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Am I Creative? Five activities to stimulate creative problem solving

Creativity  that beloved and dreaded trait. It’s a requirement in almost every occupation and surrounded by illusions about whether one has the ‘C’ Factor or not. Most of us might not necessarily feel very creative in the aesthetic or visual sense. But fear not. Even if coloured balloons and great ideas don’t magically fly out of your mouth once you start talking, you do possess the power of imagination.

In a TED talk on creative confidence, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and professor at Stanford, warns us against dividing people into one of two categories: the creatives or non-creatives. All human beings have creative abilities, so we should all start thinking of ourselves as creative.

Unlike David Kelley I’m no expert on creativity. Yet I do believe we’re all creative in one sense or another. I also suspect that creativity often surfaces when we’re faced with a problem. Searching for answers to specific problems and questions can be used effectively to activate creative processes.

Apart from going for a walk, working out, brainstorming and discussing, what other activities might light that creative spark?

Karl Pilkington about planning

1. Waiting for that Eureka Moment?
Don’t. It probably won’t come. Or when it does come, you’ve already put in a lot of hard work. The challenge when facing problems, and one of the great myths and misconceptions about creativity and innovation, is the notion that the Eureka Moment or the one perfect idea presents itself as an unexpected revelation.

It may seem that they appear from nowhere, but in reality ideas or solutions form part of a string of events. This means that the work you’ve done, the thoughts you’ve been thinking and the ideas you’ve been throwing around (however ridiculous they may have been) are important pieces of the puzzle.

The road to successful and productive problem solving, then, is not to wait for the perfect idea. Get started, throw those half good ideas around, bury yourself in the subject matter and ask loads of questions. Now the ball starts rolling.

Cause and effect

2. Look to fiction and play the role of the omniscient narrator
Books are a great source for ideas about creative problem solving. Although all fiction enables us to be immersed in a different world, fictional or narrative books and the written word have the advantage of letting the reader in on the inner life of another individual. Having access to the myriad of ways in which people, fictitious or not, look at the world and actually think is a great advantage.

The next time you’re stuck, try out the role of a third-person narrator and latch onto the inner world and perspective of fictional characters. And it doesn’t just have to be the protagonist. Try accessing the thought process of your audience, your nemesis or friend. How would a person completely different from you go about to solve the task you are struggling with? How does she or he think and feel about it?

Even if you’re not a big reader, I’d encourage you to give this a go. Ideas about how one situation becomes another when the perspective shifts are readily available in much literature – from Virginia Woolf to Jonathan Franzen. In a hurry? Ambrose Pierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or Woolf’s “Solids Objects” are both short stories where the internal experience is in stark contrast to the external reality. Or pick up any other story where the narrator gives the reader a glimpse into the way in which people’s minds work.

3. Embrace the mundane
This is good old advice, but as it still does some magic, it won’t hurt to repeat it. When looking for answers to a question or problem, housework or boring chores can actually give you more than a clear mind from the task at hand. Stay with me please. Doing the dishes, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn (for those who’ve got one) or painting the picket fence (again, for those who’ve got one) are all tasks that don’t demand the most complex thought processes. No, seriously, stay with me!

Although focusing on a mundane task does require some attention, keeping your thoughts slightly occupied means the problem you’re trying to solve can be left humming in the back of your mind. Your mind is allowed to wander and in this process your thoughts may take an unexpected turn or go down an alternative path. Before you know it, your mind has some new connections and ideas for you. A clean house and an inspirational idea – it’s a winning situation all around.

4. Go have fun and let someone else do the job
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to do boring stuff to let your subconscious connect the dots for you. Having fun is another great way of occupying the consciousness, leaving the subconscious alone to solve the puzzle you’re struggling with. Again, it’s all about attention and focus. Sometimes thinking too hard about a problem gets in the way of solving it. At such times, thinking about something else for a couple of hours will probably be way more productive than keeping at it.

One of my most important ‘aha’ moments happened while I was watching one of the Transformers films. Having struggled for days with a serious logical flaw in my work, I decided to go to the cinema instead of going around in circles. While the quality of the later Transformers films may be up for discussion, losing myself in Autobots and Decepticons fighting really did the trick for my creativity.

5. Spend some quality time with your senses
Which of your senses is the most important? Most would probably say sight as the sense that’s the most important to them. Even so, consider your other senses. They play a vital part to everyday life and the way you perceive the world. Listen to music, taste your food, wine or chocolate and every once in a while stop what you’re doing to smell the flowers.

Going back to childhood games that stimulate the senses may forge new connections in your brain and help you see things differently. Try being blindfolded and taste food you can’t see, feel an object you can’t identify through sight or listen to a TV programme. Ask yourself what you’re eating, holding or hearing and use your imagination to guess what you’re experiencing. Monitor your thought process and take note of the ways your perception is different.

Creative problem solving

Incorporate these techniques into your creative process. Don’t just wait around for the perfect idea to come and don’t kick yourself by deeming an idea to be wrong. Whenever a project is started, nobody knows the results or the final conclusion in advance. There is no one perfect formula to get you through the creative process. Detours, seemingly dead-ends or off topic activities may also lead to the Eureka Moment or to discoveries that are part of the solution to the mystery.

Most importantly, the problem you’re facing is an opportunity for your creativity, not an obstacle. Besides, isn’t it rewarding to think of a trip to the cinema or getting a clean house as part of the problem solving? Just don’t get too carried away. Brainstorming at the pub, anyone?


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