Recently, I was inspired to think more about the creative process after watching a John Clease talk on creativity and also the BBC documentary Beautiful Minds: Professor Andre Geim, the discoverer of Graphene. Both of them gave me some insights into what makes us creative and potentially how we can become creative.
There was a time when I longed to be more creative but there was an odd connection that my mind had formed and I came to realise that I was longing to be more artistic, to be a poet, artist or musician but that creativity does not solely exist in these art forms. Creativity, the ability to create something new, is at the centre of scientific discovery, the centre of engineering, of architecture and of software development. Each of these fields requires us to delve deeply into often complex problems and find solutions, to solve a problem that no one has solved before and to make connections that perhaps other people cannot make. If we contrast working as a scientist compared to working on a production line we can see many of the differences, the production line requires us to perform the same repetitive where as the scientist will often perform the same experiments again and again but also spends a significant amount of time devising the experiments, analysing the data and coming up with a model of the world that fits the results.
However, even within these professions, even within these complex spheres of science and engineering there are those who are considered to be creative by their peers, to stand out among the crowd. Are these people actually any more intelligent, any more talented, any more creative than those around them or is it something else that makes them stand out?
John Cleese pointed out the work of the psychologist Donald W. MacKinnon who is a significant figure in the research into the creative mind. MacKinnon did a study of architects, some who were considered highly creative and looked into their creativity but what he found was that creativity was not a talent, the people who were considered more creative were the people who were more easily able to get into what he calls the Open Mode rather than the Closed Mode.
So, as I said above, thew Closed Mode is where most people live most of our lives. We go to work, there is usually far too much to do and far too little time to do it, we are doing household chores, we are performing repetitive tasks, we are responding to e-mail, telephone calls, texts, twitter, facebook and there are many other distractions. Most people will know the complete frustration when you are focussed on solving a difficult problem and someone turns up and goes “do you have a moment?” and the instant they say that you lose your train of thought and the moment is gone... you are not disrupted and you might as well answer their question.
When we are in the Closed Mode we are more likely to find ourselves stressed, under pressure and anxious about something. We may also be quite nervous, we are trying to impress, or we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, or looking stupid in front of someone important. The simple fact is that when we are feeling these negative emotions we do not really feel creative.
What happens when someone says to you “Go on, say something funny!”? I certainly lose all inspiration about anything funny to say (though there is a debate to be had about whether I actually have anything funny to say). The reason for this is that, in my opinion, spontaneity and humour are both creative things, the pressure that is put on someone to act in that way stifles the process and puts us into the Closed Mode.
Too often we get stuck in the Closed Mode and too often we find that we are just ploughing on regardless and becoming tunnel visioned, maybe even too goal oriented. By focussing solely on the destination and by focussing on a single way to get there, we sometimes isolate ourselves from new, exciting and even better ways to achieve our goal but we do not take the time to step back and take a wider view.
However, the Closed Mode does have its uses. The Closed Mode is an active mode, we are more able to just “get stuff done” that does not require any creative input, i.e. fairly linear/repetative tasks, or tasks that simply apply following specific rules, in fact the creative mind would impede this process. A creative mind is more likely to say “I wonder what would happen if...?” or “Surely this can't be right...” and goes off on wild tangents and gets distracted by creativity.
In order for us to be creative we need to be in the Open Mode. When we are in the open mode we are free from the distractions of our daily lives, we are free to concentrate on a particular problem space, we are free from the pressures of all of the work that must get done and therefore we are far more relaxed. I think that when we are dealing with complexity, with a problem, we should be aiming to spend some of our time in the Open Mode to allow ourselves to become more creative and to come up with more innovative solutions to that problem.
As Andre Geim said in the documentary:
When you are travelling on rails it is very difficult to find something new. When you make forays into new areas you increase the chance of finding something new.
What Andre is saying here is really that while we are in the Closed Mode we are very narrowly focussed and unlikely to see the wider view. When we are in the Open Mode we are much more likely to engage in what I will call Play where we will try new and unexpected things, we will increase the chances of finding a connection that we did not know before, we are open to new discoveries, we are being creative.
If we play around an idea we have to have the confidence, the freedom, the relaxation to be able to make mistakes, to be able to fail and to try out even random things, try out impossibilities and use them to discover entirely new possibilities. In play we are curious, relaxed and confident, we may be playing with a particular problem space but we are not tunnel visioned.
When we have a problem I think that often, especially as adults, we rush headlong into the problem and grind away until we have managed to make it go away and we do this is us in the Closed Mode. However, to find a creative solution to the problem we have to relax, we have to get ourselves into the Open Mode and then we can explore the possibilites that are available to us and come up with a solution to our problem. Once we have a solution, we should go back into the Closed Mode and implement that solution away from the creative doubts that the Open Mode would undoubtedly bring.
Over the next few weeks I hope to be releasing some more blog posts around this subject delving a bit deeper into the techniques and tools that we can use to help us become more creative... stay tuned.