Creativity is not a gift. Creativity is a muscle. To properly strengthen a muscle, it must be given the following things: tension, extension, flexibility, nutrition, and rest. And for creative strength, the regimen is no different. Not sure how to translate strength training to creative thinking? Here's a handy guide!
Creativity serves to solve problems. And problems inherently create tension. Not always make-or-break, life-or-death tension, but the kind of tension that eventually produces growth. This growth may be financial or quantitative in other ways, but for the creator himself, this growth is also personal, professional, and psychological. Therefore, the creative process should begin with the impetus to improve a situation or solve a problem that directly relates to the needs and wants of the creator. The tension created by said problem may create personal stress, but may also be a great source of creative inspiration. As such, the problem should be important to the creative thinker in some form and also worth the inherent discomfort of pursuing a creative solution. (In short, the creative process is hard and requires commitment. Make sure you're committing to something you believe in.)
Reciprocal motion is what makes basic muscular exercise effective — curl the biceps, extend the biceps. So too with creativity. While professional creative work can often be strained by timelines, workflow, bandwidth, and the like, creative professionals will not gain extraordinary creative strength by small-range-of-motion, repetitive exercises. There must be the time, allowance, workplace flexibility, and personal motivation to continually extend one’s creativity. Whether that is through finding new processes and practices, inviting more collaboration, or allowing for more time to think and concept outside the confines of an assumed boundary — brief timeline, budget constraints, assumed medium, or even the overarching constraint of “paid work” — personal creativity must be allowed free-range of motion to both flex and extend itself. This is essential for our creativity to build, understand, and display its true strength.
While extension and tension build creative strength, flexibility helps maintain it. So many professional projects for creative thinkers require similar, if not identical processes from project to project. Timelines and budgets, as well as quality of work for a professional organization, must be maintained, and are often done through rigorous processes that include multiple departments and several employees. This well-oiled and deeply programmed machine is essential to workplace success, but should not become an evergreen process for creative thinkers.
As we grow (in creativity or other arenas), it is important to diversify and extend reach, focus, and strength in multiple directions, rather than continuously along a single path. This is not to be confused with focus and perseverance, as both are absolutely key to creative growth. But we must not be tempted to grow in a single direction or limit ourselves to a single process. Then, we run the risk of creating the inability to think outside the confines of a brief or create without the pressure of an external need. This kind of flexibility is gained through persistently deeper thinking and a willingness to continue looking past an immediate or easy solution. Whether that solution is a visual solve, a catchy headline, or even our own worn-in creative process, we must allow ourselves to think freely and openly, sometimes rejecting even our own perceived confines of both the problem and our own creativity, itself.
“Put good in, get good out” is a basic and straightforward nutritional rule, and with creative strength training, the rule also applies. In terms of creativity, nutrition may come in three forms: inspiration, motivation, and support.
Creative inspiration can come in many forms — music, visual art, film, talking with other creative thinkers, or even just small elements of daily life; something as simple as the color of a road sign or the sound of a dog barking in the distance can spark an amazing idea. This is not uncommon at all. It is also not uncommon for some parts of daily life to inhibit creativity — personal or professional stress, illness or general malaise, or even the menial tasks we all have to do like paying taxes or getting a root canal.
This is where the other nutritional elements come in to play — motivation and support. It is important to remember that we creative thinkers are, above all else, people. We use our brains and hands in collaboration to make amazing things, but we also have to use those brains and hands to eat, breathe, and talk to the occasional telemarketer. Just as life gets in the way of an analytical or mathematical thinker, so too for creative thinkers, and we require the same (if not more) motivation and support from our surroundings. While there isn’t a hard and fast rule on the perfect creative environment in terms of wall color, desk accoutrements, or musical accompaniment, all successful creative environments must contain elements of inspiration, motivation, and support.
While motivation and inspiration can come from a creative thinker's personal experience, support must come from other people. When non-creative thinkers and non-creative professionals mentally segregate themselves from “the creatives,” there is an unspoken and unnecessary boundary placed between them that creates an unhealthy tension. As stated before, creativity is not a gift, it is a muscle. It is not magically endowed to certain people and withheld from others. It exists in all of us and should be a unifying principle. When a creative person is struggling to create to their (or your) level of expectation, it is important to motivate, rather than segregate. Supportive surroundings and colleagues are essential for the times of creative ebb and flow, especially in times when the other two creative nutrients of inspiration and motivation are running low.
(HINT: Anyone [yes, even a non-creative] can provide all three of these creative nutrients to others with an empathetic stance, one open mind, and two open ears. There are few things more inspiring to a creative person than an authentic human experience, and that’s something everyone can offer.)
As companies are becoming more and more bullish on respecting work-life balance, it is becoming much more the norm to see companies offering and reinforcing more generous vacation policies. For a creative professional, these times of rest are absolutely crucial. However, for creative individuals employed in creative services, we face a conundrum. There is work to be done for work, but there’s also our own portfolios, creative hobbies, and side-gigs to worry about. Sometimes, we work long, rushed days to come home to find a freelance client’s angry email or a gig posting too good to pass up, and we’re back, unblinking in front of our screen for a second, ten-hour shift. Sometimes, we spend all our creative energy at work with nothing left to give ourselves for the pure enjoyment — and this energy deficit can continue and worsen the longer it continues. Sometimes, this cycle continues for years at a time. And then it happens — burnout.
Burnout is a very real concern for creative professionals. Not only because it inhibits our professional lives, but it also robs us of our key way of thinking and enjoying ourselves outside the confines of the work day. Most people revel in the moment they step away from their desk and into their hobbies, but for a creative person in burnout, it’s incredibly stressful to both work and play, as both are severely compromised by an overextension of the creative muscle. The only remedy for this is creative rest.
While not ideal, creative professionals must keep in mind the very real possibility of facing burnout at some point during their career and must prepare accordingly. The warning signs of burnout are mixed and can vary from person to person, and any creative professional too busy to take smaller breaks (most cases in creative services) is probably too busy to see burnout until after it has fully manifested. Therefore, two options arise: save your employer-provided vacation for instances of burnout, or take frequent, smaller breaks to focus on other elements of creative strength like flexibility and extension. For example, use a few Fridays a year and spend the day working on your creative muscles. Try out a new medium, visit a museum, start something new, or just get some actual, physical rest. (These are also great suggestions for what to do in a long-term burnout vacation.)
Creative momentum is a also a fantastic tool to maintaining all elements of creative strength, but it must not be confused with or teeter into the territory of creative over-extension. There is a time to stop, evaluate the rigor and purpose of your creative strength training, and adjust as necessary. Creative momentum may be maintained without actual, physical, creative expression, as well. Just to think creatively is the first step to creative expression, and creative thinking can be applied to even the most menial of everyday tasks. If you find yourself unable to physically express yourself creatively due to time constraints or personal circumstances, maintain the positive and motivated mindset that creativity requires by loading up on your creative nutrition. Surround yourself with inspiration, motivation, and support to maintain momentum.
Just like any strength training effort, creative success is a process that requires commitment, accountability, forgiveness, and an inherent positivity. Burnout will end eventually and more creative thinking will begin in the same ways creativity is maintained — through the basic principles of tension, extension, flexibility, nutrition, and rest.
Cheers to more creativity in the new year!