1 Originally published on Medium.com, Jun 19, 2013
Creativity needs to be dangerous and unpredictable.
When everything becomes a little too comfortable and controlled, it’s easy to produce work that’s devoid of surprises.
Humans are very adept at falling into ruts. The more we do something, and the better we get at doing it, the greater the inclination to keep on doing it the very same way. We tend to repeat actions and patterns that evoke positive responses from others. Which can be a good thing — for a while anyway.
So how do we consciously veer away from the well-trod path? Here are three easy ways to make the creative process more difficult.
1. Abandon your comfort zone.
It never fails to amaze me how refreshing it feels to change up the familiar work process. This is a great way to provide yourself what author Roger von Oech calls “a whack on the side of the head.”
Even subtle changes to a routine make a difference: if the creative work you’re doing is portable, move to a different room. Try working at a coffee house. Get outside. Anything, as long as it’s something different.
And if you’re tethered to one location by technology or other constraints? Try listening to music. If that’s what you always do, change things up and go for silence. Music extra loud. Lights off. Lights on. Rearrange the room so you’re facing a different direction. Pour a drink. Maybe another.
Perhaps you’re a songwriter who always begins with the lyric. Today, force yourself to hammer out the melody first. If you typically write on a guitar, use a keyboard. Or start with a drum loop. Paint on an improbable surface.Cook something new.
You get the idea.
2. Impose limitations.
I’ll never consider myself a photographer, but I do like taking pictures. Specifically, capturing unexpected oddball moments as they unfold.
A big part of the fun in this process comes from the conscious choice to shoot using Hipstamatic. While the more widely-used Instagram lets you apply all kinds of filters after you’ve grabbed your shot, Hipstamatic works and feels way more like old-school photography. You choose a virtual film stock and virtual lens before taking the picture. So the look predefined by those choices is what you’re bound to. Dangerous. Unpredictable. Fun.
Welcome to the land of happy accidents.
Are there downsides to all this unpredictability? Sure. Chaos can be a feature or a bug at any given moment, and generally, you don’t get to decide which.
I took the image up at the top of this post with my phone. But it almost got past me. As soon as I pulled into a parking space and saw the two dogs staring at me, I grabbed a couple of quick shots with Hipstamatic. The results were really dark and murky — they didn’t tell the story. Sensing that the dogs were beginning to stress, I quickly bailed to the basic iPhone camera app. Two clicks later, I’d captured the moment you see above.
Strictly limiting myself to Hipstamatic would have meant missing a pretty great photo op. So admittedly, there are times when you need to throw off your self-imposed limitations. That doesn’t make those limitations any less valuable as creative catalysts.
3. Make it a struggle.
Fellow Nashville transplant Jack White knows this one well:
“I keep guitars that are, you know, the neck’s a little bit bent and it’s a little bit out of tune. I want to work and battle it and conquer it and make it express whatever attitude I have at that moment. I want it to be a struggle.”
With a little ingenuity, you can apply the same principle to lift yourself out of any well-worn groove. Whether you’re a designer, film editor, architect, pastry chef, or just about anything else.
This works for brainstorming sessions too. If you’re right-handed, start writing down ideas with your left hand. Seriously. Sure it’ll feel weird at first. That’s the point. But researchers tell us this simple departure from the norm actually shifts the creativity to different regions of your brain. Pretty deep stuff.
4. Don’t wait till you’re stuck to get unstuck.
A good thing about these suggestions is that while they can yield very real benefits, there’s not much risk involved. Go ahead, give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen?
And in case you’re wondering which of the above techniques I employed to inspire the post you just read? All of them, actually. Because while I’ve been writing for a living my entire adult life, only now can I finally say I’ve published my first blog post ever1.