Everyone is a Creative

The Creative Class is a socioeconomic class that economist and social scientist Richard Florida, a professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, identifies as a key driving force for economic development of post-industrial cities in the United States.

via Wikipedia

I wish I were as creative as you.” I hear that regularly from people who don’t think they can be creative. And they would never consider themselves “a creative.”

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The Machine & The Magician: What you need to know about distraction

I’ve been learning a lot about the creative process lately. Like you, so much of my life is built around the concept that sometimes I need to be highly productive and other times I need to be highly creative. But, at all times, my work is best when it is both on time and creatively completed.

The Machine

Since childhood, we’ve been taught that there are times to sit down and focus all of our efforts on a task. I remember being rewarded as a 6 year old in kindergarten for my ability to sit down and do my work. My teacher had it set up so that each child, during a segment of the day for learning, could work at their own pace. I was really, really good at doing this. But if you looked at someone or whispered to your neighbor or suddenly got up and did a wiggle dance, that was inappropriate & bad.

In college, you were probably truly challenged academically for the first time– you had to learn how to study and knock hard projects out quickly. Further, you learned that there were times that if you disciplined yourself to focus that you could turn your brain into a task-master machine.

I knew that I could disappear into the corners of Moody’s library for four hours with a mug of coffee and emerge with a 10 page paper, 25 definitions memorized, a test prepared for, and 2 chapters of a book read with annotated notes for later review.

The machine is the opposite of creative. It pounds out work. It produces. And when the grades came out the one with the most powerful machine often won the highest grades.

As an adult I depend on turning on this machine. It takes me a while to get to that “machine” space, but if I put my headphones in with some improvisational jazz, turn off social media, and get into a project I can get there– knocking out a lot in a short amount of time.

The Magician

Have you been around babies & toddlers? I’ve had 3 of them crawl around my house in my lifetime. They are born magicians… incredibly creative in what they do. Turn your head for a second and BAM– they’ve done something amazing. Children can take two seemingly unrelated things and tie them together magically. In an instant they can disappear into a pretend world full of adventure, they can create stories out of thin air complete with backstory and plot twists.

You don’t have to teach a child how to be creative, it’s intuitive. If you allow them to just be themselves they are automatically creative.

To Review

The Machine is learned behavior to concentrate hard on a task, it is good.

The Magician is your natural creative self, the part of you that sees clay and stcks and smiles, it is also good.

Distraction isn’t bad

When I am in work mode I tend to think distractions are bad. Positive reinforcement from teachers and success in college taught me that. I get somewhere quiet and predictable. I work very well after the kids go to bed or at my office. Interruptions and distractions feel like the enemy. Phones, texts, Facebook, Twitter, visitors, going to the bathroom… all feel as though they will disturb the machines production.

But that’s not how it works. Your best work happens because an idea is sparked. When I get peer review of my work and overlay positive feedback with the timing of its production, the things that are most often the best– a creative solution, a breakthrough, an insight, a great paragraph— most often are in my work because the machine got turned off for a time and the magician was allowed to play. Perhaps I was in full machine mode and needed a lunch break? While walking there, my mind still churning on the work, I’ll get an idea or a solution or a insight into that work that I add. But sometimes this happens because a phone rings in another room, or a someone at a coffee shop drops something. Those breaks from Machine mode allow the Magician to play with the thing I’m working with and mix it with something else.

In fact, I’ve learned that intentionally allowing myself to become distracted can be an excellent way to generate new ideas. Taking a walk, shower, phone call, checking Facebook, listening to a sermon, catching up on the news, pulling weeds in the garden, playing with my kids, goofing off, even doing a small task like packing a box– all of these things allow me to turn the Machine off and allow my naturally creative mind, the Magician, to begin playing with ideas.

The Machine and the Magician are Playmates

I’ve learned that the Machine and the Magician are not adversaries. I will not truly be productive if I see the Machine as the winner and the Magician as the loser. (Though many people perpetuate that myth & it certainly seems productive.) My work is at its best when I foster interplay between getting things done and getting things done playfully. My work is best, not when I have hours and hours of uninterrupted Machine time, but when I have concerted time which builds in intentional distractibility so that the Magician has his voice.

McLane Creative

How to Push Through a Creative Drought

I don’t know if it’s the workload or the time of year or just fatigue. But I’ve had a hard time being especially creative lately.

That’s bad news for a person who runs a company called McLane Creative. My projects and my deadlines could care less how I’m feeling or if I’m inspired. There are people depending on my creative, timely solutions and that’s that.

I have to push through. And I do push through. Getting stuff done is the bottom line.

How I Push Through Creative Droughts and Get Stuff Done

  1. Rest – It might seem counter-productive when you have a deadline and are staring at a blank canvas or a mounting todo list, but the most obvious cause of a creative drought is a lack of rest and play. So take a nap in the middle of the day. Give yourself two hours to read a book and dose in the park. Take Saturday off. You are not a machine, you cannot produce 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. This isn’t a reality show. Making time to rest is the most productive thing you can do.
  2. Exercise – When I hit a creative wall during my day I take a walk. Pushing my son in the stroller or riding my bike for errands instead of driving or even doing jumping jacks in my office helps. I like to think of ideas as a heavy substance inside my body. When I get the blood pumping fast the ideas are able to get pumped up closer to my heart.
  3. Discipline – Sometimes I’m hitting the creative wall because I’ve procrastinated. But most often it’s because a project I finished in the past comes back for immediate changes and edits. That little bit of chaos throws me off. Instinct lies to me, building a desire to both finish my current project and go back and make some quick changes on the existing work. Being disciplined means pushing through what I’m currently working on and making late-breaking changes work with my schedule.
  4. Momentum – As creative people we know that productivity is the result of keeping the fly wheel going. So when I have something flowing I know I need to keep going, even if that means working until 1 AM. I’ve found that when I am in a drought I can’t build or sustain momentum. So set-up your work time or todo list in a way that builds momentum instead of starting and stopping all day.
  5. Change Mediums – Just about everything project I do will end up in a digital format. But when I’m not feeling it I’m quick to try another medium. I am not a great artist, but I use paper and colored pencils. Sometimes I go take photos of architectural elements for a project or shoot some video just to try to sparks something I wouldn’t have seen if I’d just sat down in front of my computer with Photoshop or Illustrator.
  6. Documentation – When things are really, really bad I spend 20 minutes taking all of my tasks for a project and adding them to a Google Docs spreadsheet. This turns my project into a series of small tasks that I can easily do without needing much creativity.
  7. Suspend reality – I have two offices. One in my home and one in shared, rented space downtown San Diego. (Little Italy) That helps me have fresh space in which to work. But sometimes I need to do even more than that in order to manufacture some creativity. Sometimes I work in a favorite coffee shop, sometimes  I book time to work for a day at a friends office, and sometimes I sneak a half day or whole day onto the end of a work trip just so I can work somewhere else. Suspending reality also means shutting down all of the distractions which pull you away from your creative space. (Shutting down chat software, putting your phone on silent and not returning text messages, logging out of Facebook and Twitter, etc.)
  8. Finish something – Perhaps my biggest droughts come when I have lots and lots of projects going and none of them finishing. I’ve found that finishing a project helps me be more creative on my others. It’s as if I can put that project behind me and that gives me more energy/space to think about the others. So finish something! (Or suspend another project to get it off your shoulders!)
Photo credit: Dust Bowl 1936 by erjkprunczyk via Flickr (Creative Commons)