Exploring the Mysteries and Mechanics of Creativity

Many ordinary pursuits—comforting a disappointed child, making a meal of what’s available or solving a problem at work—all require creativity. It’s common to aspire to be creative; even artists, creative people by nature, want to be more creative or produce a greater volume of work at times. So, though it can vary from person to person, research and experience point to factors that foster creativity.

Michael Hendrix of design firm IDEO, in Cambridge, says of his company, “We encourage people to eat well, get lots of rest, stay happy. Because, as a creative person, that’s when your best work happens. The tortured artist coming up with a great idea is actually a great myth.”

While talent may be necessary, it’s not sufficient. Many people judge themselves prematurely as having no talent, when taking a class and putting in effort could prove otherwise. Conversely, others may mistakenly believe they can coast on their talent alone.

Daniel Coyle, author of Talent Code, uncovered three factors that enable exceptional performance in areas such as the arts: deep practice, keeping a successful role model in the forefront of the mind, and having a good coach. Deep practice involves putting in the hours as well as making mistakes, noticing them and learning from them. Everyone can find a role model. It may not always be possible to have a coach, but artists of all kinds can create safe situations for having their work critiqued.

Unlocking creativityInterestingly, many edit themselves before they even get going. Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile conducted numerous experiments showing that people doing a creative task without knowing their work will be evaluated consistently produce more creative work than those that do know. Debra Russell, a New Jersey business coach and founder of Artist’s EDGE, advised one writer to write 1,000 words per day “badly” to overcome perfectionism. This suggests that while it’s helpful to notice the voices judging our work, we need to figure out how to neutralize them to realize our greatest creativity.

Some people rely on inspiration, others on perspiration, for creating work. Trial and error may illuminate elements likely to create the atmosphere for inspiration. Some prefer quiet; some thrive on noise and bustle. Being outdoors may pique creativity for some; being indoors might be crucial for others. Some need solitude; others find collaboration, or simply being around others working on art, indispensable. Some students are inspired by their teachers, and vice versa.

CreativityFor those who don’t rely on inspiration, blocking out time to work is vital. Boston-area composer/singer Steve Thomas would commit to weekly studio time to generate ideas, whether he went in with any or not. Having a dedicated place to work also makes a difference. Setting a clear boundary from distractions (phone, TV, pile of laundry, etc.) helps, as does reducing clutter. Practicing tools (such as deep breathing) to calm mind and body is important, as creating is a higher-level brain function. Distractions, including frustrations with art-making, can deplete brain energy that might otherwise forward the creative process.

Psychologist and author Sian Bellock emphasizes that creativity happens when we are not thinking; letting the mind wander away from the problem allows solutions to emerge. Simplifying may also be useful. Victor Wooten, bassist and author, advises musicians to remember that leaving space between notes is as integral to improvising as stringing together lots of notes.

Creativity makes the world go ‘round in art, work, relationships and problem solving. If we heed what research and observation teach us, we’ll flourish in our creative endeavors.

Karen Welling is a life coach, therapist and musician based in Somerville. She specializes in the arts and athletics, combining coaching with techniques such as EFT (acupressure) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help people achieve their goals. Connect with her at 617-623-3703 or Karen@KWelling.com.

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