Breaking down creative roadblocks

Three ideas on how to breakdown the creative roadblocks that stand in your way.

Creativity. For some it’s a natural extension of their persona, ever flowing onto paper, whiteboards, and anyone who will lend a supportive ear. For others it can be something of an enigma, something they at times hold in their hands only to watch it slip through their fingers like grains of sand. I have been both the cases mentioned and I’m perfectly content, even when I don’t have a grasp on my creativity. The key: breaking down creative roadblocks.

Stop ignoring your senses

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted psychologist and professor, has studied happiness and creativity for the past 30 years. In his article The Creative Personality he stated that “creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals.” But what if you haven’t honed your ability to adapt to foster your creativity? Listen to your senses. All too often we ignore our five senses and deny them the ability to change our direction to get around our misconceptions and hence, the roadblock. In the The Grace of Great Things this is called the syndrome of nondiscovery. Our senses “are not passive functions but rather dynamic acts of will…that we must regularly evaluate.” If we don’t evaluate the details that we see, hear, and feel then we can not adapt nor see the details that might otherwise be hidden. Those details, ever so small, can help drive our creativity.

Dealing with the way things are

You’re now adapting, but let me guess, using what you have around to work with is proving difficult in some situations. Case in point: the workplace where creativity is managed away. You see resources, you see a need, you’re making the connections…and your manager is giving you the “I’m going to fire you” stare after you mention it in passing. Stanford business professor Robert I. Sutton wrote an interesting article back in 2002 called Weird Rules of Creativity - Think You Manage Creativity? Here’s Why You’re Wrong. The premise of the article is that management rules applied to creativity have the habit of killing creativity, and that there are new rules to be applied which Sutton defines. But lets assume you’re not a manager and that you want to work with what you’ve got. Sutton states in his article that “you should encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers.” Tim Ferriss makes that case in his book The 4-Hour Workweek to ask for forgiveness, not permission. I like what Tim is getting at, and I’d combine with the concept of dealing with the way things are, seventh rule from the book The Art of Possibility. The premise is that we often focus on the way things should be, not the way they actually are. A great quote from the book says it all: “the practice of being with the way things are can break the unseen grip of abstractions created as a hedge against danger in a world of survival, and allow us to make conscious distinctions that takes into the realm of possibility.” Knock that creative roadblock down, realize that there is possibility in the reality of the situation and if you have to, ask for forgiveness later as you explore.

Inquiry creates magic

So far, I’ve said to realize there are possibilities in the way things are now and to listen to the senses you often ignore. In the face of these grounded-in-reality concepts, I now give you my wildcard: magic can happen if you let it. Specially, believe in the magic that is created when one sets out on a path of inquiry.

This said, what is inquiry? Is it simply asking the right questions? Asking questions is a step in the right direction, but to maintain a spirit of inquiry we must openly observe our own actions and question their validity (a concept you’ll find in the book Creativity in Business). Inquiry is simply not asking questions but asking questions of one€™s self. If you’re open to inquiry, if you’re open to not only looking at the problem you may be facing but to ideas beyond it, you will be creative. In The Grace of Great Things, it’s stated that “to be inventive…is to see the world of inquiry more as a house of unfinished light and shadow.”

At the time I was working on these concepts, the revelation hit that the word inquiry is simply not to seek answers through questions, but to be open to the idea that the house is always changing like lights and shadows, that creativity itself within you, me and everyone else changes every day. How is this magic you ask? Because you have to make the leap.

In the book Leap, it talks about the idea of the leap, the creative idea of going from A to B to M. Between B and M, between the wisdom of strategy and effectiveness is a gap that can only be explained by magic (see page 29). I find this to be of great interest, because on a rational level I cannot explain the magic. Magic isn’t supposed to exist. Yet, it’s through knocking down roadblocks that our creativity shines, that we makes leaps to topics and ideas that we may not have had otherwise. We use the tools at hand, we see the small details and then that creative burst of euphoria hits and you’ve come up with a new idea that goes beyond connecting the dots.

Outside the comfort zone

The Art of Possibility would describe this exercise as “practices that may feel illogical or counterintuitive to our normal understanding of how things operate.” The beauty of creativity is that it operates at times well outside our understanding, and that’s a good thing. Otherwise, we might always be sitting at roadblocks.

Post Script

The person who really changed my thinking about my approach to creativity was Laurie MacPherson while I was a graduate student a while back at the University of San Francisco. Several of the books mentioned were recommended reading for her class and I can’t speak highly enough of her skill on the topic of creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership. Thank you Laurie!