Over the last thirteen years, I have studied the art of music production.
My studies led me to create a YouTube channel that over 1.5 million people now view. The channel focuses on unearthing the core principles of various electronic artists. After five years and copious amounts of feedback, I have created the following framework to enhance creativity.
1. Collect a diverse assortment of information, novel ideas and experiences.
2. Capture everything curious or thought-provoking into an organised system. This approach could be using physical tools or digitalised with apps.
3. Contemplate your findings by creating moments of solitude in your schedule. Space allows connections between thoughts to develop unconsciously during the day.
Each one of these steps serves as a link in the chain that increases the odds of generating creative ideas. Having a framework to systematise the process takes the mystery out of the subject. Rather than thinking of creativity as a Muse visiting us, Steve Jobs provided a simpler explanation:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
Expose yourself to a broad array of information to increase creative thought. The more packets of data you collect, which I'll call dots, the more optionality you have for connecting them.
The easiest way of collecting dots is to develop habits and systems that compound. Here are a few of mine:
- Fifteen minutes of philosophy every morning
- Ninety minutes of reading during the day
- Listening to podcasts while cooking
Another analogy comes from Maria Popova and how she imagines information as blocks:
The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape, it greatly limits how much we can create, even within our one area of expertise.
Once you've built these systems, you might stumble upon a potential pitfall: a lack of inspiration. This feeling occurs when you're not collecting enough dots through not reading widely enough or experiencing new things. This lack of exploration keeps your thoughts on the same tracks, following the same patterns. The easiest fix for this is to broaden the scope of your intake.
Step outside your comfort zone with the material you consume, but never try to force exploration. Don’t read the trending titles; let your curiosity lead you into undiscovered territory. You never know where the next dot will emerge from that contributes to your creative work.
You can capture information into two high-level places: the physical, or digital realm.
Best-selling author Ryan Holiday has written an extensive post sharing the details of his system. In the post, he emphasises that Robert Greene taught him the process while Ryan worked as his research assistant. His workflow centres around writing ideas, quotes, and research onto 4×6 notecards. He stores the cards in rectangular boxes, organised with dividers by subject.
I prefer the digital route for flexibility.
Evernote, Notion, and Roam are popular choices. Each application suits differing personality types. Anne-Laure Le Cunff from NessLabs describes Evernote as being for librarians, Notion for architects, and Roam for gardeners.
- Librarians enjoy organising information into a system that allows for easy browsing.
- Architects enjoy building systems that emulate how they think.
- Gardeners enjoy connecting notes and growing their thoughts over time.
I use Roam for its networked thought capabilities.
One practical application of this system is to leverage the information you consume. In an economy driven by creative thought, ideas are the new currency. Offloading the dots you're collecting into an external system gives you a superpower. Your mind can form serendipitous connections between them. Innovations will be born from the ideas commercing, which may lead you to a breakthrough.
David Allen said it best:
Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.
Now comes the time to provide space in your schedule. This space allows disparate ideas to meld into coherent connections.
"A wise old owl lived in an oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
Now, wasn't he a wise old bird?" — Edward Hersey Richards.
Out of silence comes the greatest creativity.
In his book Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield describes the difference between professionals and amateurs:
The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it's his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning "to love." The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his "real" vocation.
The avoidance of space is a trait of the amateur.
The amateur is easily distracted. The amateur has a long list of fears. Near the top are two: Solitude and silence. The amateur fears solitude and silence because she needs to avoid, at all costs, the voice inside her head that would point her toward her calling and her destiny. So she seeks distraction. The amateur prizes shallowness and shuns depth. The culture of Twitter and Facebook is paradise for the amateur.
The amateur tweets. The pro works.
As Blaise Pascal said: all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
This lack of silence is not a new problem.
Seneca, a Roman Philosopher and Statesmen, echoed the same sentiment 2000 years ago:
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man's ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.
Technology in the 21st century has only exasperated the need for solitude and reflection.
The internet exposes us to staggering amounts of data streams.
A study conducted at the University of California illuminates the informational overload we each face:
We estimate that, in 2008, Americans consumed about 1.3 trillion hours of information outside of work, an average of almost 12 hours per person per day. Media consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 1,080 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for the average person on an average day. Information consumption measured in bytes grew at an annual rate of 5.4% from 1980 to 2008, only a few percentage points greater than GDP growth over this period.
Solitude is a balancing act against this tsunami of information. We need silence to decompress and make sense of the incoming signals.
An effortless practice you can implement today is to settle into solitude. When you find yourself surrounded by silence, sit there and listen. Train your brain to stop looking for distractions.
If you don't have any moments of solitude in your life, try to be present during dull, daily chores. The moment you step away from work, inspiration has a way of striking. Ideas often occur when lightly occupied with another task. The less time spent in silence, the less chance you have to stumble across an insight. I have my greatest ideas while taking a shower, meditating, or completing household tasks.
Collect information from everywhere.
Capture everything into an organised system.
Contemplate what you find by building pockets of solitude into your life.
The very design of this framework increases the probability of the occurrence of combinatorial creativity.
Combinatorial means involving combinations. Combinatorial creativity is the process of old ideas connecting with new ones to form novel inventions.
Everything is a remix. Creative people do not conjure ideas from some void; they create connections.
As I sat on the crudely constructed camping chair, the fabric digging into my thighs, I reflected on what I'd spent my life doing.