There’s a series on the Freakonomics Radio Podcast delving into the concept of creativity. Interviewing artists, academicians and corporate executives, the program looks at what makes people creative and whether or not this attribute can be attained by your average person.
Among the people interviewed for the series, there is a bit of a divide as to how creativity is viewed. Some see it as an inherent trait, one that individuals cannot replicate or learn; others believe adjusting one’s mindset and attitude can deliver increased creative abilities. I don’t claim to be on par with the experts interviewed for the podcast, but I tend to side with those who say creativity can be nurtured and developed with the right approach.
I’m not saying you can become a world-class painter or musician without the benefit of at least some natural abilities, or that you can figure out the art of computer coding just by reading a book. I do, however, believe our creative muscles can be flexed and strengthened. I also think bringing a little innovation to the workplace, even on a small scale, can prove extremely beneficial for employers and employees alike.
Unfortunately, many of us work in fields that seem anything but creative. If you work in fields like medicine, law or finance, you’ve probably been trained to stay as far from experimental thinking as possible. There are plenty of good reasons to adhere to certain best practices, but that shouldn’t lead to a complete abolition of original thought.
Feeling innovative and creative empowers workers and usually leads to our best efforts. While you don’t want to push the envelope too far, I recommend taking a few steps to make your work seem less stale and redundant. The following options won’t reinvent the wheel, but they should help you take charge of your work and hopefully see some procedural improvements.
If you weren’t hired specifically to come up with new ideas, your supervisors might discourage outside-the-box thinking. Working in finance, I see this dynamic constantly. People tend toward the safer option when it comes to money, and I’m generally no different. That said, playing by the rules inherently denies innovation, and those who have innovated in the fields of lending, market analysis and alternative investing have made the most money.
Even in the least creative fields, every job has an end goal and, most of the time, you know the outcome you’re aiming for. When first learning how to achieve this objective, we’re usually trained to achieve an end result by taking predetermined steps. For example:
1. Establish lead
2. Email lead
3. Call lead
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3
5. Secure lead as client/delete from contacts
As you can see, step 5 is where this procedure goes one of two ways. The first way delivers a preferred result; the second way makes your boss angry. Unfortunately, going through the motions by route often leads to that second outcome without any sort of plan B or safety valve. Once you’ve made and repeated your outreach steps, you’re at the end of the line and it’s time to move on.
Can reverse engineering this tedious process actually deliver results? It might not make you feel like Picasso, but creating a new procedure that focuses more specifically on the desired outcome could have a big impact on your day. You can start with something pretty basic, like replacing the second follow-up email with a free subscription or a snazzy bumper sticker, whatever would best promote your services. The gesture might be small but it’s a big step up from an uninspired phone call.
One thing that holds people back from being creative and trying new tactics is a misguided assumption that every new approach has to be big and bold. An investigation of actual innovations will show you can make a big splash with a fairly slight alteration. Take online videos as an example: the internet paved the way for short, easily accessed content. The goals and genres of filmed entertainment didn’t change, just the way in which it was delivered, and now Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services have created a full-on media revolution.
This might seem like an oversimplification of the changing landscape of television, but it’s pretty accurate. The filming process didn’t get revamped and the tastes of the viewing audience weren’t altered. If delivering enjoyable videos was step 5, online content just did a few things to shake up steps 2-4. I’m probably skipping a few thousand steps in this model, but it works for the analogy.
My first example - lead generation - is about as boring as it gets. Nevertheless, that shows how easy an influx in creativity can be. Take a part of your workday and add a twist. You don’t have to go through some massive overhaul in practices, just create a new step or two that will help you get to that final goal.
Remember school? Not college or grad school, but high school? Junior high? Long, long ago, when you started to change from a child into a young adult, you had all sorts of skills and fascinations that have since gone dormant, or have at least been phased out of your professional life. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still there, and it doesn’t mean you can’t find a use for them.
The correlations between schoolyard hobbies and data management don’t make themselves readily apparent, but that’s how the creative process works; you get to do a deep dive into the interests you never thought would factor into your career and find a place to fit them in. An innovative approach gives you free reign on the methods you choose, so why not stick to the things you like while taking chances?
For example, sports fans have lots of ways to bring their weekend and evening hobbies to the office. Through healthy competition between coworkers or naming people’s roles after the positions on a soccer pitch, it doesn’t take a stroke of creative genius to tweak procedure and make things a little sportier than before.
I’ve actually seen people in accounting, often thought of as the least creative field in the universe, lean on their love of football to help make ordinary mathematic duties a little easier. Anyone who follows football closely spends a lot of time counting by 7s as they watch teams score touchdowns and mount math-heavy comebacks. If a large portion of your day gets lost to counting and sorting, see if you can develop a system using multiples of seven to move through things more quickly. Even if the new system doesn’t lead to monumental changes, it could be the first step toward a method that actually has a lasting effect.
If sports aren’t your thing, you have plenty of alternatives. Those interested in art, fashion and other visual mediums have some optical acuity that can help in a broad range of ways. Presentations can be made to look better and get better responses from the audience; marketing materials can get a makeover to become more visually impactful; the office walls can take on an aesthetically pleasing theme that brightens everyone’s day.
On top of decorative use, art and color schemes have some pretty impressive subconscious effects. Take a second to read about “art in marketing” or “colors and psychology” and you’ll get hit with all sorts of information about how different colors elicit different moods. If you put a lot of thought into color coordination around your home or with your daily ensemble, that visual astuteness might help you engage customers and promote the right messaging in your work.
Any unique interest, from history to model trains to exotic food preparation, can be fused into your work in one way or another. I don’t care how different your work is from your hobby. If you install solar panels and love baking, you can start learning about solar ovens and how that technology could influence the entire industry in the coming years. If you work in event planning and love to tie-dye, make some colorful shirts and socks and to hand out as promotional gifts.
The traditional workplace puts us in a bit of a catch-22. Guidelines rule the day, providing very little wiggle room when it comes to creative thinking, and yet doing something creative and novel requires you to step outside the ordinary practices and try a tactic no one else would think to try. It puts you in a scary position of going against the grain when you don’t know if the results will make your effort worthwhile.
While it sounds daunting to take a creative approach, I think leaning on other interests and skills makes the undertaking much easier. If you step into unfamiliar territory holding onto something that’s at least somewhat recognizable, you’ll act with more confidence and guide yourself toward better results. You have to trust yourself. Trust that your interests have value and you can achieve your goals in more than one way.
In general, we have a broken perception of failure. It’s not fun and it’s never what we set out to do, but in many ways, failure is the only way we learn. You don’t understand the repercussions of a mistake until you’re forced to live through one, and that’s when you start figuring out what you can do better the next time around.
I’ve lived this truth in spades. I’m living my best life working in wealth management, and if I hadn’t made bad financial decisions in my youth and gone into debt, I never would have gathered the information and developed the tools that allow me to do what I do now. There’s a very direct connection between my past failures and current success.
When it comes to your employment, the mistakes you allow yourself have to be measured. You don’t get to spend and lose money carelessly and you need a good reason to take risks. These are the exact reasons why employers - and workers themselves - often stifle creativity. At the end of the day, innovation bears a strong resemblance to unnecessary risk.
And still, those risks deliver the mistakes that teach us better methods going forward. An imperfect process doesn’t illustrate steps that can never be taken again, but rather shows what can be fixed going forward to see improvements. This is what I mean by learning to fail. It’s not just thickening your skin and accepting error as a part of being human (though that’s important, too); learning to fail means learning from failure, and demonstrating an ability to adapt.
I feel we all have some inherent creativity. As children on the playground, we have no trouble pretending and creating in front of complete strangers. It’s not until later in life, when our self-conscious tendencies get stronger, that we become more focused on doing things by the book. The adults who persevere, who stay creative in the face of ridicule and skepticism, are the ones who learn from criticism without being deterred.
It’s exceedingly hard to unlearn rules you’ve stuck to most of your life. Looking at a mistake and feeling educated instead of ashamed isn’t much easier. And yet, these are things anyone can do. You can make the choice to stay positive after something goes wrong, to find a silver lining and improve on your next effort.
To get a better idea of how failing works in your favor, you have to put it in the right context. If you're looking to bring more creativity into your work, to get better results and improve productivity, failure doesn’t mean a project gone entirely foul. The mistakes should feel like growing pains, similar to what people go through when practicing an instrument. You’re going to play a lot of wrong notes as you learn them, but the effort will get you to a place where you sound pretty good.
The question becomes, how do you practice creativity and risk mistakes in a field that discourages stepping outside the lines? You have to start by reassuring yourself that setbacks happen and can be overcome. After convincing yourself that the world won’t come crashing down when you try something new, you can start looking for simple ways to shake things up.
Since most of us are conditioned to avoid mistakes like the plague, you might need to start with smaller trials that produce smaller errors. I believe you can learn from any effort, large or small, as long as you’re willing, so don’t think you have to shoot for the moon right away. You just need to focus on taking the good with the bad, and learning just as much from the bad as you do the good.
Creativity is a funny thing, especially in the workplace. More and more employers are paying for creativity experts to speak and run weekend seminars, all while urging workers to stick to archaic models and guidelines. It’s pretty much universally agreed that creativity is a good thing, and yet those taking steps to become more creative don’t get much encouragement. If you really want to innovate and create, you’re going to have to buck a trend or two.
For anyone interested in learning more about the study of creativity, I recommend the Freakonomics podcast. You get interesting insight from creative people, as well as the more analytical minds who have spent years researching these subjects. It’s an interesting exploration into a topic that seems complex and evasive.
As you contemplate how you might improve your own creative instincts, try not to judge your efforts. You shouldn’t compare yourself to da Vinci or Steve Jobs, as the creative process is unique and individualistic. Stay true to your own ideas and interests and have faith in your abilities. As long as you feel like a creative itch is being scratched, you’re doing something right.