How to be creative

This is not a shot at making a side career as a motivational speaker. There are, of course, tons of more creative people out there, and even science about it! Still, I couldn’t resist writing down my thoughts since I slightly disagree with some of the gurus out there. 😛

1. Be bored   Good ideas come to me when I don’t entertain myself: on the treadmill, when my plane taxis to the runway, driving some familiar route, at the conference listening to the never-ending opening address of the local politician. Although I love playing games on my phone, reading tweets, etc., those are the times when I’d never think something creative. Being creative is fun, but having fun doesn’t make you creative.

2. Read   I often hear that reading a lot hampers creativity. It could stop you from going in a direction where people already have been even though you could make a valuable contribution, and that results never come out the same anyway, so there is no need to worry about duplicating someone else. (Hmm, I even say that myself, the last thing.) Of course, you have to work too; reading shouldn’t be an excuse for that, but anyway, it doesn’t hurt to know stuff. Finally (as probably real creativity gurus would tell you too), it’s useful to mostly a bit outside of your field—Hunt for new pieces for your puzzle.

3. No analogies   I say this mostly to get invited to a panel discussion with Douglas Hofstadter. . . No, actually, I agree with his point that analogies are the “fuel and fire” of new ideas. I just think that the mind is so good at it that you don’t have to explicitly try. Take the metaphor #1 of urban science “cities are organisms.” I don’t think taking that as incentive* to apply biology to your urban-organization project will lead to any groundbreaking discoveries. But if you are thinking about cities, and as you write down your equations realize they match, say, the Hardy–Weinberg law, sure, then you can push that analogy a bit further.
* regardless of how cool the metabolist movement in architecture was, and how well it fits to describe Kowloon Walled City.

4. Small collaborations    In big collaborations, you would just do your thing. Collaborating with one or two people of a different background is better. By the time you learn each other’s language (however painful it is) and understand why they are interested in what they are interested in, you’d already have some new ideas.

5. Have deadlines     I got some of my best ideas with a deadline looming. It is the best way to keep your mind from wandering off (and writing blog posts about creativity). And the sense of emergency probably triggers some extra creative circuits. (Mikael Huss’ and my currency metabolite paper was just like that.) This might not work for everyone, but I think everyone should (and probably have to) try it.

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