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How to... be more creative
A compilation of useful methods! Also some funny stuff!
I thought I would start my first One Useful Thing entry by compiling some of the most recent research on creativity. This is far from exhaustive, but I wanted to provide a few hints as to how to make yourself more creative, with a special focus on the research on creativity for entrepreneurs and innovators.
And, if we are discussing how to maximize creativity, I have to start by admitting something you probably guessed: not everyone is equally creative. Some people are really good at generating ideas, and they can apply this ability in almost every context. Indeed, recent research has shown that the “Equal Odds” rule is true, which is that very creative people both generate more ideas (fluency, in the graph), and better ideas (creativity, in the graph), than other folks. Interestingly, creativity is not correlated with intelligence, it is just a trait that some people seem to have.
But that doesn’t mean that increasing your own creativity isn’t important. Among entrepreneurs, within-person differences in creativity over the course of a week are greater than across-person differences. That means that maximizing your own creativity may be more important than being a “naturally creative” person. So how can you maximize your creativity? The paper finds the two key determinants are sleep and time to reflect.
The sleep suggestion is important. It is really clear that sleep is critical to successful idea generation, especially in the context of making entrepreneurs more creative. The effects go beyond just creativity, however. People who are sleep-deprived not only generate lower-quality ideas but become bad at differentiating between good ideas and bad ones. Worse still, research shows that sleep-deprived individuals become more impulsive and are more likely to act on the bad ideas they generate. That means that a chronically sleep-deprived person would be more likely to come up with bad ideas, think they are good, and suddenly quit their job to pursue them! So, creativity starts with a good night’s sleep, and if you can’t manage that, a 75-minute nap has been found to do almost as a good a job in putting people in the right frame of mind to be creative.
(Besides rest, you can always turn to mind-altering substances, mainly coffee. Caffeine boosts all sorts of brain activity, including creativity. Interestingly, alcohol does not seem to increase creativity)
Aside from rest, reflection and a wandering mind seem to help make you more creative. A study of scientists and artists found that 20% of their breakthrough ideas came while their mind was wandering, resulting in surprise “aha!” moments. Good ideas may actually come while commuting, letting your mind wander, and while showering (in fact, that seems really common)
But to get these sorts of moments, you need to prepare by priming your brain with the right kind of knowledge to make a sudden connection. This process is called scanning, and it involves making sure you are continuously taking in new information from diverse sources. This increases the chance you will make a happy connection, intuitive leap, or find a question that leads you to a unique idea.
One way to scan is to use social media appropriately. An MIT study found that Twitter users who followed diverse groups of people were better at generating ideas than those with closed networks. Diversity was defined as following others across different disciplines, industries, and points of view, rather than inhabiting any one particular community. You can do this by following those known as thought leaders—famous CEOs, politicians, analysts, academics, and authors in different fields. Then, look at who those thought leaders are interacting with and follow those people as well, since experts often can identify other experts. One person interviewed for the study suggested a 70/30 split: 70% of your follows should be people in your industry, 30% should be diverse or unusual viewpoints. You don’t need to use Twitter to take in diverse information. You can accomplish the same thing by skimming academic journals, reading internet forums like Reddit, or even talking to people in real life.
Or you can always subscribe to this Substack.
Some other things.
Here are the two funniest academic charts.
The first comes from a study of humor (click through, the title is worth it) designed to test which word pairs are funniest and analyze why. The ones that people laugh at most have strong contrast in meaning between the words. The winners and losers are here.
The second is from a paper arguing humor comes from (1) a threat to a belief of how things should be & (2) a situation that is not a real problem. The table shows how jokes fail if they violate these rules; except many of the failed jokes are great! The explanations testing theories on how a Mitch Hedberg joke can be rendered unfunny (third row), how peek-a-boo can go tragically wrong (4th row) and how a joke about a girl holding up a sign for Santa could be made threatening (next to last row) are all particularly great.
My first post… more to come?
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