These 5 questions kill creativity

Leonardo Art School
Questions can fire the imagination and feed your creativity. In my research for The Book of Beautiful Questions, I found dozens of questions that can help in identifying fresh ideas, overcoming creative block, soliciting useful feedback, and getting an idea “out the door” and into the world.

However, the questions we ask ourselves about creativity also can have the opposite effect. They can undermine creative confidence or cause us to misdirect our efforts. Below are five questions that can be thought of as “creativity killers.” Take note of them now—so that in the future, you can stop asking them.

Am I creative?

This is the first and most common “wrong question” to ask about your own creativity. David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity, found that one of the greatest myths is the notion that some of us are naturally creative and others are not. As Burkus notes, scientific findings do not bear this out. “We can’t find anything in the research that suggests there’s a ‘creativity gene,'” Burkus told me. We should think of creativity “as a gift that is available to everyone.”

Burkus points to the high levels of creativity demonstrated by many when they’re children, which shows that creativity is in us. And while it’s true that many kids who freely imagine, draw, build, and experiment seem to do less of those things as they get older, this suggests that instead of asking, “Am I creative?” the better question might be, “Where did my creativity go?”

It may have been discouraged over the years by outside forces (non-creative schooling and jobs) as well as from a lack of confidence. “As you get older, you become more aware that not everyone loves your crazy ideas,” Burkus says. Eventually, he adds, the negative feedback becomes an accepted truth—and even a handy excuse. “If you can say, ‘Well, I’m not one of those creative people,’ it lets you off the hook. You don’t even have to try.

That’s an attitude Ideo cofounder David Kelley has said he often encounters among students coming to the classes he has taught at Stanford University. People arrive insisting they’re not creative, Kelley says, but “they end up doing amazing things in the class.” To build confidence, Kelley encourages students to start by doing small creative exercises—drawing stick figures, building something simple—and work their way up to more demanding projects.

In the process, Kelley reassures students that whether they can draw well, for example, is not a measure of their creativity—rather, it’s a specific skill, which can be developed over time. Creativity, on the other hand, is not a skill but a “mind-set” or a way of looking at the world. And we all have the ability to look at something—a problem, a subject, a situation, a theme—and bring forth our own ideas and interpretations.

Leonardo Art School

Where will I find an original idea?

This question is often accompanied by a companion question: Hasn’t everything been thought of already?

The faulty assumption behind this question is that fresh ideas must be created from whole cloth; that all parts of the idea must be new and never before seen. But original ideas are often composed of and inspired by things that already exist in the world—fragments that are all around us, waiting to be noticed and then reimagined in a new form.

Burkus cites the “originality myth” as one of great misconceptions about creating. He points to the iPhone as a prime example of creativity by combination—Apple blended elements of the cell phone, Blackberry, camera, and iPod into that highly original combo package.

This form of creativity comes naturally. Our brains are wired to make such connections and combinations. And it’s fine to borrow from other creations, as long as the borrower “compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings” and “expresses it in a new way, one’s own,” wrote the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in his essay “The Creative Self.”

For those who aspire to create, this should come as a relief. There is nothing more paralyzing than trying to think of a “great idea” by attempting to conjure something from nothing. But if we appreciate that there are sources of inspiration all around—an abundance of raw material that we can begin to study and play with, even if we’re not quite sure how we might want to reshape it—it means the answer to that question “Where do I find an idea?” is simple: everywhere.

Where will I find time to create?

What makes this an unproductive question is that word “find.”

It’s not a matter of finding additional time, but reallocating the time you have. Significant blocks of time are needed for deep creative work. How much time depends on the individual (I tend to need uninterrupted blocks of no less than three hours).

Having this amount of time devoted to solitary thinking and creative work may seem like a luxury that busy people can’t afford. But as the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and essayist Paul Graham has noted, it’s all a matter of how you arrange your schedule. Graham distinguishes between a “maker’s schedule” and a “manager’s schedule,” specifying that the former must have clearly marked-off, multi-hour blocks of time set aside for creative work (in contrast, the manager’s schedule is composed almost entirely of half-hour to one-hour blocks for meetings and managerial tasks).

So if you want to “find time” to be creative, start by asking, How can I shift from a manager’s schedule to a maker’s schedule? It’s not easy to do. Many of us automatically fill our calendars in the style of a manager—and any part of the calendar not filled is considered “empty” and available. “You open your calendar and you see a blank space and that seems like it’s the wrong thing,” says the psychology professor and author Dan Ariely. “The reality is, blank spaces are the spaces where you’re supposed to do the most meaningful work.”

Perhaps instead of worrying about finding time, we should worry more about a bigger threat to creativity: lack of focus. As the author Cal Newport has pointed out, we need to be able to focus our attention for extended periods in order to do creative work. And that focus is under siege from endless distractions and interruptions, including those caused by social media technology. Newport suggests we flip the ratio of online time versus disconnected time. “Instead of taking breaks from digital media, we should allow ourselves occasional breaks to indulge in it,” he says. In other words, get into the habit of asking the reframed question, When should I take a break to connect?

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How can I come up with a blockbuster idea?

Before ever doing a lick of creative work on something, people often raise the stakes incredibly high: The idea must produce an outcome that will “make a fortune,” “change the world,” or earn the respect and admiration of millions. It’s fine to be ambitious, but at the outset of a creative endeavor, one should be less focused on outcome and more on just doing the work and doing it well.

It’s very difficult to know at the start what the outcome of your creative efforts will be. In his research on creativity, the psychologist Dean Simonton found that even experienced creative people had trouble predicting whether their individual projects would be successful—creators are simply bad at knowing what will be a hit, Simonton says. However, the successful ones overcome that by just forging ahead and creating. Through sheer productivity, the occasional and sometimes surprising successes tend to emerge.

If you’re trying to decide whether to pursue a project and want to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, ask yourself, What if I knew at the outset that there was no possibility of fame or fortune from this work—would I still want to do it?

Where do I begin?

The designer Bruce Mau once told me that the most common lament he hears from young people attempting to start a creative project is, “I don’t know where to begin.” And Mau said he often responded by sharing a favorite quote from the maverick composer John Cage: “Begin anywhere.”

Cage’s advice applies to anyone creating anything. Don’t get hung up on finding the perfect starting point—the brilliant opening sentence, the stirring musical prologue. Begin with whatever you have right now, even if it’s a partial idea, an incomplete or flawed prototype, or the middle of a story.

Trying to find the perfect beginning is often a stall tactic. And the same can be said of various preparatory activities, such as setting up your ideal workspace and compiling massive amounts of preliminary research. The designer Mau shared another story about a writer friend of his who was about to embark on an ambitious new book. The writer “was always arranging his bookshelves and organizing his office” so that everything would be in the right place when he began working on the book. Only trouble: He never did get started.

If you find yourself engaged in lengthy preparations—taking crash courses, reading all the books and articles you can find on the subject at hand—be sure to ask yourself: Am I rearranging the bookshelves? Yes, research is important, but the point is to train yourself to recognize when you are using excess preparation to delay the scary inevitability of facing the blank page, the empty canvas, or the white computer screen.

Better to get started by giving form to something as soon as possible: write it, sketch it, prototype it. And don’t worry too much about quality, because whatever you express now will likely be revised or maybe scrapped altogether as you keep working. Ideo’s general manager Tom Kelley suggests this starter question: What if I lower the bar? Give yourself permission to start with something rough, imperfect, maybe even lousy—because it will provide a base upon which to build. And that, in and of itself, makes it a good beginning.


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