Keith has spent more than twenty years as a research psychologist studying how creativity works. He’s explored the lives of exceptional creators and learned the backstories of world-changing innovations. He’s reviewed laboratory experiments that delved deep into the everyday creativity that all of us share.
No matter what kind of creativity he studied, the process was the same. Creativity did not descend like a bolt of lightning that lit up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It came in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes.
Zigs and zags.
The Eight Steps of Creativity
Let’s distill what Keith researched into eight powerful, surprisingly simple steps. Follow them, and you zig zag your way to creativity.
Creativity starts with a penetrating research question, a startling vision for a new work of art, an urgent business challenge, a predicament in your personal life. Mastering the discipline of asking means you’re always looking for good problems, always seeking new inspiration. You know where you’re going, and yet you’re receptive to questions that emerge unexpectedly.
In a creative life, you’re constantly learning, practicing, mastering, becoming an expert. You seek out knowledge not only in formal classrooms but also from mentors, experts, books, magazines, film, Web sites, nature, music, art, philosophy, science …
You are constantly, quietly aware. You don’t just see what you expect to see. You see the new, the unusual, the surprising. You see what others take for granted, and what they incorrectly assume. You expose yourself to new experiences eagerly, without hesitation; you regularly seek out new stimuli, new situations, and new information.
#4 Play. The creative life is filled with play—the kind of unstructured activity that children engage in for the sheer joy of it. You free your mind for imagination and fantasy, letting your unconscious lead you into uncharted territory. You envision how things might be; you create alternate worlds in your mind. “The debt we owe to the play of imagination,” Carl Jung wrote, “is incalculable.”
The creative life is filled with new ideas. Your mind tirelessly generates possibilities. You don’t clamp down, because you realize most of these ideas won’t pan out—at least not for the current project. But successful creativity is a numbers game: when you have tons of ideas, some of them are sure to be great.
Creative minds are always bouncing ideas together, looking for unexpected combinations. Successful creativity never comes from a single idea. It always comes from many ideas in combination, whether we recognize them or not. The creative life doesn’t box its concepts into separate compartments; it fuses and re-fuses them.
A creative life is lived in balance, held steady by the constant tension between uncritical, wide-open idea generation (brainstorming, done right) and critical examination and editing. Choosing is essential, because not all ideas and combinations are ideal for your purposes. The key is to use the right criteria to critique them, so you can cull the best and discard any that would prove inferior, awkward, or a waste of your time.
In the creative life, it’s not enough to just “have” ideas. You need to make good ideas a reality. You continually externalize your thoughts—and not just the polished, finished ones. You get even your rough-draft, raw ideas out into the world in some physical form, as quickly as possible. Making—a draft, a drawing, a prototype, a plan—helps you fuse your ideas, choose among them, and build on what you like.
Zig Zag, Not Linear
Many books about creativity tend to stick to this linear process: spot the need or opportunity first, then identify the problem (ask), then gather information (look), then look for ideas (think), then select an idea (choose), and finally implement the idea (make). But as psychology and neuroscience are showing us, the creative process is far richer than that—and far less rigid. When you begin to master the eight steps, you’ll start to zig and zag.
For example, although making seems to happen most naturally at the end of the eight steps, you can use its techniques to enhance the other seven steps, too. Making your ideas can help you fuse them, and choose the right ones. Making your daydreams can help you play more effectively. Making the things you see each day while looking can help you translate those sights into new ideas, or clarify your original question, or realize what you still need to discover.
Don’t try to jump ahead to think and immediately have a bunch of ideas; creativity doesn’t work that way. You have to follow the zigs and zags. You might not be focused on the right problem because you haven’t asked the right question. You might not have the information you need because you haven’t learned enough. You might not have explored the spaces and alternatives through the play that generates ideas.
Once you get comfortable with the rhythm of zigging and zagging, you’ll be able to use the steps as you need them, without a rigid, linear order. In truth, any of the eight steps can play a role at any stage of creativity. After a great idea has emerged, no one can remember exactly where it started. But you can be sure that the looking continued through the final revisions, and the asking was repeated with each tiny decision about a detail in the finished work.
Exceptional creators often zig zag through all eight steps, in varying order, every day. That’s part of the secret, because the steps work together to generate successful creativity. Each step feeds the other seven.
The Two Mistakes We Should All Avoid
There are two common mistakes that people make when they decide they need to be more creative. Following the zig zag way can help you avoid these errors.
Mistake #1: Thinking That You Only Need to Be Creative Occasionally
Many people think of creativity as something you need only once in a while, when your normal habits and skills fail. So you wait until you face a serious challenge, something different from anything you’ve ever dealt with before, and only then do you decide that creativity is the answer. You’re right, of course—creativity is the answer. But the mistake is waiting until the last minute and then hoping to suddenly become creative, for just long enough to solve the problem at hand. As therapist and author Martha Beck once wrote, “Don’t wait for catastrophe to drive you to the depth of your being. Go there now; then you’ll be ready.”
This process can help you respond to a sudden challenge, but the real benefit comes when you practice the eight steps every day. Then, instead of reacting to unexpected problems, focused on the past, you’ll be finding promising opportunities that drive you forward into the future.
Mistake #2: Hoping There’s One Great Idea Out There
Often we think that a creative solution to a problem will be a single thought that dawns on us in a moment of clarity. To the contrary: studies of creativity show that it rarely arrives as a single brilliant idea. Rather, creative solutions to life’s problems are lit by many small creative sparks—what Virginia Woolf described as “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” Creativity works by collecting these sparks as you zig zag forward, until suddenly they give off enough light to reveal a solution.
Wouldn’t it be better to have these small sparks happening all the time, and accumulating before you face a serious problem? Imagine having a backlog, a notebook of good ideas that you could draw on whenever you needed it. The eight steps teach you that kind of proactive creativity. It’s already in your power to produce this type of creativity, and it’s far more effective than reactive creativity.