Thoughts on the creative thinking process Part Two

6 Jun

This is part two of my three part series on the creative process. To give you a quick reminder what part one was all about I summarized the most important points below:

  • Creative thinking is the ability to create original and valuable ideas through connecting separate areas of information, existing knowledge, and ideas.
  • Creative thinking stands in contrast to logical thinking
  • Creativity is an actual skill which can be learned and with enough practice brought to excellence.
  • The creative process is a learning process
  • To learn creative thinking, we need to adopt a beginner’s mindset. 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, study cognitive biases, live in the moment, and meditate.

Once we have set us up to be open to ourselves and our surroundings and freed up our mind, it is time to think about core attributes a creative thinker should possess.

 

Traits of creativity:

Domain mastery

Even though being new to a subject might spark some different new creative thoughts, it is generally said, that these ideas are not really new at all because most beginners in any given field miss the bigger picture, all the faces, the subject or domain implies. In order to bring new creative ideas to the table and helping to progress the domain, an expert status is needed. You should have seen all the sides to the story. Only thus you will be able to connect the existing information in a really new way.

A general approach to becoming an expert is to spend around 10,000 hours on the subject you want to become an expert in. This is e.g. one out of the many reasons why the average age of Nobel Prize winners is around 60 years. It just takes a long time to become an expert. But do not be unmotivated. It is surprising how much you can learn in a couple of months just by reading the top five to ten books in your field of interest. Becoming an expert is easier than its sounds. You are probably already one. Just think about your work or hobby. If you played the guitar from a young age or worked for a couple of years, you are probably already an expert in that domain. Expertise is not limited to academia, as are creative insights, too.

 

Cognitive skills

Hand in hand with mastery comes cognitive skills. They are defined as the ability to perform various mental activities related to learning and problem-solving. Some examples are the processing-speed of new information or the verbal, spatial and psychomotor abilities. Generally speaking, cognitive skills refer to memory, the ability to learn, understand written material and to express your thoughts through writing or speaking.

As you can see, it is important to train our cognitive skills, not only to learn faster but to be able to create new creative insights and to express them adequately.  Higher cognition helps us to see connections between two things because we can process more data and especially more clearly. The good news is that we actually can do quite a lot to improve our cognitive skills. Things like getting quality sleep, exercising regularly, eating healthy, reducing stress, learning how to really concentrate. After all, everybody is different and works differently. So finding the way your brain works best is essential to enhance your cognitive skills. Personally, I find that my brain works best in the late noon and the early afternoon. This is when all the writing happens when I do all the work that needs my full concentration. Some other things I find helpful to improve my cognition are actually just reading a lot to improve reading and processing speed and to broaden my vocabulary (good side news: you actually can work on becoming an expert by studying new material while improving cognitive performance). Start learning speed reading which enhances your comprehension and retention of the reading material. Other things are writing my thoughts down since it not only helps me tremendously to structure my thoughts and ideas (this is when I generally see new connections or problems) but it actually trains my ability to express myself more clearly and thoughtfully. Or just try to calculate more in your head instead of reaching instantly to your phone’s calculator.

One last thing to enhance cognition is to take so called Nootropics or Smart Drugs. I personally have not tested any of them but they seem to bring some improvement for a short term boost. But please be cautious when taking them since they are a fairly new phenomena in the field of cognitive science and long term effects are not known yet. Although keep in mind that there is a high chance that you, over time become reliant on increasingly higher doses of Nootropics because your body shuts down its own production of these substances and your receptors become less sensitive to the substances itself.

 

Motivation

This is a quite obvious point. If your area of interest motivates you, you are much more likely to stick to it for the long run, to work on it even though new problems might face you. Being motivated means having a positive attitude towards something. This will greatly affect your efficiency and focus will increase your productivity. Hence your level of engagement is increased which means that you will be more open minded towards your area of interest. All above points will help you see new connections and your higher work ethic will be accountable for high-quality outputs.

 

Action points:

  1. Sit down with a piece of paper and try to think of areas where you are an expert in or have reasonable expertise in.
  2. Make a list of things you could do on daily basis to improve your cognitive function and which can improve your skills related to cognition.
  3. Write down a list of things that excite you. How do they relate to your areas of mastery? What motivates you to stick with these areas?

 

Now that we have talked about the three main traits one should possess, let’s jump right into the creative process.

The creative process:

The creative process can be split into different stages which one must address in order to progress. Its first part is more a learning phase than an actual creative process which comes later into play.

 

1. The research or information gathering face

In the first phase, we need to gather as much information as possible about our area of interest. It is wise to go as broad as possible as well as in depth as possible. The aim is to gain the widest and deepest possible knowledge. The aim is to learn as much of the core principles and recurring patterns.

2. The problem finding or hypothesis phase

After we have collected all the relevant data in a given time frame we want to step back and have a look at the bigger picture. We want to find holes or unclear parts in our research. We might even have to go back to the research phase. The aim of this phase is to come up with questions or hypothesis about the area of interest that is in correlation with unclear features or holes in the argumentation or streams of thought.

 

3. The off time phase

Now, that we have found some trouble spots and addressed them with questions, it is time to take a break from your work and enjoy yourself. Do something completely different. Let your mind relax, maybe go on vacation or a weekend trip. This will give your unconscious mind time to work on these problems without being dominated by the conscious trying to actively think of some solutions. And as we know, 95% of the brain’s activity comes from the unconscious. So it is a powerful thing and a lot of potential for creativity is left behind when not giving it space to breathe.  The aim here is to give the active part of your brain a break, to recharge mental energy and to let the unconscious part of the brain work since it has greater process capabilities than the conscious. This step is vital if you want to come up with original ideas. It is helpful to keep a little notebook with you where you can record everything that seems important to you regarding your questions and hypotheses.

 

4. Solution testing phase

Back home you want to then go back to your notes and research material and try to make sense out of the thoughts or ideas you recorded during the off time. Try to connect the new ideas with the old. How do the new things fit into the whole picture? What do they change? Are the old principles still applicable? How can I support my new ideas? What context is provided by the evidence? These are just some questions you might ask. It is important to test your new ideas and think them through deeply.  You might want to get several external opinions on your thoughts or do some additional research.

 

5. Feedback phase

Finishing the testing phase you want to step back again and look at the feedback you got. What is it telling you? Do your new ideas work? Where do you need to adjust them? Maybe you need to over throw some things.  Do not worry! That is all part of the progress. Once you have collected the feedback it is time to analyze it, think it through and actually apply it. What and where can you improve your ideas? How do you make adjustments? How can you build the new ideas into the old system? This process generally leads to a new research phase, based on the newly implemented thoughts. Generally, the overall process starts over again.

 

This is the general creative process one must go through again and again. This cycle can be applied on a daily basis, meaning that you perform the first three stages on one day, and then you go home, take some time off and get some sleep, and the next day you come back and run through the other phases before you start over the new research phase the day after. In other cases research might take up months. In this case, the cycle is also applicable for a year or longer process. Research and develop a hypothesis, then go on a long holiday trip and then come back and run through the last stages of the creative thinking process.

It is worth to say that you should consider documenting everything on paper. Write down your thoughts and ideas, as it will make everything available in later stages when you need to come back to some things and it will help you clarify your own thoughts and knowledge. It is a good indicator of progress as well, for times you feel stuck or unmotivated.

Hopefully, you can now see why the creative process can be more or less considered a learning experience as well. We need to learn first, then think creatively, then learn again, and apply the new knowledge creatively again. And so it goes on and on.

How creative insights happen

Live proactively and create empty space

How many people wake up in the morning and the first thing they do is checking email or turning into the news on the radio? How many people do you see daily on the bus or tube being constantly on Facebook, Instagram and the like? Our world is so full of noise that our brain has barely time to slow down and to wander in order to connect with the unconscious mind. Steady exposure to something, especially media leads to a reactive life, dismissing the potential for the unconscious can hold for us. Therefore practicing selective ignorance by reducing media input is important for the creative process. Research shows that if we are faced with new information, a problem set or so on, the unconscious part of our brain keeps working on processing this new information even though we are doing something totally different.

I am sure you know that experience. You have a problem at work you are working on and while on a quiet walk in the park on a lovely Sunday afternoon the solution to your work problem hits you. That is the unconscious mind live at work. This experience shows how important it is to cultivate empty space, to get away from destructive behavior, and give the unconscious mind the chance to get noticed by your conscious. This is called a proactive life, one where we are not reacting constantly to some external stimulus but rather creating one from the inside.

That is why taking breaks and going traveling, for example, is so crucial if you really want to boost your creative process. One thing I do to never forget my insights that strike me is that I carry a small notebook and a pen with me or I use an app like Evernote to collect my ideas or thoughts that come up. So I do not come back home and cannot remember my insight I just had in the park before surprisingly meeting a friend and instantly forgetting all about the insight.

Many people wait for their one big creative insight and assume that they are ready when it hits them, but it proves far better to embrace the small insights or ideas because over time they add up to a lot and prepare you for the big moments, and might actually form the outline of your big creative breakthrough. After all be patient and not too hard on yourself when you think you are not progressing fast enough. Things take time, especially big things. But embracing the small makes the process far more enjoyable and actually prepares you when the time comes to shine. There is a reason why basketball stars train every throw over and over again. It is so that the right angle and speed is so ingrained into their being that they unconsciously can access this particulate skill when there is no time to think because there are just a couple of seconds left and their throw might win the game. It is the same for the creative process

 

I hope you enjoyed today’s article! Let me know what you think and how you took action.

Stay tuned for the third part of this three part series. In the last part, we will dive into all the little tricks that will help us to boost our creativity and set the stage for the optimal creative thinking process.

And also sign up for my newsletter and never miss anything again!

 

Further readings:

Cognitive skills

List of 13 Nootropics with explanation: https://blog.bulletproof.com/13-nootropics-to-unlock-your-true-brain/

Webpage of John Medina author of Brain Rules, 12 simple rules to boost cognitive performance and how to have a healthy brain: http://brainrules.net/

Book ‘Brain Rules’ by John Medina: https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Rules-Updated-Expanded-Principles/dp/098326337X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1494846090&sr=8-1&keywords=brain+rules

Evernote

My favorite note keeping app: https://evernote.com/?noredirect

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