It's not something you're just born with.
I'm Tim Gorichanaz, and this is Ports, a newsletter about design and ethics. You'll find this week's article below, followed by Ports of Call, links to things I've been reading and pondering this week.
The world is calling for people who are skilled in flexible and creative thinking. Indeed, the American Association of Colleges and Universities has listed creative thinking as one of the 16 essential learning outcomes for today’s students. As a college teacher, I’m always looking for ways to help my students cultivate these skills.
An initial hurdle in building creativity is the assumption that some people are creative and others aren’t. This is an example of a fixed mindset, the idea that we can’t grow or change along some dimension. We see artistic geniuses out there, and we look down at our stick figures and assume we could never be like them.
But we are amazingly flexible creatures when we allow ourselves to be, and there’s no reason you can’t learn to be more creative—and apply better creative thinking in whatever it is you do.
The Two Processes of Creativity
Creativity involves two processes: first production, then culling. The production process is when new ideas are generated and possibilities are imagined.
The culling process is when ideas are judged and refined. In the West, much of our education is tuned to the culling process, which requires rational thinking, critique, appealing to theories, making calculations, and so on—activities linked with the left brain hemisphere. The culling process is all about focus.
The production process, on the other hand, calls for expansive, divergent thinking, and this is much less familiar in our classrooms. It requires openness, curiosity, free play of the imagination and a suspension of judgment, all of which are activities of the right brain hemisphere. Interestingly and as something of an aside, these seem to be associated with the child brain more than the adult brain.
It’s worth noticing first that it’s not that we’re not creative, but that of the two processes involved in creativity, we are vastly better at the one that comes second. So let’s look at some research-backed things you can do to improve your capacity to produce ideas in the first place. They may surprise you.
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Wandering means getting curious about our environment. And as Todd Kashdan writes in his book Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, “Curiosity creates possibilities; the need for certainty narrows them.”
You can build some wandering into your routine by taking a new route to a destination or by observing your environment for new things along a familiar route, both of which have been linked to increased creativity. Of course, these go hand in hand with getting exercise, which can improve your creative thinking (as well as mental health). Also along these lines, perhaps unexpectedly, working outdoors or in a room with high ceilings and/or large windows has also been shown to be conducive to generating more creative ideas.
In psychology, the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions shows that positive feelings such as gratitude and joy empower creative thinking and create an upward spiral of positive feedback.
Simple things that are easy to overlook. You can start small: Start each day by reflecting on one thing you can be grateful for, and set a goal each day to thank one person you wouldn’t have thanked otherwise.
Imagining the future
The technique of episodic future thinking trains you to see more possibilities in a given situation, whether that is a creative problem or your own life. At heart, this technique is about imagining yourself as concretely as possible in the future—say 10 years from now. Give it a try: picture yourself from wake-up to wind-down on any given day in 2033.
“During episodic future thinking, your brain goes on a kind of scavenger hunt for realistic details and plausible ideas,” writes Jane McGonigal in her book Imaginable. This “scavenger hunt” involves reviewing memories, facts and ideas in your long-term memory and finding new connections between them before generating new ideas.
Sleep, vital to so many of our biological functions, is necessary for creativity—in part because of the opportunity it provides for dreaming. On the topic of dreaming and creativity, Erik Hoel writes about how dreams inject “noise” into our thought systems, sparking us to generate new ideas to address the noise.
Beyond this, scheduling time for hobbies, vacations, sabbaticals and so on have all been linked to increased creativity. Again, simple things that are easy to overlook.
In a future post, I’ll write about some specific techniques you can use to generate ideas. But the ideas here can be incorporated into your life today, probably with ease, to create a fruitful background for idea generation.
Ports of Call
Book: Stoic Wisdom, by Nancy Sherman. We’ve probably all heard of Stoicism by now. It’s blowing up. This ancient philosophy has become known as individualistic and discipline-obsessed. But today’s discussions about Stoicism skip over some key aspects of ancient Stoicism, including its community focus. Sherman’s book seeks to correct the record.
Article: On the separate mental processes of thinking and speaking. This helps explain why ChatGPT and other AI systems can spew out nonsense—that is, speak without thinking.
Technology: Generative AI. In 2022 we were wowed by DALL-E 2 and ChatGPT, both products from the company OpenAI. Some say 2023 is going to see a rush of new products in the generative AI space. Just yesterday Microsoft announced a new Bing search engine that incorporates ChatGPT, for example. This is a nice explainer article on the history, context and big picture of this technology.