just do it

🕔Sep 07, 2005

Research shows that there exists a specific and definable way of learning that supports creative pursuits, yet people are often challenged when it comes to learning creatively.

Frequently, we limit ourselves to the areas where we exhibit natural talent, and hesitate to strike out and explore other domains.

Western society tends to encourage us to learn what we are already good at. This funneling of abilities limits creativity, and impedes the growth and maintenance of a truly creative mindset.

Creativity is broad-minded, brave, and differentiated; it seeks multi-faceted avenues of expression. Building a creative life requires a constant balancing between two poles: on one hand the drive to achieve skill in a particular area, and on the other the desire to experience a little bit of everything. Too much focus is as bad as too much diffusion. A lifelong attitude of creativity resides somewhere in the middle.

Whether learning to paint, skate or sing, certain attitudes buttress and encourage creative exploration; a creative mindset can be “grown, “ per se. Following are several actions one can take that may stimulate a progression towards a more creative attitude, and a more creative way of living.

Growing creative energy

1. Curiosity and Interest

As an adult, allowing oneself to marvel—to be “child-like” in our appreciation of wonderful things—will take you down a more creative path. Children unashamedly gawk at the universe. They ooze curiosity and are incessantly interested. This openness births creative energy. Some ways to stimulate curiosity and interest are:

  • Allow yourself to be surprised. Pay attention to simple things, and ask, “How is this different?” Revel in a new experience, and notice it. Give yourself permission to break a routine.
  • Be surprising yourself. In a nutshell, seek to practice change. If you’re loud—be quiet. If you’re aggressive—tone it down. If you’re meek—pipe up. Stepping outside of your normal comfort zone builds confidence and engenders an “I can do it” attitude. These are necessary precursors to taking “creative action.”
  • Follow a whim. If something piques your interest, pursue it. Go canoeing for the first time, learn to paint or build a garage. Find your interest, and inspiration will follow.

2. Cultivate flow

Flow is the state of mind one achieves when engaged in an activity that is automatic and effortless, yet highly focused. It is synonymous with enjoyment. Immersion in the flow state is linked with active involvement in discovery and creative processes. If you’ve ever “lost yourself” in an activity, you’ve experienced flow. (Expert or not, flow most often stems from a simple desire to engage in the activity. Children building sand castles are very much involved in a peak flow state.) To cultivate flow, one should:

  • Set a specific goal. It should be an activity one enjoys doing, regardless of whether you are “good” at it or not.
  • Dedicate some time to the activity. Allow yourself to progress at your own pace. Give yourself permission to screw up. Let go of any expectations you may have—and engage.
  • Pursue increasingly complex tasks. Once you have a solid foundation of skills, challenge yourself in manageable increments. Creativity is a much closer cousin to involvement than it is to prowess. Think journey—not end point.

3. Practice Habits of Strength

Strength refers to mental discipline, to the ability to “erect barriers against distractions, dig channels so that energy can flow more freely, and find ways to escape outside temptations and interruptions.”[1] When not actively concentrating, our minds automatically revert to a vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition, which impedes creativity. To prevent brain cloudiness, and stimulate mental strength, try any of the following:

  • Meditate. Witnessing what passes through our heads in a non-judgmental and mindful fashion is a cognitive and effective detox program. Meditation encourages self-awareness, a concomitant of creativity.
  • Make time. Build a schedule that factors in some time for creating while you are at an energy peak, rather than always trying to cram in a creative pursuit when what you really need is a nap.
  • Reflect and relax. There are a million ways to reflect; you just have to find one that works for your tastes and abilities. Journal. Go for a quiet walk. Fish on a lake by yourself at dawn. Enjoy a cross-country ski. Tinker with the lawnmower. Garden. Weave. Swim. (Contrary to what many believe, doing nothing is not the best form of relaxation.)
  • Shape your space. If building an artist’s studio, a double garage, or a fully equipped woodshop is not within your realm of financial capability, don’t fret. The main point is that you have a space that you can be in harmony with, that allows you to do some creative work.
  • Identify likes and dislikes. Creative individuals are very much in touch with their emotions; they consistently practice self-monitoring and self-awareness. In order to create effectively, one needs to be able to identify what one would like to create. Following your whims might give you a hint in figuring this out…

New and improved…me?

  • Change is good: “To change personality means to learn new patterns of attention. To look at different things, and to look at them differently; to learn to think new thoughts; to have new feelings about what we experience.”[2] Since creativity goes hand in hand with diversity and growth, a more creative path will likely involve some level of personal change.
  • Develop what you lack. Identify the opposite of what you usually are, and seek to cultivate that trait. Creative people exhibit a broad spectrum of characteristics. They are more flexible and adaptable, which is more conducive to a creative mode of living.
  • Shift from openness to closure. One must be amenable to new ideas, intuitions, and insights, yet still able to sit down and do the hard work to actualize the inspiration when the time comes. Be receptive, but know when to focus.
  • Aim for complexity. Stretch yourself to accept different points of view, and explore other opinions as valuable. Find a middle point between utter changeability and rigidity in attitude. It’s a fallacious stereotype that as one ages, one loses the ability to learn. Stagnation is not inevitable. That which we most vehemently oppose, usually presents the greatest opportunity for creative growth.

In our world today, we are fortunate to have many opportunities to live self-directed lives that we co-create with our partners, bosses, friends, and family. Healthy and happy living will follow from a creative and flexible mindset.

This past winter, my attempt to experientially learn and integrate information on creativity manifested itself in a desire to learn how to knit.

I didn’t achieve “flow” quickly; nor did I show my first few projects to anyone. I’m happy to say, however, that my mom had a brightly coloured, double-wrap scarf for Mother’s Day—just in time for a hot Kamloops summer.

And after having tried to teach the “teenage me” how to sew—when I epitomized a non-creative mindset—I’m sure she’ll appreciate all the learning that has gone into it!


[1] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (HarperPerennial, New York, 1996) 351.

[2] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 359.