This article was originally published on Lifehack on October 13, 2020.

Human history has no shortage of brilliant minds: writers, musicians, inventors, entrepreneurs.  

Not everyone chooses a creative career, but all of us could use the power of creativity to live brighter, more fulfilling and more successful lives instead of going through the same motions day in, day out.

Could one become more creative? 

A one-fits-all answer is hard to give because there are different types of creativity

Want to know the least useful type?

The least useful type of creativity

It is “Ideation creativity,” the good old coming up with new ideas.

Surprised?

There do exist techniques for producing more and better ideas: idea buckets, brainstorming games, first principles thinking. Those are specialized creativity tools used by composers, novelists, and serial entrepreneurs — not so much by the remaining 99% of the population.

Still want this esoteric knowledge? Then go straight to the masters: 

  • Twyla Tharp, a celebrated American dancer and choreographer, wrote a book explaining her creative process; we will revisit this book in a moment (Tharp, Twyla. The creative habit).  

What distinguishes creative people other than their ideas?

Anyone can have interesting ideas: would it not be nice to build a flying car, create a musical about South American tribes or cold-email the French president and ask to get hired as the next prime minister? 

Just like yourself, billions of people are also touched by beautiful sunsets and would like to double their respective incomes; this does not automatically make all of them artists or entrepreneurs. 

Only those who have acted upon their ideas or emotions and produced tangible outcomes can be labeled “creative.” Mozart and Jane Austen became so famous because of their results, the symphonies and novels that they had respectively produced, not because of their ideas.

Creativity does not require so-called inspiration

A related misconception is that masterpieces are created in “Eureka!” moments, extraordinary bursts of creativity and otherworldly inspiration. The exclamation “Eureka!” refers to the apocryphal story about the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes who was taking a bath and stumbled upon a solution to a difficult problem he had been thinking about.

But consider that Mozart composed over 600 musical works in his lifetime including 50 symphonies (“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” in Encyclopaedia Britannica). He would have needed thousands of “Eureka!” moments to produce such a staggering amount of world-class music, or about one per week of his short career. This is clearly absurd: extraordinary moments of inspiration are rare by definition.

Acclaimed choreographer Twyla Tharp believes it was all hard work,

Nobody worked harder than Mozart. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose. . . . As Mozart himself wrote to a friend, “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.” (Tharp, Twyla. The creative habit.)  

Creativity can only be manifested during a creative process, whether it is trying a new dish in the kitchen, composing a new symphony or figuring out how to help your child get into a good college. If you have never played a musical instrument, you are not going to suddenly produce a symphony after doing a creativity exercise.

This brings us to the most useful — and underrated — type of creativity.

“Kaizen” type of creativity: finding ways to improve a process

What would be a non-creative approach to any activity?

It would be doing the same thing every day, in the same way.

Therefore, a creative approach would be constantly varying what you are doing and the way you are doing it.

Sometimes it means adding complexity, such as experimenting with sophisticated dishes for dinner to keep your family happy.

Other times it means reducing complexity. When mass production was still in its infancy, engineers at the Ford Motor Company used a great deal of creativity to speed up the process:

In the past a worker — and he had to be a skilled worker — had made a flywheel magneto from start to finish. A good employee could make thirty-five or forty a day. Now, however, there was an assembly line for magnetos. It was divided into twenty-nine different operations performed by twenty-nine different men. In the old system it took twenty minutes to make a magneto; now it took thirteen. (Halberstam, David. The Reckoning.)

Ironically enough, a few decades later Japanese car manufacturers ended up overcoming the big American ones including the Ford Motor Company itself. The approach that made it possible is often translated as “kaizen,” or never-ending incremental, continuous improvement. 

Kaizen type of creativity entails continuous improvements of your process:

  • today you research a new dish to make for dinner,
  • tomorrow you try making it in less time,
  • the next day you try varying the ingredients,
  • the next day you discuss your recipe with others,
  • the next day you take a class on that same recipe,
  • the next day you research nutritional properties of the ingredients…

This is the mindset of an aspiring world-class chef, and by adopting it you will become very creative in the kitchen indeed!

Transformational type of creativity: change your life

You may be arguing that it is all good for Mozart, Jane Austen or Twyla Tharp to be creative because they were engaged in creative activities full-time. 

How could one find creativity in an uninspiring job? How could one creatively spend leisure after-work time? A common advice is to “work on your goals,” but most of us do not have clear goals, let alone a specific life plan telling us exactly how to employ the time at our disposal.

The time-honored answer is, if you do not like something about your life, figure out how to change it. Goals or no goals, this is your life. Take responsibility for it because nobody else will.

This is where transformational creativity comes into the picture.

Transformational creativity is not decorating the wall of your cubicle with cute cat stickers to make the job tolerable; it is taking an evening course so you can move to a more enjoyable line of work.

Transformational creativity is not throwing random ingredients into a pot hoping for a miracle; it is befriending a gourmet chef who can teach you some serious kitchen magic.

Transformational creativity is not trying all ice cream flavors at a local parlor; it is making up your own flavor, or better yet, opening up your own ice cream shop!

Transformational creativity is taking intelligent steps towards the life that you want and away from the life that you do not want. If Kaizen creativity helps you move forward and keep growing, Transformational creativity helps you change course.

How can you unleash your Transformational creativity?

Eliminate the obstacles.

The first obstacle is not knowing what you want in life. 

A solution is to set goals anyway. Success expert and bestselling author Brian Tracy recommends setting 10 goals for the next year, but you can start from three: one financial goal, one relationship goal, one health goal (Tracy, Brian. How to Set Goals: 80/20 Rule for Goal Setting | Brian Tracy).

Your goals may be unrealistic — say, to double your income, go on a date with a celebrity or complete a marathon, all before the end of the year. This is fine. Eventually you will learn how to set goals that are motivating and appropriate for you, but you have to start somewhere.

The second obstacle is not wanting your goals badly enough.The solution is to act as if you did. 

You may decide to write a novel and yet not feel creative or committed because there is no strong emotion underlying this decision. This is fine. Just keep writing, rain or shine; your emotions will catch up with you later.

Of course if you can increase your level of motivation, by all means do it! One aspiring entrepreneur unleashed creativity and eventually achieved great success after moving from cold and wet Chicago to the sunny Phoenix, Arizona.

Want to know the last type of creativity?

It is special in that it offers a shortcut to success. Mozart used it too!

The fourth and last type is named after Dr. Watson, the colleague of the great detective invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Dr. Watson’s type of creativity

Sherlock Holmes himself commended his friend and ally Dr. Watson for exhibiting this type of creativity:

It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt. (Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles.)

Even if you are not particularly creative yourself, you may be able to do great things by partnering up with someone vastly more experienced and insightful. At the same time, a close association with an accomplished master is one of the best known ways to cultivate your own creativity, all types of it. 

This association can take various forms:

  • a formal mentorship that you are paying for,
  • an unstructured mentorship relationship combined with a friendship or a marriage,
  • an Executive Assistant-type job that you are paid for,
  • an apprenticeship whereas you work on your mentor’s projects without monetary compensation.

How can you convince a master to let you be their Dr. Watson?

The single most important quality of Dr. Watson is that he executes on Sherlock Holmes’ ideas, sometimes risking his own life in the process. It is only through immersing himself in the execution that he is able to come up with insights which — even if wrong — manage to stimulate Holmes’ powerful imagination. 

A second equally important quality of Dr. Watson is that he accepts the overall approach as well as the daily mode of operation set by Holmes and does not question them, except in extreme circumstances.

A little humility and an exemplary work ethic go a long way, but you still need to ask for what you want. If you found a potential mentor online and were able to connect with them, how could you phrase your request? Here are excerpts from messages sent to a potential mentor by an aspiring mentee that actually worked:

  • Nothing short of an honor to be connected with you.
  • Is there any way I can work with you, [Dr. such-and-such]? Would be nothing less than an achievement. 
  • I wouldn’t need any money. To be associated with you is a dream I hope I can achieve. 
  • Is it possible for you to lay down some guidelines for me, which if I follow, I’ll get to work under you 🙂 ?
  • I will follow all the guidelines and directions you provide, if you do.
  • I can be your first apprentice in [city Y or country Z].
  • I will follow all your directions, guidelines. I want to be under your guidance. Please accept my proposal.

Believe in yourself. Napoleon Hill relates the striking story of Edwin Barnes who wanted to become a business partner of the great inventor Thomas Edison — and he eventually did! He had no money or education; his only advantage was his burning desire combined with persistence (Hill, Napoleon. Think and Grow Rich). 

The book Think and Grow Rich is an absolute gem informed by conversations with some of the most successful entrepreneurs of the day, including Andrew Carnegie himself, with lessons in creativity sprinkled on every page!

Parting words

The power of creativity to change your life for the better is undeniable.

Ideation creativity is the most overrated type: unless and until you specifically decide to become an artist, a book author, an inventor or someone similar, it is but of little relevance. 

The most practical type of creativity is Kaizen, finding ways to continuously improve a process. Specific advice can be found in countless books on forming better habits including the already quoted “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp, generic — in this lifehack.org article (Ho, Leon. 74 Healthy Habits That Will Drastically Improve Every Aspect Of Your Life). So long as you have a process that you keep improving from time to time, you are on the right track.

Transformational creativity can change your life, though it does require courage, ingenuity, and most of all, persistence. Just keep making one little change at a time and your life will unfold as a piece of art. Even if you feel no motivation whatsoever, it is fine: creativity is a state of mind and can override your emotions.

Perhaps the most empowering type is Dr. Watson’s creativity which entails aligning yourself with a master whom you can learn from. Here sky is the limit, but you do have to give — sometimes a lot — to be able to benefit as greatly as Dr. Watson did from his association with Sherlock Holmes. 

Pick one type of creativity that you want to develop and discuss it with a friend. And remember the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.