Wisdom has it creative solutions come from “thinking outside the box.” And yet, when it comes to our own creative process, we often back ourselves into a corner. For example, “I can only think in complete silence.” Did you ever wonder how those creatively clad folks do their work at the corner café? They may know that ambient noise actually stimulates our best imaginative thinking.
The world’s best innovators take interesting approaches to creativity. By learning some of their habits, you can avoid those ruts—and squash the negative thinking when you’re stuck.
1. Jot It All Down
Take notes, on everything—not just whatever you’re working on. You could solve a problem you never dreamed existed.
You’ll want to especially record random bits of information that remind you, even vaguely, of your current (or next) project. Ask yourself how this knowledge could be used, and leave room for answers. Then, return to these notes later, with new eyes.
Thomas Edison used this approach often. After his death, historians found thousands of Edison’s notebooks filled with diverse snippets—snippets that ultimately inspired more than 1,000 patents. He would continually review ideas he had previously abandoned, which led to some future successes. For example, Edison tried to develop an undersea telegraph cable, and that failure ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. You never know what new spin you can put on an old idea!
Everyone needs a little rest and relaxation—and turns out, fun too. Do you remember how creative you were as a child? No one judged if you colored outside of the lines, or your portrait of your dog looked a little, well, abstract.
As adults, though, we rarely take time to relax, play, and let our minds wander. But when we do, there can be powerful results. Take it from software engineer Snejana Shegheva, who happened upon an ingenious way to explain complicated formulas while watching SpongeBob SquarePantsshow his cartoon buddy how to blow bubbles!
Any kind of relaxation works, but an outdoor refuel gives you a double advantage: nature shows off brilliantly when it comes to innovative problem solving. The idea for Velcro was hatched on a recreational trip to the Alps, when the inventor observed burrs and was fascinated by their fastening feats!
3. Be a Jack—or Jane—of all Trades
Still considering that sewing (or nutrition, or marketing, or language) class? Signing up just might boost your creativity. Why? As you open up to different people and experiences, you gain resources and perspectives—and endless possibilities. Acclaimed innovator Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, who knows from experience that “innovation happens at the interfaces of different disciplines…”. In her case, her engineering training in miniaturization helped her understand how nanotechnology could be borrowed for medical applications. “That idea that you can combine fields and really leapfrog in advances has been something we try to repeat over and over again by bringing in diverse teams with diverse perspectives and experiences,” she says.
In fact, another secret of successful innovators is to approach problems with “beginner’s mind.” As senior executive coach and author Charles Smith points out, “who you are” (or who your company is) can bog you down. It is suggested that you approach problems as though you’re an amateur, dropping the limited view of someone who “knows everything.” Cultivate beginner’s mind by starting from scratch often, as you pursue new interests.
4. Fear, Schmear
Tesla creator Elon Musk is seen as a fearless disrupter who up-ends already-good ideas. But he insists his intention is to improve, not disrupt—and that he is often afraid. Musk focuses on the sustainability of products and the human race, and he is willing to risk anything, despite his fear, to make that giant leap forward.
Often, we fear failure—but it can lead to some of the best ideas. In 1895, Will Keith Kellogg was experimenting with cereal recipes when he accidently left some boiled wheat out. Instead of throwing it out, he decided to cook it anyway, and the result was a crunchy, flaky cereal called Corn Flakes.
As an innovator, you must try, try again—despite fear. Change your habits with some simple reframing: Failures are discoveries in need of a home, and “who you are” is unlimited. So get poised for that giant leap. The world is waiting!