Mom, how do I become more creative?

Do you sometimes wonder why some people seem to be more creative than others? How do the creative ones keep coming up with ideas? This post looks at this and is biased towards people involved with technological development. After all as I said before this blog is about software development.

Getting ideas is the easy part. The difficult part is to execute those ideas. Yet, it’s so difficult to get into the idea-generation mode itself for a lot of people. This post will look at the easy part - how to generate ideas.

Table of Contents

Motivation

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” - Dorothy Parker

The most important pre-requisite for generating ideas is motivation. The various sources of motivation have been studied in different contexts. Broadly speaking there are two sources of motivation - intrinsic satisfaction and external rewards.

Intrinsic satisfaction can be generated by satisfying one’s curiosity, taking action to improve yourself in an area, generating new insights from existing knowledge, solving difficult problems etc.

Similarly external factors such as financial rewards, recognition of achievements, promotions and so on are also instrumental in motivating people.

External Motivation

External Motivation

Intrinsic satisfaction though, is the best form of motivation, since it’ll most likely help you play the creative game longer, before you need a reboot. Nevertheless, whenever you feel you are losing motivation, help is at hand. If you try avoiding these phrases, the motivation will last longer.

Dilbert Motivation - I

Dilbert Motivation - II

Temporary Motivation

Dissatisfaction is a type of intrinsic motivation. It can emanate from lack of quality of a service, inefficiency with which we are forced to work, financial issues, intellectually unsatisfying work, the failure to identify one’s purpose of life, etc. Whatever be the reason, it makes people take action or at least urges them to do so.

Curiosity though takes the cake when it comes to finding out an infinite source of motivation. People who are curious are constantly exploring things, asking themselves questions, looking for stimuli and so on. All of that leads to learning new things, which when combined with existing knowledge or ideas leads to new ideas or concepts.

Curiosity

Curiosity

In the video below Richard Feynman talks about his early experiences as a boy and it’s striking how curious he was as a child. More interviews and interesting discussions with Richard Feynman are captured in the book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Look at what his curiosity got translated into.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

In his book Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono talks about lateral thinking as a way of using information to bring about creativity and insight restructuring. Lateral thinking is an alternative to vertical thinking. It helps to put together or structure information in new patterns. While vertical thinking seeks to select a possible path from several, lateral thinking seeks to generate new paths. The result - new insights. It’s a wonderful book and really echoed a lot of what I have learned along the way, about generating ideas. Highly recommended.

Avoid Distraction

The second pre-requisite for being more creative is a distraction-less zone. I am sure you won’t find yourself going very far with creativity if your wife’s nagging you to get the kitchen sink pipe fixed or change your kid’s nappies. Get that done right now, and find yourself a quiet corner to sit in later. I am sure your television won’t help either. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t got a television at home.

If you are losing money in the stock market, that won’t help either. Finding a good mutual fund to park that money into, can let you forget about the day to day vicissitudes of the market. There are other ways to get rich as well.

Automate your bill payments. My cell-phone bill gets paid automatically by ECS through my credit card. One less thing to worry about.

I recently found out that I am losing nearly 5000 bucks every year due to late payments. It’s because I pay by cheque which takes 3-4 days for payment realization. Since I tend to remember the due dates for payments, I end up dropping cheques on the last day, which results in late payments. So I have started getting rid of all my credit cards, which cannot be paid through netbanking. One more thing to worry less about every month. Phew.

The whole point of all that is to get organized and cut down on distractions. The less you worry about the mundane things, the more you can think freely about wonderful new things.

Now after looking at the two essential pre-requisites, let’s take a look at the two essential ingredients for creativity.

Stimuli

Now when you are both motivated and in a distraction-less zone, what do you do? Load yourself with information. Go ahead and read about all the new stuff people are building, discovering, inventing and fooling around with. You need stimulation - the first ingredient to creative output.

Reading is just one way of stimulating yourself. There are several other ways to do so. Take a look at this page by Hugh MacLeod, where he talks about the various inspirations for his early back of the business card cartoons. You may also like to read this article he wrote about how to be creative. The widget below shows off Hugh’s latest adventure with cartooning.

Attend conferences. Be a member of organizations like ACM, IEEE and keep track of all the research being done in your area of interest. Added benefits of membership are access to online journals and sometimes books.

Be on the cutting edge. Look at what’s getting popular on the technology front. Have a list of resources to check out when you are looking for ideas. Know how to find out more information on a topic.

Occasionally, you will find yourself in the midst of information overload. When it’s getting too much to handle, follow the advice in these articles to get the zing back in your life.

Hack Mode

The second ingredient for creative output is getting into something akin to hack mode. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no I don’t know how to pronounce that) talks about the flow state of consciousness in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Everyone has their own method of getting into hack mode. It’s usually realized when you have managed to achieve the previous three requirements - motivation, a distraction-less zone and some stimuli (a problem you are trying to solve?).

In this state you become oblivious to everything outside the sphere of the problem you are trying to solve. Your mind is awash with images, flow diagrams - a plasma of information, ideas and imagination. It’s almost like a drug-induced state, which turns into pain and distress, if something unexpectedly yanks you out of it.

I tend to get into hack mode during the night. As an example I have written about a 1000 lines of multi-threaded chat server code, the virtual memory implementation of a toy operating system, a 150ms input to result levenshtein implementation which works with a database of 2.88million strings (a week long hack-mode session) in single hack-mode sessions. Although, these did not involve a huge amount of work, considering what some people are able to achieve in a day, they probably are good examples of work achievable in hack mode.

All that hacking however is preceded by a hack mode for generating or putting together ideas for what needs to be done. It’s similar except that I am not implementing anything. Just thinking, juggling, combining, and toying with different ideas in my mind.

These are the 4 pillars of a creative jumpstart. There are several articles (linked from this post itself) which talk about creativity, being creative, getting into the zone, etc. I have found that almost all the points they mention belong to MASH (motivation, avoid distraction, stimuli and hack mode) in some way or the other.

Just remember MASH and apply it in your own life. I am sure each one of you will take a different approach to achieve it. Find your own way out through the maze. There are several exits.

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