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Improve your creativity by deliberate practice

My name is Yuva and I am a Software Engineer. I have been engineering and product-ing for 14 years. I have never thought of me as a creative person.

I looked at people playing music that are in their element, eyes closed and their face full of joy, completely immersed in what they are doing. They are in creative flow!

I yearned for that feeling of creative flow. In reality, I have experienced that feeling in my software engineering career few times. My very first time was in 2007, I solved a problem in a very creative way. I was brimming with joy. I put my hand in the air and punched it few times. I high-fived every person that passed me. I was a very shy developer back then so it was a big deal. Those experiences were few and far between. I want to experience the creative bursts very often.

I know one thing for sure. I work hard and I was determined to learn any skill necessary to get to experience that emotional state again and often.

Do you think you are creative?

If you don't, I am going to try to make you believe you are. If you do think you are creative, I am going to give you some tools that worked for me.

Talent and Creativity

First thing I learned is that I confused talent for creativity. Talent is something we are innately capable of doing. Some talents are useful like that of an NBA legend Wilt Chamberlin. When you are towering 7ft in high-school, you may as well play basketball.

Some talents are not so useful. I can do a wall sit for 10 mins.

Like the old proverb goes
Talent is like an asshole, everyone has one

Wait!? that does not sound right. oh! Well, I am going to run with it.

Talent and creativity are not the same thing. Creativity is not an elusive thing that only a select few people posses. Creativity belongs to all of us and we make many creative decisions everyday, often not consciously.

What is creativity?

Scientists explain creativity as making connections between seemingly odd or different ideas from the pool of knowledge we store in our brains to solve a new problem or create something that is novel, good and useful.

Its our brains doing what they do says Michael Grybko, Research Scientist, University of Washington

I think I got this one. I started seeing The Eureka Moment everywhere. Entertainment industry has given us so many examples of creative genius at play. Like the famous middle-out compression algorithm idea that Richard Hendricks(Silicon Valley) gets from seemingly unrelated conversation.

I cannot unsee it. It has almost become predictable. There is a team that struggles to solve a complicated problem and the protagonist would watch someone do something very normal like pouring a coffee, bouncing a ball, fighting with a vending machine and the protagonist's eyes will light up. Cue the eureka moment.

If creativity is a natural brain activity? Why am I not generating a lot of creative ideas on a daily basis?

Before I try to figure out the answer, let's bust some more myths.

Myth busting time

  • I have to be right brained
    This is one of the physcology fads that was disproportionately exaggerated like the Myers briggs personality types.Creativity required both sides of the brain.

  • I need drugs

    • I wanted this to be true so bad. I had convinced myself, when I take ayahuasca or LSD, all truths will be revealed. Unfortunately science does not backup this claim. I have tried CBD and it has only put me to sleep so far.
    • LSD and Cannabis is mostly associated the creatives. This is one for the books where correlation is mistaken for causation.
  • I have to wait for the apple to hit my head

    • Even without trying very hard, I have experienced bouts of creative moments few times in my life. Advances in neuroscience had made me believe that I do not have to wait around for the next bright idea to fall in my lap.

I feel so educated already. I understood creativity as science and tv describes it. I have busted some myths I had for long time. I feel ready for the next step. How to deliberately generate creative ideas?

I know my brain is constantly making connections. I dreamt about a problem I had at work and my cat, lullaby, was in my dream solving it. She is a very smart cat but I don't think I can use that idea in real life.

Creativity de-mystified

Let's break down the definition of creativity.

  1. Memory

    More things I have in memory, more likely that I can make a connection. I used to remember phone numbers of all my friends and relatives in memory. Our brains are constantly collecting information and encoding it to create short term memory. When things are repetitive, the brain skips remembering the details.
    We are more likely to convert the short term memory into long term memory when there is an association or impact. Most of us remember exactly where we were, even what we were wearing or whom we were with when 9/11 happened.
    The long term declarative memory is where we keep our pool of information and this is very important to fuel creativity.

  2. The knowledge pool
    Next piece of the creativity puzzle is the knowledge. In-order make connections between loosely coupled things, we need to know about those things. If I do not have any knowledge about the domain that I am working in, it is highly unlikely that I will come up with creative solutions.

  3. Recall
    This is the part where the brain makes connections between loosely related topics to come up with creative ideas. This is the most important and difficult part of becoming deliberately creative.

Five practical ways to start improving our ability to make creative neural connections.

  1. Improve declarative memory

    • Chunking techniques

      Even though chunking techniques are associated with improving the working memory, chunking involves searching for patterns to chunk, noticing patterns and remembering them are valuable exercises that help in improving declarative memory and recall.

      Consciousness and chunking allow us to turn the dull sludge of independent episodes in our lives into a shimmering, dense web, interlinked by all the myriad patterns we spot. It becomes a positive feedback loop, making the detection of new connections even easier, and creates a domain ripe for understanding how things actually work, of reaching that supremely powerful realm of discerning the mechanism of things. At the same time, our memory system becomes far more efficient, effective — and intelligent — than it could ever be without such refined methods to extract useful structure from raw data.

      Deep reading on pattern recognition

    • Memory palace technique
      A Memory Palace is an imaginary location in the mind to store mnemonic images. The most common type of memory palace involves making a journey through a place well known to the person, like a building or town.

    • Using the human connection
      Teach someone else or engage in a debate about any random topic. This also helps in providing another datapoint for getting that information into the declarative memory.

  2. Improving the knowledge pool

    • Be curious about the world around. Be present. I started to notice things when I go on walks and ask a simple why questions. This would lead me into long wikipedia trail from which I retain some of it. I end up sharing what I learned with my wife. I recently learned our nervous system is only 500mil years old while life existed for 4 billion years. Fascinating! right?
    • Read books / listen to podcasts. Select some books and podcasts that are unrelated or distantly related from the main field of interest. Psychology and economics related podcasts and books are my interests outside of software engineering.
  3. Take a walk before switching contexts or learning new things

    • Before going into any important meetings, especially brainstorming sessions, take a small walk to clear the mind, breathe deep and think about the topic of the meeting. This seems very simple but there has been experiments done to show the benefits of increasing the blood flow and just changing the scenery in taking on challenging tasks. I have the calendar set to always schedule my meetings to end in 10 mins before an hour. Even though we like to group the meetings, make sure to give at-least 10 minute break between them and go on a walk.
  4. Multitask at a slower phase

    • I have been doing this for a while. In the beginning, I picked two projects with deadlines. This is the wrong way to do it. Have one active project that has deadlines, namely an engineering project at work and pick another on that I can do in leisure. Writing and making lunch n learn presentations have been my side project for a bit and I am having a blast. I have found out that I really enjoy writing and every time I needed a break from work, I start researching my writing topic or start writing/editing. Sometimes wrong answer is stuck in in head. Changing context helps to flush the stuck solution.
    • Easy to think outside of the box if you can move from one box to the other
    • Many successful creative people have serious hobbies. Richard Feynman was obsessed with cracking safes or Charles Darwin was obsessed with earthworms.
  5. Marinate the ideas

    • The early mornings and right before bed times are prime time for making neural connections. I love waking up at 5:30AM but stay in that lucid state while thinking about my presentations or ways to represent a complex idea or think of the things to do for the day.
    • Think about the problem you are working on right before you go to sleep or just before you completely wake up. The brain is yet to be bombarded with tons of sensory information that it can process the problem at hand easier.

Creativity in teams

Creativity can come from groups not just individuals. If we want to be creative as a team, we should also practice the creativity boosting strategies together.

Brainstorming is one of the common tools used by companies to explore the group creativity.

Tips to improve brainstorming:

  1. There are no bad ideas - is a bad idea There are bad ideas and we need to call them out. Not to humiliate the person providing the idea but to set a standard for the ideas that are being generated. This can only be possible if there is a deep understanding between the members and everyone feels safe to throw out half baked ideas while also be willing to be criticized. Structure and safety are two most important elements to conduct a productive brainstorming meeting.
  2. Go for quantity of ideas rather than quality
  3. Build on top each other's ideas. The group owns all the ideas that they generated and keeping the generation and validation separate helps remove the biases. The person that generated the idea may not be the same person that is championing for the idea. This way, an idea gets its attention whether the idea is generated by a very shy introvert in the room or someone that commands attention by their communication skills.

Thank you for reading! I would love to receive any comments or feedback to improve the content or my writing style. Please leave a comment if you want me to write another article expanding on creativity in groups.

Top comments (2)

ayaanraj profile image

Great Write up.

yloganathan profile image

Thank you!