea – make it. Use clay, cardboard, or simply scribble it down. By doing this you actually think your way further into the idea, which typically leads to more ideas and deeper thinking.

  • Draw a picture. Even if you think you can’t draw, you can at least doodle and no one ever has to see what you put to paper. 
  • Make a mood-board. Grab a stack of magazines and look for photos and ads. Clip any that relate to your problem in any way and glue them to a large piece of paper. Keep your mood-board near your desk so you can ponder over it. Doing this may give you new perspectives on your idea.

Making something can seem a little excessive – but believe me, it works – after 30 years as a creative I still do this.

Try, try again

Cultivating your creativity should be fun and rewarding. In order to succeed creatively you at least need to put yourself in a position to try new ways of thinking to help develop and evolve ideas. If it doesn’t work first time, or you feel that you have failed, that’s okay. Just brush yourself off and try again. Remember, failure is an integral part of any creative process.

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