“For mental skills like creativity, few people know enough about the way their minds work to be able to treat it like a skill,” as opposed to an innate talent, writes University of Texas at Austin psychology and marketing professor Art Markman in a recent “Work Smart” column for Fast Company.
Markman, who is also the founding director of UT’s Human Dimensions of Organizations program, goes on to identify three ways anyone can train themselves to be more creative.
- Become an explainer
“In this age of Google, there is a tendency to assume that information is available when you need it and so you don’t need to internalize it,” Markman says. “But, if you have to interrupt your flow of work whenever you need to look something up, you can’t follow ideas to new places. In order to maximize the quality of your knowledge, you have to develop the habit to explain things back to yourself.”
- Pratice openness
“When you encounter a new idea, listen to it or read it through, but don’t engage with it much right away,” advises Markman. “Instead, put it aside for a day and come back to it later. When you read it again, it will feel more familiar based on the ‘mere exposure’ effect. Mere exposure is the observation that we like things better after we have seen them once before. Let that familiarity help you open yourself up to new prospects.”
- Keep asking new questions
“The most creative people don’t settle on a single way to think about a problem,” Markman says. “Instead, they keep finding new descriptions of that problem and allowing their memory to find more information that might help to solve it. The more different questions they ask, the more creative ideas they have.”
“Those people who do creative things, whether it’s in the arts or literature or science, they do a lot [of work],” said Markman on the episode about creativity. “There is a lot of paper crumpled up in wastebaskets for writers, and there are lots of canvases that are painted over for painters, and there are lots of lousy experiemnts that get run by scientists on the way towards doing something interesting.”
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Finally, if you’re stuck on a problem and wishing for a more creative solution, Markman has advice on how to get unstuck.
The first step is to determine the “inner essence” of your problem, Markman explained to UT’s McCombs School of Business OPEN magazine in 2012. What problem are you really trying to solve? Ask yourself, “If I wrote a book about my problem, what would I call it? How would I describe the problem in three words to someone else?” Those simple exercises can help you clear out the clutter to focus on the heart of the problem.
Imagine you’re trying to create a better toothbrush. Instead of getting stuck obsessing over bristles, reframe your challenge: the goal of a toothbrush is to remove film from a surface that you don’t want to damage.
Now that your core problem has been identified, move beyond thinking about it on a superficial level, and turn to analogies or the abstract. With the toothbrush example, what are other problems that face a similar challenge? Examining how people clean house siding or restore old paintings might offer some unexpected inspiration for dental care.
Image by Flickr user Khairul Nizam