6 ways to relocate your creative muscles

September 9, 2013

You are so creative.

Yes, you. Did someone tell you differently?

Creativity is innate in all of us. It helps us define who we are, how we live, how we can make life better every day. But somewhere between sculpting Play Doh and applying for our first job, many of us get the message that creativity is a rarified trait, possessed by only a lucky few. The team at Unstuck is here to tell you otherwise.

First, let’s give that ill-informed messenger the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he simply didn’t understand what creativity really is. To get to the root of it, we tapped Keith Yamashita and Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque of SYPartners, the firm that conceived and created the Unstuck app.

Keith, as you may know, is founder and chairman of SYPartners. He looks at everything with restless eyes that find both the beauty and the flaws. Similarly, Susana, the firm’s executive creative director, is always seeking to improve what she sees, whether that is the design of a solution, the mechanics of an idea, or the systems behind them. Together, Keith and Susana have articulated for us what creativity is and does — and how we can practice it.

“If you ask people if they are creative, most say ‘no,’ ” says Susana. “But yet, there are so many small things that people do — and don’t know they are being creative. The way someone wraps a teabag around their cup or puts her hair up when it’s hot.”

One of her favorite examples is the hand fan. “In Spain, this is not only how you don’t melt, it is also a great way to express your feelings in conversation. How fast you flap it, how you open and close it to enhance your point. The fan is pure theatrics and very, very useful. You can show a lot of creativity in how you wield one.”

Seeing things differently is at the core of creativity. Take clouds, for example. Instinctively, we look at these random masses of condensed water vapor and we spot a dinosaur or a fish or Aunt Millie before she puts in her teeth.  “You play in your mind,” explains Susana. “Like children, you don’t look at things just the way they are. Nothing is what adults tell you it is.”

The same applies to situations. It’s human to see circumstances from our own perspective and develop our own set of truths. But holding too tightly to those truths blocks our creative flow. There is no room for other possibilities because we only see it in one way. Unless we let ourselves get creative.

“What I permit myself to see will challenge what I am willing to believe,” explains Keith. “So it is all about helping myself see differently. That can include looking at something from a different angle; for instance, from the employee or customer angle rather than the process angle. I literally go out looking for new experiences, new offerings and products, any place that can give me new perspectives.”

Keith points out that “creativity gives us a choice about how we define our world. It is the means by which you can imagine and change it.” This starts by recognizing or accepting there is a problem. Then pushing the norm to be a better norm. Sometimes that’s through a “Eureka!” idea. But more often, it’s something simpler, smaller.

He especially admires the way the Japanese innovate: “It’s a subtle, perfectionistic, relentless pursuit of making something better. What change do you make to a product that is nearly perfect? Figuring that out requires creativity.”

In our own day-to-day lives, consider the status quo. Those things we dub “it is what it is.” But is it really? Could it be something different? Just asking the question is liberating because it opens our minds to choice, promise, and potential.

“Most people think of problem solving as taking a defined problem and matching it to the right answer that exists. A kind of one-to-one mapping,” says Keith. 

“I have increasingly been humbled. I now understand that problems rarely have sharp edges, and often there is no matching answer in the world. You need creativity to both frame a problem inventively —and to broaden the array and possibilities of how the problem might be solved.”

SYPartners, which is in the problem-solving business, emphasizes an environment that fosters creativity, one “that allows quiet contemplation, boisterous mapping for creative duos, and labs where dozens of people can do collaborative work,” says Keith. “Space matters.”

But finding our creative juice can also be as simple as shutting your eyes to let go of the angst. Says Susana: “When my son has to write a story for school, he is afraid of all the things he’s going to do wrong. That gets in the way of thinking of a story. I tell him  ‘Don’t go to the computer. Close your eyes and tell me what you see.’ Then incredible stories come.” Her advice: “Expand on what you see. Relax. The best ideas never arrive if you are forcing yourself to be ‘creative.’ ”

Creativity takes practice. And everyone exercises it in their own way. Here are six tactics that we find useful to flex our creative muscles.  

Look for something to solve
Taking the initiative to find and fix a problem is energizing. It gives our brain permission to start exploring options and angles because we like the idea of owning it and solving it. “If someone tells me it cannot be done, it brings out the creativity in me,” says Susana.

Take visual notes
This is the only way Keith takes notes. He jots down words and phrases all over the page (the bigger the page, the better), then goes back and connects them with circles and lines. “It sparks new ideas and helps me see connections between ideas that don’t — on the surface — seem connected. Give me all the pieces of the puzzle and I’ll start to see the patterns emerge.”

Collect ideas that fascinate you
The more you see, the more material you have for creativity. Keith makes it a practice to constantly clip and take photos of things that catch his fancy: “You have to be stimulated to be creative. It comes from being really observant in the world.” Having a file of inspiration you pull out in a moment of need can be a time saver.

Research randomly
Hunkering down in front of your computer is one of the worst ways to be creative. Instead: “Go to nonobvious places to find inspiration to solve problems,” advises Keith. Relax and get playful about it so your mind can more easily make connections. Zoos, galleries, bike rides, bookstores, parks, ball games, movies, swimming, and cloud gazing come to mind.

Give yourself time
Creativity is not instantaneous. If you have a notion that needs finessing, allot at least 90 minutes to toy with it. Even better, find a co-collaborator to play it out with you. And “don’t go for the first idea,” warns Susana. “Often the first is not the best idea.”

Try it, try it, try it
“At SYPartners, we conceive boldly but then we try out our ideas to prove them,” says Keith. This can be nerve-racking because it might not work. And sometimes it doesn’t. But by knowing what went wrong, you can go back and fix it. Creatively, of course.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #11: 6 ways to relocate your creative muscles

Next Week: Do’s and don’ts of finding inspiration
Last Week: 5 ways travel can help overcome a negative mindset

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