Secrets to Long Haul Creativity

About five years ago, I started thinking long and hard about a very specific type of creativity. Unlike most researchers, I was less interested in exploring the day-to-day puzzle of making something out of nothing and more about the equally baffling mystery of how to do this over a lifetime. Long Haul Creativity is how I’ve come to think of this topic.

Over the past few years, this topic has become a bit of an obsession. I’ve talked about it with everyone I know and have come to realize the answers I’ve gotten apply to far more folks than just writers. These days, creativity is a buzz word in just about every field. It seems like everyone’s hunting for more of this skill, but no one’s really talking about the ramifications of getting what we desire.

This is a critical point. Being creative over a career involves a whole subset of nearly invisible skills, a great many of which conflict with most people’s general ideas about what it means to be creative. What’s more, being creative is different than the business of being creative, and most people who learn how to be good at the first, are often really terrible at the second. Finally, emotionally, creativity just takes a toll. Decade after decade, that toll adds up.

So here are eight of my favorite lessons on the hard fight of long-haul creativity. A few are my own. Most are things I learned from others. All have managed to keep me saner along the way.

One: Creativity De-Coded

The one thing neuroscientists know for sure about creativity is that it’s not one thing.* The brain is creative in dozens and dozens of different ways, which is why training people to be more creative can be so difficult. Yet, what we do know is that creativity is always recombinatory — it’s the product of novel information bumping into old ideas to produce something startlingly new.

What’s more, we also know that this recombinatory process always requires the interaction of three overlapping neural networks: attention, imagination and salience. Understanding how these networks work and how we can augment their effects gives long haul creatives some much needed leverage.

  1. Attention: This network governs executive attention or spotlight attention. It’s the go-to system for the hours-on-end laser-focus required by creativity. And this leads to an obvious intervention: anything that trains up attention, amplifies creativity. Almost any mindfulness practice will work or, if you prefer a more dynamic experience, the Flow Genome Project designed this Art of Flow video-meditation for those too twitchy to follow their breath.
  2. Imagination: The imagination network or, more formally, the default mode network (DMN), is all about mind-wandering. It’s what allows you to construct mental simulations of potential outcomes and test out creative possibilities. The trick here is to activate the DMN you have to stop focusing on the problem you’ve been trying to solve. This means turning off the spotlight attention system. Research shows the best way to pull this off is via low-grade physical activity. I prefer gardening. Tim Ferriss (see below) likes long walks. But Lee Zlotoff, creator of the TV show MacGyver and (no surprise) an expert on creative problem solving, has tested dozens of different activities, and found that building models — airplanes, dinosaurs, whatever — consistently produces the best results.
  3. Salience: This network monitors incoming information and tags it as important or irrelevant. The more salient info the brain detects, the more raw material it has to be creative. The big issue here is that familiarity breeds contempt — meaning, when we are locked into our normal routine this network usually runs on autopilot. It notices what it always notices. The secret to getting its attention is risk and novelty. New experiences and new ideas. Ceaseless adventure and constant reading are key. For the former, see this article I wrote on risk and creativity. For the latter, books are always better than magazines, newspapers, blogs etc. — I explain why in this piece for Forbes.

The best book on all the different neuronal systems involved in creativity is the recently released How Creativity Happens In the Brain, by neuroscientist and pioneering flow researcher Arne Dietrich. But be warned, this is not light summer fare. Dietrich is funny as hell, but the book is dense and — because it’s published by an academic publisher — expensive.

Two: Know The Better Question.

A little while back author and investor Tim Ferriss walked me through the four things he does on a regular basis to support long haul creativity. His whole list is really good, so we’ll start there:

  1. Daily Exercise: at least an hour, needed to lower anxiety levels and clear the head. Interestingly, the research shows that weight training is better than aerobic training for quieting the inner critic.
  2. Keep a Maker Schedule: Carve out dedicated periods for key tasks that require creativity. If complex problem-solving or analysis is required, Ferriss recommends at least four hour blocks. And this also means no distractions — turn off email, phone, messages, skype, twitter, facebook and all the rest.
  3. Long Walks: Without music or podcasts or distraction, purposefully letting the mind wander. This switches off spotlight attention and switches on the default mode network — aka, the imagination network.
  4. Surround yourself with driven people who are good at spotting your assumptions. Ferriss explains: “The people who are the very best at this are the ones who hear my question and respond with: ‘You’re asking the wrong question. The better question is….’”

This last point is really important. While feedback can often be a hindrance to in-the-moment creativity, it’s essential for the long haul. But choice in feedback giver is critical.

This becomes doubly important the more successful you get. If you make a name for yourself in creativity people tend to trust your creative ideas a little more than they should and too frequently give you the benefit of the doubt. This is no bueno. To make sure he’s getting the feedback he needs, Ferriss hunts for folks who help him reframe his question, rather than just play devil’s advocate. This is spot on. People who play devil’s advocate often do so out of reflex — this means they tend to lack the technical sophistication to really help and often derail creativity through generalization. Reframers, meanwhile, take the idea farther faster. By providing a better question, they’re providing a new launch pad. This creates momentum. And for long haul creativity, nothing is more fundamental than momentum.

Three: Momentum Matters Most

Speaking of momentumthere is something deeply exhausting about the year-in and year-out requirements of imagination. Every morning, the writer faces a blank page, the painter an empty canvas; the innovator a dozen directions to go at once. The brilliant tidbit of advice that has helped me solve this slog came from Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Marquez said that the key was to have quit working at the point you’re most excited. In other words, once Marquez really starts to cook, he shuts down the stove. This seems counter-intuitive. Creativity is an emergent property. Quitting when most excited — when ideas are really emerging — seems like the exact opposite of what you should do.

Yet Marquez is exactly right. Creativity isn’t a single battle; it’s an ongoing war. By quitting when you’re most excited, you’re carrying momentum into the next day’s work session. Momentum is the key. When you realize that you left off someplace both exciting and familiar — someplace where you know the idea that comes next — you dive right back in, no time wasted, no time to let fear creep back into the equation, and far less time to get up to speed.

Four: A Few Thoughts on Sobbing, Shouting, and Punching Hard Objects

I’ve written nine books. Two are in drawers. Seven are in stores. All share one thing in common: at some point during their writing, I lost my mind.

Without question, at least once a book, I end up on the ground, sobbing, shouting, and punching the floor. For a long time, I was convinced I was the only one who behaved this way. But about five years ago, I heard author David Foster Wallace tell a story about the difficulty of creativity. “It never fails,” he said, “at least once a book, I end up on the ground, sobbing, screaming and punching the floor.”

The obvious point here is yes, creativity is insanely frustrating for everybody. The core question for Long Haul Creativity is what to do about it? Turns out, researchers have discovered that frustration is actually a fundamental step in the creative process. From a technical perspective, this seems to have something to do with the limits of working memory and the requirements of creativity’s incubation period, but no one is exactly certain.

From a practical perspective, this means reversing our traditional relationship with frustration. Since this emotion is a basic step in the creative process, we need to stop feeling its arrival as disaster. For creatives, frustration is actually a sign of progress, a sign of movement in the right direction, a sign that the much needed breakthrough is ever closer to showing up.

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Five: Sir Ken Robinson Weighs In On Frustration

I just returned from presenting at the World Business Forum in Milan, where I spent some time with creativity expert and all-around great guy Sir Ken Robinson. Sir Ken pointed out that long haul creativity requires a low-level, near-constant sense of frustration — which is different from the just-discussed moment-of-madness version of frustration.

George Lucas.
George Lucas.

Moment-of-madness frustration makes you punch the ground. Ken’s version is about motivation. It’s a constant, itchy dissatisfaction, a deep sense of what-if, and can-we-make-it-better, and the like.

To illustrate this, he told me a story about George Lucas. Robinson, apparently, popped the question: “Hey George,” he said, “why do you keep remaking all those Star Wars movies?” Lucas had a great answer: “In this particular universe, I’m God. And God isn’t satisfied.”

Six: Everybody’s Got A Job To Do

There’s this mistaken assumption that creativity is a solitary pursuit. This may be true, but the business of creativity is always collaborative. Every journalist has to brave a gauntlet of editors, copy-editors, managing editors ad infinitum. Movies and books and plays and poems are more of the same. Startup entrepreneurs always have investors — etc.

And this brings me to an important point: everybody’s got a job to do. And everybody wants to keep that job. In writing, this means that even if I turn in something perfect, my editors are still being paid to edit — so they will. This is why, I discovered, every time I turned in a piece of finished work I intentionally include a few horrible lines. It gives my editors something to do. It lets them feel useful. It keeps their grubby little hands away from my damn perfect sentences.

Seven: Creativity Is A By-Product

Contrary to popular opinion, creativity is almost always the by-product of passionate hard work and not the other way around. Olympian Gretchen Bleiler — one of the more creative snowboarders in history — puts it this way: “You don’t wake up and say: ‘Today I’m going to be more creative. You do the things you love to do and try to get at their essence and allow things to emerge.’ ”

Eight: Listen To Neil Gaiman

Pretty much everything I’ve learned about long haul creativity author Neil Gaiman says in this speech, only he says it so much better than I could.

Image Credit:; Wikimedia Commons

Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and founder and executive director at the Flow Research Collective. His books include: Stealing Fire, the Rise of Superman, Abundance, Bold, West of Jesus, A Small Furry Prayer, among many others. His work has been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes. You can find him online at:
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