Ivan Coyote wrote their acclaimed first novel Bow Grip in 28 days. It was November, 2006. The celebrated author and performer, the former Alice Munro Chair in creativity at Western University, had coaxed a group of their writing students to sign up for the National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days.
Since their students were doing it, they decided they’d better do it, too.
So Coyote raced home after teaching and started writing. During the first week, it took them three, sometimes four, hours to write the 1,666 words per day needed to finish the challenge.
“I was completely making it up as I was going along,” Coyote said. “I would sit down and I would be like, I have no idea what’s going to happen now.”
By the end of the month, however, the words were flowing. The story and characters took shape. And Coyote found they could write their daily requirement in less than an hour.
As Coyote explains, creativity isn’t something that strikes out of nowhere. You have to put in the work to achieve it.
“People think creativity is sort of like a firefly that you have to somehow magically trap in a jar without injuring its wings, or something like that. And I just don’t subscribe to that,” they said.
By now, having written and contributed to 13 books, and created four films and seven stage shows, Coyote knows what they need to get their best ideas. Mainly, it’s self-discipline – to sit down every day and just write without worrying whether it’s good until their thoughts coalesce.
Taking hot showers and nature walks also help spark creativity. They aren’t sure why, exactly.
“I don’t need to know. I just know that it works for me,” they said.
Those who study creativity, however, are learning more about not only what spurs novel ideas, but why, and how to increase one’s ability to generate more of them. What they’re discovering supports Coyote’s assertion that creativity isn’t magic. Nor is it exclusive to exceptionally brilliant minds. Rather, it can be honed with the help of curiosity, exposure to different experiences and perspectives, and practice.
Dr. Paul Hanel, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Essex, has pored over scores of research papers on ways of enhancing creativity to determine which methods work best.
In a recent meta-analysis, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, he and his colleagues found the most effective methods were meditation, cultural exposure such as travelling and complex training courses – that is, courses that teach concepts and strategies such as problem-solving and how to identify opportunities and evaluate ideas.
Drugs and alcohol are not creativity boosters
Least effective for enhancing creativity, the researchers found, was the use of drugs, including alcohol.
That’s not to say drugs don’t help some people, Hanel said. Rather, the researchers found drugs don’t work to boost creativity, on average. History is full of great musicians, artists, thinkers and innovators who have relied on substances to expand their minds and loosen them up.
But it’s unknown whether they could have succeeded without using drugs, he explained, adding we tend not to hear about the many instances when people fail to create or perform while using them.
Expand your mind with travel and meditation, instead
Hanel explained some of the key ingredients to creativity include being open to new experiences and having a sense of curiosity, as well as a certain degree of independence. If you’re too worried about social norms and what people expect of you, that can limit your creativity, he said.
Meditation may help increase that sense of open-mindedness and reduce stress, allowing people to get into a creative mindset, Hanel said. (Coyote’s hot showers and nature walks may have a similar effect.)
Meanwhile, travelling and being exposed to different cultures can allow people to see things from different perspectives, so they can piece together existing ideas in a novel way, he said.
Process – not divine intervention – cultivates creativity
One of the common misconceptions about creativity is that people who come up with ingenious ideas are special people, who either have special minds or somehow experience some kind of divine intervention, said Dr. Sheena Iyengar, Columbia Business School professor and author of Think Bigger: How to Innovate.
In fact, Iyengar, who explores examples of innovations in the arts, sciences and business in her book, said anyone can come up with great ideas. By practising a set of steps that involves choosing the right problem to solve, breaking it down into subproblems and examining how others solved similar subproblems, you can get better at it.
Even someone as exceptional as Albert Einstein didn’t get his ideas from nowhere, she said.
“He was somebody who was exposed to a lot of information knowledge bits across many different domains,” she said, explaining Einstein worked as a patent officer for about six years. “And he himself talks about how that was a place where his greatest ideas were born.”
Anna Foat, too, advocates a methodical approach to innovation. The Western University instructor teaches design thinking, which she describes as a framework for thinking about problems differently.
Also invoking Einstein, Foat said the famous physicist is quoted as saying that if he had an hour to tackle a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and five minutes thinking about solutions.
“Which tends to be the opposite way most businesses work,” she said, explaining businesses often assume they already know what the problem is, and myopically stick with what they think is the right solution at the expense of all other possible opportunities.
Human touch points – and pain points – fuel possibilities
With design thinking, rather than focusing on the outcome, the idea is to think about the “pain points” of the intended client or user, Foat said.
In other words, if you’re thinking about creating a product or service, she advises considering what the needs are of the actual human beings for whom you’re providing that product or service, and to go out to speak to many of them and listen deeply. Unlike using focus groups, this step happens before you even create a new product or service.
You can then start building a minimum viable product, or a very basic version of the product or service, and then, return to the target users for feedback to make sure you’ve translated what you thought you heard into what you’ve created, Foat said.
Unlike in traditional project management, where an entire plan is established at the outset, this allows you to catch yourself when you go off-track.
Although this approach to coming up with ideas is very different from Coyote’s, Foat, too, said design thinking is something you can get better at with training and practice.
Coyote put it this way: “You have to be actively engaged in the creative practice for the creativity to hit you.”