Every human being has an expression of their soul's calling, which can take many forms. Some people write books, some take pictures, and others make movies. There are also people who start companies, build web sites/apps, design clothes, surf big waves, or cook delicious meals. Every one of these is a form of creativity. Whether you believe it or not, you are a creative person, and you express that creativity in some form every day.
Before we can talk about how to become a more creative person, we have to define creativity. Typically we define creativity as something that results in what we consider to be “art”, (i.e. writing, painting, drawing, music, etc). But here at The Unmistakable Creative we have a much broader definition of creativity:
A pathological inability to accept the status quo, combined with taking action on an impulse to express a desire.
A creative is anyone who creates
- When Frank Warren handed out 3,000 self addressed stamped postcards to strangers asking them to anonymously share an artful secret, he acted on an impulse to express something.
- When Sasha Martin decided to cook a meal from every country in the world and document the experience on her blog, she acted on an impulse to express a desire she had.
- When the founders of Cards Against Humanity invented their party game for terrible people, they acted on an impulse to express a desire that they had.
- When Ryder Caroll created The Bullet Journal to organize his thoughts, he acted on an impulse to express a desire.
The human capacity for creativity and self expression is limitless. But when we limit the definition of creativity to what we typically think of as “art”, we limit that capacity and our potential. Everybody is an artist.
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Part 1- Developing The mindset
Dispelling the Myth That You're Not Creative
One of the myths of creativity is that it only strikes some of us, that there are people who are creative, and some who are not. But in my experience of interviewing more than 700 creative people from every walk of life, there's only one difference between people who think they are creative and those who think they're not:
People who believe they are creative have a habit of expressing their creativity on a regular basis.
Whether it's writing, drawing, photography, cooking, or computer programming, every person who believes they are creative has made their art a habit.
But, this habit gets drilled out of you through school, parent, peers and society. In his keynote talks, graffiti artist Erik Wahl says that if he asks a room full of kindergartners "Who here can draw?", all the hands go up. But if he asks the same question to a group of adults, only one or two hands go up.
You believe you're not creative because you've been taught to keep your hand down, stay in line, follow orders, and not ask too many questions. But underneath the layers of these socially programmed illusions, your creative child still exists. So let's get back in touch with him or her, and let him out to play.
Resistance: What Stands in the Way of Your Creativity
As powerful as is our soul's call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine.
Before you can develop the habit of expressing your creativity, you have to understand what is standing in the way of it. It's what the author Steven Pressfield calls resistance.
You will fight daily battles with the dragon of resistance in the war of art. It will tell you that you suck, attempt to derail and demolish you, and keep you from cutting off it's head and rescuing the princess from the castle. But once you understand how it works, you can do your work in spite of it.
Characteristics of Resistance
Universal: "Everyone who has a body experiences resistance," says Pressfield. Despite writing two books and 1000 words every day, I still encounter resistance when I wake up in the morning. Resistance doesn't discriminate based on race, religion, skin color, or status. It's an equal opportunity ass-kicker. New York Times Best Selling authors, Oscar winning directors, unicorn startup billionaires, and interns who fetch coffee all deal with resistance.
Invisible: You can't punch it in the face, block it on social media, refuse to answer when it calls, or mark its emails as spam. But you can always feel it. You feel it when you're tempted to peek at your inbox or see who commented on your tweet. You feel it when you hold back, play it safe, and water down your work.
Takes Multiple Forms: Resistance is like an alien that can transform itself into whatever it needs to in order to kick your ass. Right when you think you've beat it, it will transform into something else. Don't be fooled. It's still there waiting.
Inner Forms of Resistance
Fear: If you've ever attempted something creative, you've likely been filled with fear and doubt. You might be afraid of what other people will think. But the reality is they don't give a shit because they are afraid of what other people think about them. You might be afraid your work isn't any good. You might mistake it for depression or low self esteem. It's resistance. Resistance feeds off of fear and doubt, and gets starved by courage and confidence.
Self Doubt: Resistance, as I said in my first book, is like an Oscar winning movie director that dreams up catastrophic worst case scenarios, almost all of which never come true. Nobody ever went to jail, went bankrupt, or died for expressing their creativity. But resistance will convince you that those things will happen.
Validation: Validation feels good. We all want to be validated to some degree. But as Donald Miller said in his interview on the Unmistakable Creative, “there's a point of diminishing returns when it comes to validation”. That's when validation morphs into resistance.
In a world where you can get instantaneous feedback from strangers on the internet who you have no relationship with, there's an abundance of potential validation. But you're just as likely to be criticized as you are validated. One of my books has hundreds of 5-star reviews. The only one I can quote to you by memory is from the woman who said "I hope this guy is a better surfer than he is a writer”.
The paradox of validation is that when you stop seeking it you'll get plenty of it.
The paradox of validation is that when you stop seeking it you'll get plenty of it.
"You normally focus on those who have more than you, but it would be wiser to look at those who have less. There are always plenty of such people to use for comparison. They live in harsher environments, deal with more threats to their lives, and have deeper levels of insecurity about the future. You can even look at friends who have it much worse than you. This should stimulate not only empathy for the many who have less, but also greater gratitude for what you actually possess. Such gratitude is the best antidote to envy."
Envy and Comparison: There are artificial pecking orders created and celebrities made from fan and follower counts, and we are able to deliberately, edit, curate and upload our lives. All of these things have made social media and the internet fertile ground for envy and comparison. There will always be someone who has a bigger audience, who had sold more books, or has more money. Our natural tendency is to engage in upward comparison. The alternative is to engage in downward comparison.
Outer forms of Resistance
Distraction: The modern world is an interruption factory with thousands of things competing for your attention: text messages, status updates, hearts, likes, comments and a whole ton of meaningless metric bullshit, which is nothing more than resistance in disguise. Nothing fuels resistance like confusing attention with accomplishment. As Steven Pressfield says "It wants to keep us shallow and unfocused. So it makes the superficial and vain intoxicating”.
Procrastination: Do you finish what you start? Or are you always putting it off until tomorrow? Ten years ago I enrolled in an online course about how to build a blog. When I interviewed the creator of the course, he said only 10 percent of people who buy it open it, and 10% of that group takes action. Resistance disguised as procrastination kicks their ass.
4 Keys to Building your Creative Confidence
The expectation that they’ll be great right from the start keeps so many people from starting at all
The expectation that they’ll be great right from the start keeps so many people from starting at all. “It’s unlikely that your first try at anything will be a success. But that’s ok. It’s hard to be ‘best’ right away, so commit to rapid and continuous improvements,” says IDEO co-founder David Kelley.
When you expect your first try at something to be a huge success, you develop unrealistic expectations and set yourself up for failure and disappointment. - David Kelley
The Confidence Loop: Go look at the earliest work of any creative person that you admire, and you’ll be stunned by how bad it was in comparison to the work they produce today. It’s a process of constant iteration and improvement, of putting work out into the world and learning from the feedback.
Experience—> Skills—> Confidence: First, you have an experience. As a byproduct of that experience, you develop skills that you don’t currently posses. With your new skills comes an increase in creative confidence.
1. Bridging the Taste Gap: You might have a vision of what you want to create, but don’t currently have the skills to do it. Ira Glass, creator of This American Life refers to this as “the taste gap”. Every piece of creative work that you do bridges the taste gap.
I’d been wanting to produce an animated series based on the Unmistakable Creative for some time. But it took almost 2 years and over 100 interviews for the dialogue on the show to catch up to my vision, so that the taste gap could be bridged.
2. Produce a High Volume of Work: One of the biggest misconceptions about successful creative people is that all of their work is amazing. Even though I write 1000 words a day, a very small percentage makes it into books or article like this one. As I said in An Audience Of One, "seeds for your most resonant public work will be planted in private."
Your cumulative output matters more than any individual piece. By producing a high volume of work, you not only take the pressure off yourself, but you give yourself multiple opportunities to practice your craft, improve your skills, and in turn your confidence.
3. Work with a coach: Regardless of your skill level, you’ll inevitably reach a plateau, a point where you won’t improve without outside help.
- Despite being one of the most elite people in his field, surgeon and bestselling author Atul Gawande decided hired one of his medical school professors to coach him, which he mentions in his TED talk.
- In the documentary Never Say Never, even though he’s performing for a sold out crowd in Madison Square garden, Justin Bieber works with a vocal coach.
- I work with a writing coach for all of my books. She offers feedback throughout the process, identifies areas for improvement and helps me to break bad habits.
Working with a coach can accelerate the rate at which your skills improve. Whether it’s an athlete, a musician, or an entrepreneur, behind the the greatest creative minds of our time, there will always be a great teacher.
4. Growth Mindset: Sometime during our education we develop the belief that our creative talents are set in stone. We can’t draw, sing, paint, or insert creative activity of your choice. But this is a huge error in judgement because it’s a conclusion based on very little experience or practice. Psychologist Carol Dweck refers to this as a fixed mindset. A growth mindset on the other hand is the belief that our skills aren’t set in stone and that with practice they can be improved.
Think Like a Producer
You can be a producer or a consumer. And it’s better in almost every case to be the producer. It’s better to be the person who builds the company than it is to be the person who buys its products. It’s better be the person who runs the television network than it is to be the person who consumes its content. Producers shape our world.
The producer is the linchpin. The producer has leverage, power, the ability to shape change and create value. Wealth tends to flow in the direction of the producer. Of course these are roles and we all play different roles in different areas of our lives.
When I write I’m a producer. When I read I’m a consumer.
However the work a producer isn’t driven entirely by self interest. We often mistake the ambition of a producer for greed. For a producer to create value, his work must benefit the consumer in some way. The successful producer helps the consumer move closer to who they want to be.
- I read your book because I want to grow as personally and professionally.
- I buy your clothes because I want to look better.
- I use your app because it’s enabling me to accomplish something that I care about.
Every producer sees the world as a canvas to be shaped into masterpiece of his or her own liking. They challenge the status quo. This is a defining characteristic of anyone who is a producer. We also have to make a distinction here. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur or artist to be a producer:
- A masterful sales person produces revenue for a company.
- A skilled engineer produces amazing products that people love.
- A skilled artist makes something aesthetically appealing. Just because we can’t quantify the value of something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
A producer leaves the world with evidence of his/her capabilities as opposed to a resume which talks about them. A producer creates a body of work. Being a producer doesn’t come with a map.
There’s no set of prewritten instructions to follow, no formula that guarantees fame and fortune. Being a producer means having a willingness to persist in the face of seemingly impossible odds. They do things that in the words of Seth Godin, “might not work.”
One of the main reasons I started a podcast was because my friend Sid Savara didn’t think I was a good writer. At the time, he was right. But I also didn’t believe that my skills were set in stone. I knew that with practice, I could improve. And after close to 7 years of writing, I improved enough to get a book deal. And Sid was one of the first people I called. Creative confidence and a growth mindset are birds of a feather.
Part 2- Designing The Right Environment
Every aspect of our behavior is a byproduct of our environment.
- If you have junk food in the fridge, you'll be more likely to eat it.
- If distracting web sites are easily accessible, you'll be more likely to visit them.
For creativity to flourish, it needs fertile soil and that begins with designing the right environment. While there are 9 environments that make up your life, there are 3 that are critical to our creativity. As our podcast guest Jim Bunch has said, "everything that you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch is an environment that is adding energy to your life or draining energy from your life. It's inspiring you or expiring you.
Your Physical Environment
Your physical environment is anything that you encounter in the physical world. That includes the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the house you live in, the desk you sit at, and any of the tools you use to do your work.
Every single object in our physical space has emotions and memories associated with it. In many cases they are painful reminders of the past.
- A gift from an ex
- Clothing from a difficult period of your life
Even if we're not consciously aware of them, they impact how we feel. Without an environment that is uplifting and inspiring, creativity won't flourish.
1. Design a Space that Sparks Joy
Your environment has a huge impact on your emotions, behavior, and your creativity. If your desk is filled with clutter, your house is a mess, your clothes are torn, your car smells bad, and the lighting in your room is awful, it's unlikely you will be creative in that environment.
Fortunately you don't have to spend a fortune to upgrade this environment. All you have to do is run everything in your physical environment through Marie Kondo's filter of "Does this spark joy?" If the answer is no, get rid of it. If you want you feel joy in the spaces you live and work in, what you create will reflect that.
2. Add some Color
The liveliest places and objects all have one thing in common: bright, vivid, color. -Ingrid Fetel Lee
Compare the setup of a kindergarten classroom to that of a typical corporate office. One is filled with bright colors, tons of light, and art all over the walls. The other is often grey, sterile and doesn't get much light.
"We dismiss color and joy as childish and frivolous, prizing neutral hues as a mark of coolness and mature taste.... The message is clear: to be worthy of society's approbation, we must outgrow our natural inclinations toward joy or learn to suppress them," says Ingrid Fetel Lee, in her book Joyful.
Physical spaces filled with color wake up our inner child, ignite our imaginations with enthusiasm, and stoke our curiosity. All of these are critical ingredients for creativity.
Color Hack: One of my favorite recommendations from Ingrid's book is to organize your books by color making your bookshelf look like an art installation. I did this to one of my bookshelves and every time I look at the shelf, I feel a sense of calm.
3. Change the Scenery
If you come across other articles on the internet about how to be more creative, you'll notice many of them mention things like taking a walk, watching a sunset or taking a shower. When you do any of these things you're changing the scenery. When you change the scenery, it's easier to change the way you're thinking. This is why some of the best creative breakthroughs happen in the most unexpected places.
Your Memetic Environment
The modern world is an interruption factory. Between text messages, emails, meetings, notifications, pings, pops, buzzes, and phone calls, our lives are filled with noise. When you're inundated with information, it's impossible to hear the sound of your creative voice.
The memetic environment is all of the information coming into your life:
- The books you read
- The podcasts you listen to
- TV that you watch
- The newsletters you read
- The websites you visit
For the overwhelming majority of people who want to be more creative, none of these things are deliberate choices. They don't change the default settings on their apps. They mindlessly scroll through their Facebook news feed, and channel surf their way into mediocrity.
Be Deliberate About What You Consume: Setting up our memetic environment for creativity comes down to 2 basic ideas:
- What you consume will determine what you create.
- Treat the information you consume like the food you put into your body.
If you what you consume is clickbait, status updates, tweets and Instagram photos, it's a bit like eating donuts for every meal and wondering why you're getting fat
If you what you consume is clickbait, status updates, tweets and Instagram photos, it's a bit like eating donuts for every meal and wondering why you're getting fat. If you consume great art, you're much more likely to create it.
- Turn off the notifications on your phone
- Install a digital distraction blocker like Rescuetime
- Leave your phone out of the room
Use Pen and Paper: In a world that's increasingly digital, pen and paper is one of the best tools we have for designing an environment conducive to creativity. With pen and paper nothing else competes for our attention.
Part 3- Doing The Work
Creativity is a habit not a trait. If habits are the compound interest of self improvement, expressing your creativity on a regular basis is the compound interest of artistic progress. But for many aspiring creative people, building any new habit can feel like an uphill battle.
If habits are the compound interest of self improvement, expressing your creativity on a regular basis is the compound interest of artistic progress
Build the Identity of the Person You Want to Become: Every habit is composed of a series of steps. For example, a person with a writing habit gets out a pen, cracks open a notebook, and puts pen to paper. The same applies to just about every other creative habit, whether it's playing the guitar, dancing, or painting. To develop the identity of the person you want to become, you have to start with this question:
What is the behavior of a person who has the habit that I want to develop?
This is at the core of what author James Clear refers to as “identity based habit formation”. The key is to break that behavior up into all of its parts.
Take Minimum Viable Actions: One of the biggest reasons that people fail to stick to new habits is because they attempt to make drastic changes. If you have never done something in your life, saying you're going to do it for an hour a day is a bit like going to the gym and trying to lift 100lbs when you have never lifted weights before. It's a recipe for disaster.
A minimum viable action is the smallest part of a habit you can take action on. It might be as simple as getting out a pen, cracking open a notebook, pulling out a paintbrush or just sitting down in the place you intend to do your creative work.
Track Your Progress: If you don't track your progress, it can feel like you're not making any. Visible progress increases your motivation. The key is to make sure you're tracking something that you can control. For example, as a writer I track my word count, the number of days in a row that I write something and the number of articles that I've published.
There are several ways to track your progress, but one of the most popular ones is the “don't break the chain” method. A young comedian named Brad Isaacs asked Jerry Seinfeld how he could become a better comedian. Seinfeld told him to get a wall calendar and for every day that he wrote a joke to mark an "x" on the calendar. Eventually there would be a chain, and the goal was simply not to break the chain.
Morning Pages: In her book, The Artists Way, Julia Cameron recommends the practice of morning pages.
Put simply, morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream of consciousness... These daily meanderings are not meant to be art... Pages are simply meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind.
As someone who has been writing a 1000 words a day for more than 6 years, I can assure you that this is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your creativity. This simple habit of taking the time to write and reflect every single day is not an obligation, but a gift. And if you need some guidance watch the video below in which Sarah Peck describes “the process”.
There is no right or wrong way to do your morning pages. The only goal is to fill the pages with words. The practice of morning pages is the key that unlocks the door to your imagination. While those initial moments of putting pen to paper will feel mundane and incoherent, with each drop of ink that sinks in the paper, word by word, sentence by sentence, bird by bird, and day by day, you will begin to access your magic.
Stick to a Schedule: The muse is a fickle mistress. Sometimes she's in the mood, other times she's not. You never know when she's going to show up, and whether or not she'll give you anything to work with. The more you show up, the more likely you'll be to show up on the days she's there, and the more likely you are to be inspired. If you want to be more creative, stick to a schedule.
Master Your Craft: Because there are virtually no barriers to entry, and we can go from idea to execution in hours, and people expect to build an audience for their work in the same amount of time. But the only viable strategy to build an audience is to master your craft and be so good they can't ignore you. This takes thousands of hours, years, sometimes even decades of work. As Seth Godin has said, "it took a long time to blog like I do."
Part 4- Focus and Flow
Flow is that magical feeling where action and awareness merge, you lose all sense of time, and become completely absorbed in whatever it is that you're doing. According to Steven Kotler, “Top executives in flow experience a 500 percent increase in productivity, creative insights/breakthroughs start to occur, and all aspects of performance go through the roof”.
But a precursor to flow is focus. It takes roughly 90 minutest of uninterrupted creation time before you can even reach a state of flow. If you're addicted to your devices, check email a hundred times a day, and are on social media a lot, it's going to be damn near impossible for you to focus for 90 minutes. Fortunately, there's a way around this.
In his book, The Distracted Mind, author Adam Gazalley suggests the following:
Limit yourself to one screen. Yes, multiple screens are nice for spreading out your work, but they cause distraction. In addition put away all nonessential work material on your desk, leaving only paper materials you absolutely need to complete a task.
In addition to this, in my book An Audience of One, I suggested the following 4 hacks to improve your focus:
- Leave the phone out of the room
- Use Distraction-Free tools
- Work in Full Screen Mode
The simple secret to managing your attention is to decrease the competition for it.
Part 5- A Gift To The World
The ultimate paradox of creative work is that what you create for an audience of one is much more likely to reach an audience of millions. Nothing will fuel your creativity as much as genuine curiosity, enthusiasm and excitement about your work.
When you give a gift, there's no expectation of anything in return. Even if you sell your art, it's a gift to the person who buys it. Authors don't sell books to their readers with the condition of "It's yours for this price, but you have to write an Amazon review." The gift isn't in the object itself. The gift is in your attempt to touch someone's heart and change them. The change you hope to create far outweighs the price a reader pays.
Expressing your creativity is a gift to yourself and to anyone who benefits from it.
The following interviews hav been referenced throughout this guide. They're worth a listen if you want to do a deeper dive into the material in this guide.