The irony is not lost on me that I am sitting here with writer’s block while I try to write an essay on creativity – and yet, it is this exact problem that has plagued the creative mind from its inception. What is the path to creative success? The ancient Greeks considered it out of their hands – they would invoke the muse, hoping that their prayer would bestow inspiration upon them. Since that time, we have continued to strive to codify a path to creativity, with arguably questionable success.
It strikes me that the first mistake we make is to assume that there is only one path to success and, conversely, that one path will always be successful. By its very nature, creativity requires that we come up with something new, which means that a single foolproof formula for how to get there seems ineffective at best, and paradoxical at worst. Much as we cannot guarantee a great improv scene every time we step onstage, we cannot guarantee that creativity will strike every time we want it to. However, also like improv, there are some guidelines that we can follow to help improve our chances. Let’s talk about a few of these ideas now.
“It strikes me that the first mistake we make is to assume that there is only one path to success and, conversely, that one path will always be successful.”
At first glance, this one may seem obvious, but it is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. Whether we are just being cautious, or resistant to failure or afraid of commitment, or any number of other countless justifications, so much time is wasted during the creative process trying to work through the courage to actually just start. We want our ideas to be born fully-formed from our heads, like Athena (to borrow again from the Greeks) who emerges from Zeus’ skull, clad in an impenetrable suit of armor. The problem is that Athena is the exception – most ideas (and most people, for that matter) are born first and must, from there, grow to reach their full potential. In many ways, this might be the real value in invoking the muse to begin with – because at the end of the prayer, you’ve already begun. Improv teaches us this lesson as well as any practice I know. If you wait to begin your scene until you have the perfect fully-formed idea, the audience has left the building before you ever set foot onstage. Instead, you must be willing to start. Someone in the scene must offer the first line – first move. We call this initiating. One player initiates and then we build from there. You don’t have time to hold yourself back – you must begin. The same is true for the creative process – in order to get anywhere, you must be willing to begin.
Process is another key component to creativity – being willing to embrace failure as a critical part on the road to success. I think a big part what leads to creative success is falling in love with the process – not simply striving for the end product. Again, we can use our experience in improvisation to illustrate this point. If the players onstage are only concerned with the end result – having performed a “perfect” scene – they may hesitate to take risks within the scene and their fear of failure may, ironically, cause them to fail to explore exciting possibilities. Conversely, if you love the process – the practice of staying in the moment and building a scene with your partner one line at a time – any risks you take are much more likely to be seen as fun challenges and an essential part of the practice. This concept is particularly powerful because it devalues (and therefore de-escalates) the importance of getting this one scene right, and, instead, redirects that value (and those stakes) into a focus on getting better at the process. There seems to be a direct parallel in the business world as well – are you focused on having an immediate product – gaining the most profit – right away in the short-term? Or are you more interested in developing a well-structured process that may take initial investment but has more potential in the long-term? There is, of course, a balance – we can’t survive to the long-term if we don’t survive the short-term, but a complete disregard for process is ultimately unsustainable as well.
Another key area of focus in improvisation is the distinction between invention and discovery. This concept is a bit subtle but ultimately comes down to the distinction between being inwardly focused versus outwardly focused. The inexperienced improvisor looks inward into their own mind to invent their next move. The experienced improvisor looks out at their scene and their scene partner to discover their next move. Non-improvisors often think improvisation is about being clever – coming up with brilliant ideas out of nowhere. While this sort of inspired creation can sometimes happen, it is much less reliable than discovery. The same is true, offstage. From the development of penicillin (when Alexander Fleming noticed that mold-contaminated samples were experiencing an anti-bacterial effect) to the advent of Velcro (when George de Mestral noticed the hook and loop mechanism that allowed burrs to stick to his pants), many of today’s modern “inventions” were really discoveries. In fact, the real power behind the scientific method is that you design an experiment and then observe what actually happens – instead of trying to invent theories from nothing. When it comes to creativity, discovery seems a much more reliable path towards success as well.
Closely linked to Process and discovery, is the idea of creating space to let your mind wander – to allow your brain to make connections without your efforts getting in its way. One way to help your conscious mind stay out of the way of your subconscious mind is to give it something else to focus on. Drawing, painting, playing an instrument, cleaning, even riding the train or driving a car are all examples of activities that your conscious mind can focus on while your subconscious mind goes to work connecting the dots from your discoveries.
Once we have taken our first step, embraced failure, trained ourselves to discover, and created space to wander, we must also consider urgency. Without safety, we can become paralyzed in our thoughts and fear can inhibit creativity. Without urgency, however, we run the risk of becoming complacent – there is no incentive to necessarily discover something new. We can safely tread in waters that are already familiar. Whether we choose to create deadlines for ourselves, or raise the stakes by making a promise to our audience, or pair with a writing partner to keep ourselves accountable, finding a way to create urgency helps the creative process. In many ways, it is the companion to the importance of starting because urgency emphasizes the importance of finishing.
So, there you have it. While I strongly believe, there is no one single method that will guarantee creative success, my experience in improvisation has taught me that there are some guidelines that can help improve our chances:
I can tell you that I used all five of these guidelines in writing this piece and, look, I managed to overcome my writer’s block and finish! You can, too..