being creative

You need to work at being creative (creativity is NOT a talent)

Being creative is not an innate ability that you either have or you don’t. Creativity is not, in and of itself, a talent. Creativity is not related to IQ. Creativity is a way of operating.

My good friend (and Disc Makers Blog contributor) Wade Sutton sent me a link to a video of Monty Python’s amazing John Cleese addressing the topic of creativity. The full speech is over 36 minutes long, and I highly recommend watching it because you’ll learn a lot.

Until you have the time to watch the video, here’s a breakdown of what Mr. Cleese had to say.

Creativity is NOT a talent

Creativity is not an innate ability that you either have or you don’t. Creativity is not, in and of itself, a talent. Creativity is not related to IQ. Creativity is a way of operating.

Psychologist Donald Wallace McKinnon did extensive research into the mysteries of creativity in the ’70s at the University of California, Berkeley. In his study of artists, engineers, scientists, and writers, McKinnon found those who were regarded by their peers as “most creative” did not differ in IQ from their “less creative” colleagues. Instead, McKinnon observed that the creatives had a facility for getting themselves into a state of mind that allowed their natural creativity to surface.

McKinnon described it as an ability to “play” and described the playful mood as “childlike” among most of the creative people he studied. He went on to articulate that when these creatives were childlike, they were able to explore ideas with no specific practical purpose: they were playing strictly for fun and enjoyment.

In his talk, Cleese mentions another study that breaks down the functions of people into two modes: OPEN and CLOSED.

Closed is the mode in which we spend most of our time. Closed is where we are purposeful with our actions: we are getting things done; we are practical, pragmatic, and businesslike. This mode is very is very results-driven and comes with a certain amount of anxiety, expectation, and pressure. Creativity does not happen in the closed mode.

Open is a state of creativity. You are open to anything.

These aren’t judgments — both are necessary. In fact, you need to be in the closed mode to execute that which is created in the open mode.

Here are five suggestions to get you into the open mode necessary for creativity to occur. Cleese offers a disclaimer that nothing guarantees you’ll achieve the open mode, but these conditions will facilitate more consistent results.

  1. Space. To be creative, you need undisturbed space away from your daily duties. You can’t be playful (and therefore creative) under your normal pressures because to cope with these stresses, you must be in the closed mode. You need to establish a creative oasis.
  2.  

  3. Time. Create or inhabit this oasis for a specific period of time. Having a precise starting and ending time allows you to seal yourself off from the closed mode in which we typically operate.
    • It’s much easier to do urgent trivial things (email, phone calls, laundry, errands) than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking.
    • It’s easier to do little things we know we can do than to do major things we’re not so certain about.
    • It’s important to recognize this, because your brain will likely begin your creative time by focusing on little “achievable” things to avoid the distress of having to think. Allow yourself time to calm down and quiet your mind, much like meditation.
    • Because your brain needs time to calm down and enter an open mode, don’t just set aside 30 minutes. Give yourself at least 90 minutes to get into the mood and have a solid hour of real production.

     

  4. More time. Yes, a second “time” category that should answer, “How will you use this oasis you’ve created?”
    • It’s natural to have anxiety or discomfort living without a solution to a problem, like not having an original verse or chorus for your new song.
    • Because of this, many artists accept the first solution they come up with to eliminate the discomfort.
    • In McKinnon’s studies, the more creative people took extra time to “play” with a problem before choosing a solution. They were willing to tolerate the anxiety and discomfort of not having an answer for a bit longer. So ask yourself: Are you happy with a lyric because it’s a solution or because it’s the best solution?
    • Cleese advises you give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

     

  5. Confidence. Nothing will squelch your creativity like the fear of making a mistake.
    • To play is to experiment with an openness to anything. You cannot be playful if you’re frightened that moving in some direction is wrong or bad.
    • You are either free to play or you are not. You cannot be spontaneous “within reason.”
    • To promote confidence, you must understand that while you’re being open and creative, there are no wrong answers. There is no such thing as a mistake. Anything, even something that seems inane or ridiculous, could lead to the breakthrough you’re looking for.

     

  6. Humor. Humor gets you from the closed mode to the open mode more quickly than anything else.
    • Humor makes us playful. Humor is an essential part of the spontaneity, playfulness, and creativity we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they are.

Cleese goes on to suggest that if you put the “pondering time” in, you will be rewarded. At some point, you will receive a gift from your unconscious, perhaps when you least expect it.

It’s also easier to be creative with a cohort or a group of people. However, if just one person in the group makes you feel defensive or is judgmental, there is a very real danger you’ll lose the confidence to be open and playful and you can kiss your creativity goodbye.

Always be positive and work with people who are positive! Never say “No,” “Wrong,” or “I don’t like that.” Find ways to be supportive, encourage playfulness, and create an environment where everyone is encouraged to explore their wildest ideas.

Now get to work!


Johnny Dwinell is a veteran Nashville artist/producer/businessman who created Daredevil Production in 2011 to provide innovative artist development in the new music business. In mid 2013 Daredevil Production started a weekly blog as a free resource for artists and songwriters to use for inspiration, advice, support, and knowledge. The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter) and Johnny Dwinell that’s dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you create leverage in the music business.

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12 thoughts on “You need to work at being creative (creativity is NOT a talent)

  1. Wow! This article breaks it down to a T! I have to get back to this laser focus mode when I was achieving. I used to wonder when watching award shows (Grammys Oscars, etc.) over the years why after getting the award many recipients apologized and also thanked their families for their patience.

  2. This is what I do all of the time. But it’s good to have a reminder. I see it as a wallet that always has a few dollars in it. Just as many as you need for a specific purpose. But sometimes, they’re not readily evident and you have to root around in that wallet a bit to find those last couple of dollars you need. Belief that they really ARE there is the key!

  3. Love the article, Johnny! (I also subscribe to your podcasts and other shenanigans…) The title is a little bit misleading… You don’t really WORK at being creative… all creativity is PLAY, not WORK. (You don’t work a violin.) But I agree that we need to be disciplined in creating time and space to be creative… that’s a tough thing to do. THAT’S the work.

    I think allowing yourself to play is sometimes hard work.

    Keep up the great work! Um… i mean, play! 🙂

  4. I love this. It is so true. I think you have to work hard at being creative. I know I do. It’s fun, but there have been times I think: “I lost my creativity.” Now I understand I’ll just need to put myself back into a creative space! Thanks for the article.

  5. Thank you for this. As a teacher I try to emphasize that it’s all about effort, not some innate talent that you either have or don’t have. The creative people have just learned how to do what you describe.

  6. Fantastic, article. I’ve been in closed business mode for quite some time. Now I’m going to follow this advice and set some time each day for open creative time.

  7. Great article it hit home with me because of working with a chorus to one of the songs
    that I have written for a few weeks now. But I don’t mind playing with it either.

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