What is creative thinking?
Creative thinking is the ability to create original and valuable ideas through connecting separate areas of information, existing knowledge and ideas. It therefore often leads to new insights, insights which are considered being ‘outside the box’, meaning outside of the already existing perception of reality. Creative thinking stands in contrast to logical thinking which uses deductive reasoning to deconstruct previous experiences, knowledge, etc. and therefore creates only insights in already existing, inside the box, areas. Rather than connecting different areas of information in a new way, logical deduction draws on just on already existing thought patterns. This being said, thinking ‘outside the box’ demands to abandon the rules of logic, which is more often a process of unlearning the habits of logical thinking we were brought up with. Furthermore, one needs to integrate non-conformity and diversity into the creative process, draw on associations and already existing knowledge in order to shift the context or thought patterns. It highly draws on an intuitive valuation of information; a nothing is impossible attitude towards ideas, a questioning of conventional thoughts and a very flexible mindset, generally known as lateral, associative and analogical thinking. As discussed, creating something new, an idea, a concept or a physical thing, involves a nonconformity behavior, which can lead to internal tension since we are evolutionary drawn to conformity, to be in line with the people around us. This effect depends on the strength of our internal conformity bias.
Even though many people in the public think that creativity is something genetically predetermined it is now common knowledge in the scientific community that creativity is an actual skill which not just draws on one area but on all areas of life. It therefore can be learned and with enough practice brought to excellence.
But how do we learn to think creatively?
First of all, the creative process is still a learning process. This means that we actually increase our cognitive ability to connect two pieces of information in a manner they were never connected before.
To be able to learn any skill, and thus creative thinking, we need to adopt a beginner’s mindset. Just think of small children discovering the world around them, they can easily be fascinated by a bee flying from one flower to another. They are not just learning about the bee’s behavior or a natural principle, but they demonstrate us adults an openness to the small things in life, an openness to being in the moment and going with the energy around us, rather than withstanding it like adult’s tend to do. This is important because creativity is seeing a connection between things no one has seen before, and in order to see these connections we must be open minded and willing to see them.
I call this state of engaging with the now a more natural state, the actual human state. When we think back to our ancestors roaming through the wild, it comes apparent that being in the moment could decide about life and death, about finding water or food, sensing any danger, because even the smallest changes in their environment were noticed. Our ancestors needed to start learning over and over again, like children, because not learning and therefore committing more errors could have meant death. Of course in our life today we do not need to care much about finding water or food and we created systems that provide a kind of safety net, so our margin for errors has grown enormously in recent time, but not paying attention to the moment can prove fatal when crossing the street.
‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’– Albert Einstein
But back to the creative process. There are a couple of things we can do to regain our more natural state of being and that helps us regaining a beginner’s mindset.
Let go of the need to control
Control exhibits human progress, because it sets a fixed structure of how things have to work. Think how you feel, when things do not go the way you wanted them to go. You were probably sad or angry. But do you really have control after all? I doubt it. Therefore letting go of control can be a real relieve and a challenge as well, but with time you will accept the way things go and learn to live with them. Think about the things that are actually under your control. Most things are not. So why bother about things you have little or no influence over? Rather work on your reaction towards the chaos life is. A great thing to learn more about is how to deal with adversity is studying stoic philosophies. I can recommend beginning with Marcus Aurelius, an old roman emperor, book Meditations.
Study cognitive biases
Wikepedia defines a cognitive bias as such:
‘A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality’
There is a long, long list of so called cognitive biases. A common one for example is the Anchoring bias. It describes our tendency to make decisions on just one piece of information.
Being aware of these biases, even though they are a lot, can give us a huge advantage when applying a beginner’s mindset. They make us more aware of certain ways in certain behaviors’, which block our learning process or slow it down, because we draw the wrong conclusions or make the wrong decisions, based on a distorted reality.
Live in the moment
Easy to say, hard to do. But trying to open yourself up to the moment is an important part of thinking creatively. We cannot only gain inspiration from our surroundings when we walk around with open eyes, but we actually are more susceptible for our internal world as well, for our feelings and thoughts. Being present improves our ability to see the small connections between things we might have missed otherwise. This is important for everyone wanting to think creatively.
This is not some wowo advice, it actually helps. Meditation helped me to reconnect with my body and to actually listen to it. It does not just helps to accept our mental state we are in but it actually improves our ability to observe our feelings. This helps to notice the small changes in our mood and thoughts, for example the need for control or a cognitive bias we are influenced by. After all meditation teaches us to focus our entire attention on the moment and lets us disconnect from our distracting surroundings, and tune into our internal world, the world of the unconscious. It gives you an internal compass, an internal proactive perspective, rising internal stimuli instead of taking in external ones. If we can reach a level where we can tap in the meditative stage of total immersion in the now, we can almost willingly create new insights. But later more on that.
To begin meditating is fairly easy. I recommend sitting upright in a quiet space and just focusing all your attention on your breath. Close your eyes and try to feel your breath. Follow it but do not try to control or consciously change its rhythm in any way. If you get distracted by a thought just come back to your breath. It is a common misconception that meditation is about not thinking at all. It is the returning to the breath every time you get distracted by thoughts which trains your mental muscle to stay focused on the moment, on your breath. A good app to start with is Headspace or Calm.
As you can see meditation is an important method to handle the points above and to regain our inner beginner’s mindset. And keep in mind, it is more important to meditate once a day for ten minutes than meditating once a week for 70 minutes.
The above points are the first step to a more creative thinking process. Tackle one point at a time and slowly progress until you are comfortable with them. It is the first step, but preparing our mental state is by far the most important one.
If we are more creative, we will be better equipped to solve the problems life throws at us. We will find better solutions, more creative ways to implement them in our daily life and after all we might feel empowered to tackle some of the big problems outside our personal life. We can and should use our creative power to help others and to look for opportunities to advance humanity in a sustainable way. Use your creative power to become less reliant on supermarket food, to avoid producing plastic, to build yourself a life of less stress, to find a way and build a system that allows you to train, work and pursue other interests. There are many ways to use creative thinking. Find your way, but keep the bigger picture in mind. How can I increase my personal robustness and the viability of my life and that of the people around me as well as the greater community?
Beneath you will find some action points that are supposed to help you to apply your knowledge and take actions. Knowledge is good. Knowledge taken into action is a natural force.
Try to meditate for ten minutes the next seven days and see how you feel.
Spend one afternoon this weekend totally out of control. That means no planning, no work. Just go with the flow and see what happens.
Learn two or three cognitive biases and try to observe and find them in others people’s and your own behavior
Search dailystoic.com and get started by reading ‘What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 3 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started’
‘Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.’– Leonardo Da Vinci
I hope you enjoyed today’s article! Let me know what you think and how you took action.
Stay tuned for the second part of this three part series. Next time we will explore what traits one should possess that enable us to creative breakthroughs and we will have a look at the overall structure of the creative process.
On meditation and living in the moment
A really good book on meditation. Perfekt for starters who want to dive deeper into meditation: https://www.amazon.com/Dreaming-Yourself-Awake-Tibetan-Transformation/dp/159030957X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1495460062&sr=8-1&keywords=dreaming+yourself+awake
A Tim Ferris interview with Josh Waizkin about the art of learning, meditation and being in the moment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBu7gGTYzz0
Webpage with a nice poster of some of the most common biases: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com
The book ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius: https://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Thrift-Editions-Marcus-Aurelius/dp/048629823X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1495460113&sr=8-1&keywords=meditations (it actually just costs one bug)
Webpage of the daily Stoic: https://dailystoic.com/what-is-stoicism-a-definition-3-stoic-exercises-to-get-you-started/