Most days, a single question haunts my every step. It has become my obsession, my shadow, my dogged companion:
“What does it take to become creative?”
The splatter of bold up there is not for nothing. Creativity is treated as a magical switch in our culture, flipped on or off at birth, never to be adjusted again.
I have now spent over 1,000 blog posts, 2 books, several speeches, and countless conversations with individuals trying to prove the exact opposite of this “common knowledge.”
Why do I disagree? Some reasons are philosophical. The others lie on my knowledge about the field of of Epigenetics, which is the study of our body beyond what our genes have given us.
All 7 billion humans on our planet share a fixed number of genes. As of right now, we believe this number lies somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000. 20,000 genes to create 7 BILLION unique individuals. That’s a ratio of 1:350,000. Doesn’t seem like that many, does it?
Why does this happen? Each of those 20,000+ genes have thousands of different expressions, which is why one sibling can get colon cancer at age 40, one can get dementia at 57, and the other can live a healthy life of 95 years.
Or, more to our point — one sibling might grow up to find mundane work while the other writes novels, directs movies, and composes music.
What makes the difference on whether a gene expresses itself?
Environment and lifestyle.
The same is true in every area of performance, particularly the creative fields. If you can adjust your lifestyle to avoid Alzheimer’s, a disease with zero recorded survivors, surely you can make tweaks to become more creative as well.
Think Picasso is a natural artistic genius? Maybe, but keep in mind his father owned an art store, and had supplies and instruction on hand for his son from day one. Picasso also spent a large majority of his career side by side with a man named George Braque. Braque could equally have been given credit for created Cubism, except Picasso was better branded. Picasso may have kept painting without Braque, but it didn’t hurt to have a contemporary challenging him to go further each day.
What about T.S. Eliot, the wunderkind poet? Again, the raw talent was there, but he also moved across the sea to England and fell into the arms of fellow American Ezra Pound. Pound, a talented writer himself, prodded Eliot to get his work to print (and paved the way with priceless connections to key players in literature). Later, Eliot’s wife Vivienne would also serve on the young poet’s editing board. The three of them worked in concert for years to build Eliot’s career.
Talent is a big deal. Environment matters more.
Luckily, small environment changes don’t have to come at the cost of a transatlantic move or a search for an equally talented partner who has all the time in the world to work with you.
If your idea well is running low, it may have nothing to do with your effort. Instead, try tweaking your environment in these ways:
1) Respect your environment’s role in the first place
My friend Benjamin Hardy, PhD wrote something in his latest book, Willpower Doesn’t Work, which never really left my brain:
“It is the Western way to isolate and decontextualize, whether that be variables in a science lab, or ourselves.”
I’m not a PhD, so I had to read that several times to understand what he meant. Let me save you some time for what it means to the sake of our argument — It means that Americans specifically tend to vaunt raw talent alone, and discard any of the factors around it.
Jerry Seinfeld, possibly the most successful comedian of our generation, is also in support of the environment over talent view point. In an interview with Tom Papa and Feimster Fortune, Tom asks the comedic legend how he can get more consistent writing jokes. Seinfeld didn’t say anything about mysticism, talent, or inspiration. Instead he said this:
“You need a sealed space, an environment that is not home, not the office. You need a place you can walk into and your brain says ‘Ah! I know what we do here.’”
Despite what the lore of humankind tells us, hard work is only part of the formula. The rest has to do with everything we see, smell, touch, feel, taste, and hear.
2) Carry around a notebook 24/7
It doesn’t matter if you use the idea or not. It doesn’t even matter if the idea is in your field or not. When you find something interesting, write it down. Idea for a super bowl commercial? Write it down. New recipe?
Yes, you must write it down. Or at the very least, put it in your phone. I use Evernote to capture and categorize.
According to productivity coach Ari Meisel:
“The second you move an idea from the cerebral atmosphere of your neurons to the concrete plane of your notebook, you free up working memory for more ideas.
The process for imagining an idea is different from the process of developing an idea is different than the process of executing on an idea. They each deserve their own space.”
There is great value in going wide, and not just deep with your ideas. Instead of daydreaming about the single idea which may or may not be good, use that notebook to capture another insight. Then try 9 more.
Collect first. Cull later.
3) Stop throwing stuff away
“Tyler takes the piano, rippling the keys with a song from Avalon…my very first musical, which has rested dormant for nearly ten years…Now, it may have life after all. I think to myself the secret lies in never throwing anything away.”
This is a line from a mystical, intimate read called The Creative Life by Julia Cameron. In this world of science and research and data and study, Julia’s work is refreshing in its call to the invisible part of creative work: the magic and spontaneity of it all.
Look at what’s written in the middle of that paragraph up there. Julia had a musical which sat around for ten YEARS?
Yes. Ten years. And then, all at once, she assembled the right team, got the right support, grew a fresh interest in the premise, and raised a ghost of an idea into a full fledged artistic project people paid to come see.
Some seeds grow in an instant. Some you forget about until years later, when you return to discover a forest of possibility waiting for you.
4) Be around creative people
Despite what you think, what you biologically desire more than almost anything is to fit in with a tribe.
My first year of college, I spent my entire weekends watching episodes of The Simpsons. I would do this for 8 hours at a time. That means I watched 7 hours of The Simpsons and then thought “Yeah, I could do another hour.”
Then, I switched schools to chase a girl* and wound up in a crew of journalists. They didn’t watch The Simpsons so much. Instead, they debated headline structure. They got into heated arguments about oxford commas. They sat for hours trying to come up with the right verbs. Most importantly, they wrote all the time, so guess what I did?
I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote.
Please understand this: your success will likely have less to to do with “trying harder” and more to do with the expectations placed upon you (directly or indirectly) by those whom you are closest.
Thanks to the benefit of my new writer friends, I make a living from stuff I make up in my head. I haven’t seen my friends Bart or Homer in years.
*Oh, and that girl I transferred for agreed to married me, so there.*
Your surroundings have a hand in every thought which pops into your head. They whisper words of encouragement and doubt, of condolence and criticism.
Here’s the question to think about: What are your surroundings telling you?
Much love as always ❤
— Todd B