Creativity, explained

How does creativity happen?

The best explanation is in a 46-page book given to me years ago by a boss who read it years before that as an account manager at Leo Burnett in Chicago.

For the non- or un-creative, creativity is a mysterious process involving steps that don’t look like anything you’d recognize as “work.” If you’re that person but you value ideas and creativity, then you’ll want to understand the creative process and the people who engage in it.

What’s creativity?

First, some background. Creativity is the act of producing new ideas. A new idea is a fresh combination of old elements. Making new combinations requires you to see relationships between facts or information.

Creative people, or idea producers, are unusual in how they relate to information. We tend to have very broad interests—the kind of person who can get interested in almost anything for its own sake. It’s such an uncommon tendency that we’re often self-effacing about it. You may have heard us say “I know a lot of useless information.”

We also tend to search for relationships between facts. And we tend to see relationships between facts or information that others don’t see.

So much for the creative mind. How do our minds produce ideas? Young sees five steps.

1) Gather the raw material

There are two kinds of raw material:

Specific information—on the product, the service, or problem; the audience; market dynamics, and so on. All things the creative person may not have known before the assignment and needs to research. Go deep, says Young. Get as much specific information as possible.

General information—practical and theoretical; on life and how the world works; on history, science, philosophy. Things that have no obvious connection to the problem at hand. Creative people are constantly collecting this information, which turns out to be not so useless.

2) Digest the material

We examine the material and start bring facts together. Young advises writing these relationships or combinations down, ordering and structuring the ideas. (This sounds very much like a combination of the madman and architect phases of the four personas of writing.)

This thinking stage of creativity is awkward and difficult. Awkward because the ideas will be half-formed at best and unresolved. The human brain doesn’t like this—we prefer resolution. It’s the cerebral equivalent of a pebble in your shoe.

And difficult because it’s all cognitive work. As Daniel Kahneman tells us, cognitive (System 2) thinking is difficult, tiring, and something we’d prefer not to do for any length of time.

3) Step away

When we can’t push our brains any further, we take a break. In this incubation period, we let our thinking continue in our subconscious while we engage in something that stimulates us.

It might be listening to music, reading a novel or thriller, or going to the theater or movies. Even a 20-minute break can suffice. Young says it must be something emotional. We think incubation can happen during rote or mindless activities (shaving, showering) or repetitive physical activities (gardening, running/walking, rowing). Find your thing.

This step will completely baffle non-creative people. (“You call that work?!”). And even creatives may not always trust it, at least early in the careers.

But if you’ve had a great idea in the shower, while driving, or on a run, or if you’ve put the crossword puzzle down for an hour, come back to it, and experienced a flush of progress, then you’ve experienced the incubation effect.

(Still unconvinced? New research from McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign not only confirms it, but even borrows Young’s term “incubating stage.”)

4) The light bulb moment

This is the idea in the shower, the aha on the running trail, the insight that appears while you’re making dinner. It’s the birth stage of creativity.

It will happen. The key, says Young, is to be ready for it. Because it can happen anywhere (even in the middle of the night). Creatives will have the pen and paper ready, or the smartphone with the note or voice recording app, ready to record it.

5) The morning after

This is the essential step, as Young says, of “making your idea fit the exact conditions in which it must work.” It’s the shaping/developing stage of creativity.

Because most creative ideas are not born whole and complete. They are like human babies—beautiful to their originators but not fully-formed, not ready for prime time.

Most creative ideas must be refined, edited, re-worked, adjusted. There’s a certain ruthless survival of the fittest (best) ideas. Good ones, says Young, will expand with criticism, evaluation, retooling. Not-so-good ones will shrivel up.

This is what writers mean by “be willing to kill your darlings.” If the idea pales in the cold gray of the morning after, then do the merciful thing and file it away. If the idea gets better, that’s a good sign you’re onto the real solution.