10 Tips for the Modern Day Creative from The Best Books on Creativity
We know this is true because we’ve read them—a lot of them, anyway. This list, however, is different. Why? Because we eschewed the internet entirely and took to the books!
We delved through 15 of the best books on creativity out there to find the most useful, unmissable nuggets of advice that every modern day creative needs. Whether you’re a designer, a writer, a developer, or a data analyst (yes, you guys are creatives, too!), we’ve compiled the best advice we found for being a better creative, right here, for you.
Not sure you’re a creative? If you’ve ever used your imagination to solve a problem, you are. Read on to find out why.
1. Check your definition: creativity is anything that employs your imagination
First off, let’s get this straight: what is creativity? Is it daubing breathtaking paintings, sculpting Greek icons out of marble slabs, or writing a song for the ages? Well, yes—creativity often finds its expression in the fine arts—but it embraces a much broader spectrum of work, too.
Tom and David Kelley’s book Creative Confidence stresses that creativity also marks the work of more analytical types, like CEOs or computer programmers. The tools of their trade might not be palettes or pianos, but whenever the computer programmer creates a novel web interface, or the CEO develops a new business strategy—whenever they employ their imaginations to make something new—that’s the very definition of creativity.
Lesson Learned: Creative work encompasses so much more than fine paintings and song. At its core, creativity is simply using your imagination to create something new.
So, adjust your definition of “creative work” and you’ll find that, even if it isn’t often recognized as such, data analysts, software engineers, and CEOs are doing incredibly creative work.
Where we found it: Creative Confidence — Tom & David Kelley
2. Forget the lone genius: innovation often stems from collaboration
Pop culture portrays creative genius as the domain of “lone wolves” who make progress by cutting out the world. Romantic as it may seem, this isn’t really how innovation comes about.
Many great books like Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, Joshua Shenk’s Powers of Two, and Myths of Creativity by David Burkus show that collaboration is the root of creativity, and creative thinkers can push one another in subtle, productive ways.
For example, it’s fairly well known that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t see eye to eye on the invention of the personal computer, but did you know that they influenced each other with the PARC company (formerly Xerox Parc) and Parc’s Alto computer? Jobs saw the Alto on a tour of PARC, which encouraged him to create something similar at Apple, and Gates found inspiration from the early Apple computer after working with Jobs.
Lesson Learned: Don’t be afraid to accept—or seek—a second opinion. Even the most introverted innovators were encouraged and nurtured by a circle of friends and creative minds, helping them toward the discoveries that ensured their lasting legacies.
3. Think inside the box: creativity thrives within constraints
We can come up with creative ideas when given plenty of line to run on, but this doesn’t mean that any direction we take will lead to success.
As reported in Brick by Brick, for LEGO, unbounded creativity was nearly disastrous: too much outside-the-box thinking led them to make woefully off-brand decisions. David Burkus’s Myths of Creativity points out some advice LEGO might have found useful: the key to generating applicable innovative ideas lies in intelligent constraint.
Burkus coaches using intelligent constraint to combat the Brainstorming Myth–the conviction some companies have that the best way to innovate is to throw a bunch of people in a room with a whiteboard. Instead of jumping on the first thing that comes to mind, he recommends imposing restrictions by identifying the problem and doing a little research. After taking these steps, which also act as a filtering process, it’s easier (and more productive) to blend and develop them.
Lesson Learned: Creativity isn’t synonymous with chaos. In fact, the most creative ideas can come from setting a few boundaries and playing within them.
4. Trade in your measuring stick: creative work can’t be judged by standards meant for routine work
The productivity of routine tasks can nearly always be judged by a simple formula: the less garbage you produce, the better your process. But as Robert I. Sutton explains in Weird Ideas that Work, it’s pointless to apply such standards to innovative work because no clearly defined target exists.
What’s more, creative teams tend to work slowly—not because they’re doing nothing, but because experimentation takes time. As such, for creative work, the objective should be to carry out as many experiments as possible. No matter how “good” or “bad” the trials are, sooner or later you’ll find a gem in the scrap heap.
Lesson Learned: The essence of creative work lies in experimentation, which requires patience, perseverance, and willingness to revisit a bunch of botched ideas to find the creative gold. Take your time, forget about formulas, and throw out any preconceived notions about “output.”
Where we found it: Weird Ideas that Work — Robert I. Sutton
5. Steal, steal, steal: Innovating does not necessarily mean creating something from the ground up
Many people assume originality is what makes great ideas great. But think about it: every amazing creative drew inspiration from somewhere.
Kleon even goes so far as to suggest to actively imitate a person whose work you admire. Conan O’Brien, the comedian and talk show host, started his career this way. He initially wanted to be like David Letterman, but couldn’t quite copy him accurately. His differences made him stand out, however, and he became quite different from his idol.
Lesson Learned: Creativity—whether it’s in art, tech, comedy, or something else entirely—is an imitation game. Don’t let your creativity be limited by worries that what you’re making isn’t 100% original—nothing is. It’s okay to start with others’ work and build upon it.
Where we found it: Steal like an Artist– Austin Kleon
6. Build your ritual: Air baths to bean-counting, creatives need a personal routine
Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky greeted the morning with a circulation-improving headstand. Benjamin Franklin engaged in a naked lounge-around ritual to which he charmingly referred as his “air bath,” and Beethoven began each day by counting out exactly 60 coffee beans with which to brew his morning cuppa. Why did all of these creative minds keep such eccentric habits? For stability amongst the waves.
In his book Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields explains that rituals such as these act as certainty anchors: a fixed part of your life that adds centeredness and structure. Certainty anchors calm you and release you from unimportant decisions so you have more energy to focus on bigger challenges like that next amazing idea.
Lesson learned: Go for a run, have coffee with friends, or stare out your window for ten minutes’ quiet contemplation. Whatever you choose, finding your personal certainty anchor will ground one aspect of your day, which frees your mind to run wild for the rest of it.
7. Don’t obsess: Working on side projects stokes your creative fires
Creativity and inspiration often come when you let your mind wander—heck, legend has it that Archimedes’ magic moment came while he was taking a bath!—so it’s good to have a few back-up projects that can distract you from your central one.
Far from derailing you, lots of creatives have found that giving your mind space to tinker with something provides a flash of creative insight like nothing else could.
There’s no set recipe for what constitutes a good side project. Authors of Manage Your Day-to-Day, Steal like an Artist, and Myths of Creativity all note that whatever you do to get your mind outside of your main project–even if you just do housework or play a quick game of minesweeper–can electrify your creative mind.
Lesson learned: Get away from it all. Do something unrelated to your project, even if it’s only vacuuming. Who knows what inspiration lies in the dust bunnies under your bed?
8. More is more: work hard and specialize
Don’t shy away from biting off the biggest bite you can chew—especially at the beginning.
In Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy notes that when you first start out at an agency (or in a new team), you are usually assigned a rather unimportant job. From then on, however, you should make it your goal to become the best-informed person in the entire company on your specific assignment. Read all you can related to your industry and spend your free time getting to know your audience.
The bad news: David Ogilvy notes that what you suspected about facetime is true. In general, working harder and longer will get you promoted faster. By working longer hours you accumulate more experience in a shorter time span and advance more quickly.
Lesson Learned: Say yes and stay hungry. When you dive into a new project, learn everything you can and consider specializing in one certain sector—perhaps copywriting, research, or a specific media—instead of remaining a generalist. This initiative will qualify you for better jobs and steer you into indispensable specialist territory, fast.
9. Flow: Get into it, even if you’re under pressure
Fun should be part of the creative process, and sometimes, it is. More often than not, however—and particularly if you’re paid to be creative at your job—creativity is fraught with stress. This is not the ideal recipe for attaining that creative nirvana, flow state, but there are some proven ways to get back into it.
In Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!Luke Sullivan says that simple as it sounds, sometimes it’s best to just start. You might be scared. You might be stressed. But surrender yourself to the process of banging out a rough doodle or a freewrite about cats, and you’ll probably be surprised how quickly you’ll discover the inspiration you needed.
Another trick is to put yourself in the head of whomever you’re creating for and try to imagine the feeling you want to evoke in them and, if necessary, find ways to evoke it in yourself. Sullivan cites an example from his own life when he had to work for a magazine called Family Life and articulate the special experience of raising a child—something he’d never done. To get the knowledge and mindset he needed, he read a book about the joys and insanities that come with parenthood and sifted through photos of happy families. The right mood hit him, and soon he struck gold with the tagline “Life is short, childhood is shorter.”
Lesson learned: Sometimes you’ll feel resistant to creative work, but there are concrete ways you can nudge yourself into getting started. Doodle out “throwaway” work to get yourself started, or immerse yourself in an experience that will evoke the emotions you want viewing your work to mimic. Grab your sketch book, play a song, or look at photos–props are allowed!
Where we found it: Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!– Luke Sullivan with Sam Bennett
10. Get courageous: Change your mindset to channel your creative self
Many people want to be creative, but they don’t really know how to do it. Where should you start, then? By giving up the notion that you cannot be creative.
In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain that you need to adopt a “Yes, I can learn this,” attitude, or what’s known as a growth mindset (a term explored more in depth in psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset). By shifting your perspective from, “No, I’m not creative,” to, “I can learn to be creative!” you free yourself flex buried imaginative muscles.
Bottom Line: Half the work is in believing. Starting to shift your mindset about your creative processes is as simple as changing the messages you give yourself about your ability.
Instead of pronouncing your early creative forays as deficient, look at them as a starting place and question rather than judge them. Where could they be better? What else could you do to improve? How might a creative you admire start triage? By treating your work as a learning opportunity and being forgiving of your forays, you start to change how you see a creative undertaking and build courage in your skills.
The full books will give you more perspective on everything you learned here, but if you need a little inspiration on where to start, come check out our 12-minute summaries of key insights from all of the books mentioned here on Blinkist.