Flexing YOUR Creative Muscle

July 27, 2020

by Ravi Raman

Listen to this episode, narrated by me (with a few extra tidbits!) on my Motivate Life podcast! Just search for it (Motivated Life Episode #19) on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.

When was the last time you created something from scratch? If you need to think more than a few seconds about it, chances are you are missing a key ingredient to a satisfying and successful day.

We worry about not getting enough water, sleep, fresh air, sunshine or protein. There are books and podcasts dedicated to filling up our physical tank with the “good” stuff. Very few talk about the value of being insightfully generative and creative. I argue that it’s as important as sleep. The feeling of satisfaction that comes from creating something from scratch is remarkable. It trumps a runners high, and I’ve done a lot of running in my years!

Humans are wired to be creative

Unlike other species, we are not living in the same habitats we evolved into. We didn’t settle. We created solutions to improve things. The capacity to see a circumstance, think expansively and create something new appears to be unique to our species, at least largely so. It’s apparently hard-wired in. This means it’s also very frustrating when we have to stop (or ignore) the generative impulse coursing through our physical and metaphysical veins, though most are doing exactly that.

Remember the days before Wi-Fi and Smart Phones? I do. Sitting in the airport lounge, bored out of my mind with a delayed flight, I’d typically pick up a notebook and start writing, sketching or just sit back and think as I observed people rushing around. The creative tap would open naturally. Occasionally, I’d get really helpful ideas out of the blue, in service of solving a work or life-related problem. In those less tech-centric days, creative impulses seeped through the slack time of life, like cool artesian spring water cracking the surface of the earth.

Today, the creative tap stays firmly shut for most of us. It’s easier to consume news (the same stories repeated every 15 minutes) than it is to sit quietly. Boredom never has a chance to work its magic. Boredom, it turns out, is a harbinger of creativity.

Devasting implications for leaders

There are a few devastating implications of this for the modern knowledge workers and leaders.

First, there is the atrophy of the creative muscle. Sit down and try to write for 60 minutes on a work-related topic without distraction. No bullet points. Just write, starting with a blank sheet of paper. 99% of knowledge workers would struggle with such a task. I bet that a freshman college student would have an easier time. The capacity for creativity is natural, but nature also abhors wasted energy. If there isn’t an obvious need for something, you can expect it to diminish. The implications of this are staggering, given the critical role that creativity (and it’s grandchild, innovation) play when it comes to success in the modern world of knowledge work.

Second, there is a feeling of angst that emerges when something that is innate (and useful) is not used. When I injured myself a few years ago and couldn’t run, it was like a part of me was dying inside. It’s like losing one of your senses. Imagine not smelling for a day or losing your sense of taste! Too many people have acclimated to a life in which the natural flow of creativity has slowed to a trickle, and wonder why something feels “off”.

The implications for business leaders are also vast. Research by organizational coaches Robert Anderson and William Adams (around which their book Mastering Leadership is written) show that creative tendencies are paramount to success as a leader (the same applies to leadership teams and the organizations they run). Yet, only about 20% of leaders make the leap to operating with firmly-rooted creative tendencies. The remainder flounder in highly reactive operating modes. Such “ reactive” leaders (and businesses) focus on protecting, controlling and responding to urgency as opposed to putting their energy on proactive achievement, systems-thinking, relationships and self-awareness.

Develop your creativity habit

Beyond the data, direct experience is the best way to learn and convince yourself that a creative mindset is important. Here’s a simple way to get started: make it a point to create more. Start the day with 20 minutes of writing. Think strategically about a problem related to your work. Use fully-formed sentences to explore the problem and potential solutions in rich detail. Repeat daily. Expand the length of time to an hour or so each day as you acclimate.

For an even bigger boost, share your work. If confidential, share and discuss your thoughts internally with mentors, bosses and supported peers. If your thoughts are relevant to your field or industry, share the non-confidential aspects of your fresh thinking publically on a blog or social network of your choice.

Being creative is a natural state of the human mind. Hard to believe at times, I know! Like a muscle that has been ignored, thinking in this way will feel awkward at first. As with any new habit, it helps to tackle a creative habit with frequent and bite-sized chunks of focused activity. Give it a shot and let me know how it is going for you in the comments below.

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