What is being creative and why do so many people dismiss themselves as not being creative?

We are all naturally creative, it’s part of being human. Just as we all breathe oxygen and eat food, we’re creative.

When we think of what it means to “be creative”, it is easy to dismiss our own abilities. We often associate “being creative” with peak performers, or people at the top of their field, such as Michelangelo, Bach, Steve Jobs, etc.

There are two mistakes that we often make when thinking about our creative potential:

  1. Confusing our ability to be creative, with our current level of our creativity
  2. Thinking that it is not possible to increase our level of creative ability

Creativity is like a muscle, it improves with use.

We all use our creativity, all the time. 

When you choose what you are going to eat, there is an element of creativity. When you decide what you are going to wear, there is an element of creativity. When you write an email, there is an element of creativity.

So why do so many people struggle with it? Or maybe a better questions is… why do so many people think they struggle with it?

Maybe we should start at the beginning, which is:

What does it mean to be creative?

You could think of creativity in general, as finding out what works.

Scientists are creative in finding the relationships between existents.

Businessmen are creative in finding ways to combine resources, so that they become more valuable than their constituent parts.

Artists are creative in finding a way to combine colours represent an idea.

Composers are creative in finding ways to use sound to evoke emotion.

Individuals that we regard as highly creative either:

  • Take previous methods to new peaks (for example, the composer J.S. Bach, taking the study of counterpoint to a level of perfection that the world had not seen)
  • Find new methods to achieve results (for example, Einstein’s theory of relativity, which completely changed our understanding of physics)

Creativity is the process of asking a question, creating a “spark” and then giving that spark a “form’. The spark is an idea, the form is the implementation of that idea.

The Spark

The spark comes from answering a question:

“What product or service does the market want that is not being provided?”

“How can I make the subject of my painting evoke this emotion in my viewer?”

“How can I get this idea across to my listeners through music?”

“How can I use music to make my listeners feel X Y or Z?”

In the example of music, we ask a question, then sometime after asking the question, we get a spark. An idea. Sometimes we take an existing idea and modify it. We then give that idea form. Sometimes we get the idea instantly… sometimes it takes weeks or even months. Sometimes I sit down an get a new riff come to me instantly. Sometimes I write part of a song then it takes weeks for the next part to come to me.

For example, lets say we want to write an upbeat rock song. So we write a riff that fits. That is our spark. We then repeat the riff 4 times and on the last time, modify the ending slightly. We turned the riff into a chorus. We gave the spark (the riff) form (our chorus).

Now we might need a new spark for the verse… or we might modify / simplify our original spark.

The Form

The form consists of taking our idea, our spark, and testing it, playing with it, modifying it, trying out different applications. A scientist with an idea for a theory is going to create a series of tests to investigate it. A musician with a new riff may try putting it in different keys, changing the rhythm, changing the phrasing, or a host of other ideas.

Here are the top four reasons we struggle with creativity:

1. We dismiss our ideas because they are our ideas

One reason is that we dismiss our ideas as worthless…. because they are our ideas.

“Oh if I thought of this then it can’t be any good”. I know that I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

Another thought we often have is “oh this idea is not as good as «insert someone you look up to»”, or “I’ll never be as good as «person you look up to», so what’s the point?”

This is completely the wrong way to think about it. It’s an unfair comparison - sometimes called an “apples to oranges” comparison.

Think of it like this.

You are going to university to study advanced physics. You have your first lecture, and the professor you have has been working in the field for 25 years. He knows his stuff. He is great at it.

Would you come out of that lecture and say to yourself “Oh man, I can’t do physics after one day like that professor has after 25 years, so I totally suck at this and will never be any good”

Of course not.

That would be ridiculous.

2. We expect everything to be perfect from the first ‘spark’

I wish.

Sometimes this happens. But this is rare. Yes, Mozart did write entire symphonies this way, but 99% of musicians don’t write this way (but… most of them want you to think that they write this way).

When this does rarely happen, I think of it as “Mozarting one out”, and appreciate it as a bonus, but it is not the method.

The creative process is trial and error. We take our “spark” and we work on it. We build on it, around it, take parts away, add parts.

The spark often isn’t perfect, and it won’t be.

But very often, if the spark isn’t perfect, we get upset, or we think that it is no good.

It takes time. It takes effort and mental focus to play with it. Experiment with some variations. Sure it might not be great… but give it a chance to be great. And in the process, you will develop your skills, so that when a great idea comes along, you can allow it to really shine.

3. We roll the spark and the form into one piece

If you have an idea for a riff, but you don’t know song structure or arrangement, then you may feel like you are not really that creative (spark with no form). If you can take riffs and map out a whole song from a riff, then again, you feel not very creative, because you are missing a key piece. We need to be aware of the complete picture.

4. We don’t train our creative ability

How often have you thought of training your creative ability? On guitar, there are loads of ways to do this:

  • Write boring songs you don’t like, to practice you song structure
  • Write a riff and write 20 rhythmic variations on it
  • Play around with different ways of combining overdriven and clean guitars on your music ideas
  • Change key signatures
  • Change time signatures
  • Write 5 bad riffs every day for a month. See what happens.

There are a lot of things you can experiment with, so that we you do get a great spark, you have the tools to put the spark to work.

Why are some people naturals at «insert field»?

It is easy to look at some people and think that they must be highly “gifted”. Unfortunately, this is a myth that is perpetuated by the media with “overnight success” stories about “talented” people. No-one is born talented, exactly the same way way as no-one is born with the ability to dead lift 130kg.

People can dead lift 130kg because they train at it. Some people are musically creative because they train at it. Some people are artistically creative because they train at it. A woman I knew a while back was incredibly talented at art and sculpting. Guess what? That’s what she worked on and thought about constantly. She constantly trained on her art and sculpture… and as a result become incredibly gifted at it.

Gifts are earned, they are not given out by the gods of talent!!

So what is creative training? It’s having a go. Trying things out. Making a steaming pile of crap, then asking yourself what is one small element you could improve on, and working on that element. My first complete song was the hit thrash metal song “Skeleton Taxi Driver”. It wasn’t great!

Creative training is constantly figuring out a way to make the next piece better, without getting upset over your current / previous work being not good enough.

How to improve your creativity

One thing I notice as I become more creative with my songwriting, and my writing, is that whenever an idea flashes into my head, I make a note of it, I write it down… then I play with it, flesh the idea out, think it through…. and only then do I decide if I keep it or not.

If I have ideas for a new riff, I record them on my computer, get them in time (my riffs are always horrifically out of time when I first record them) and write them out in guitar pro. One riff I had took me weeks to figure out the time signature! But I kept playing with it.

If I have an idea for a vocal melody, I’ll write it down, or maybe work it out on guitar and tab it out in guitar pro (by the way, guitar pro is a killer piece of software - every guitar player should have it). If I have a lyrical idea, I’ll write it down - I have a notebook full of phrases that I thought sounded pretty cool. Maybe I will later decide that it totally sucks… but I’m going to play with it first.

Keep everything, but only release the best

Too often we throw away, or dismiss, our ideas before we have given them a chance to breath.

Sure an idea you have might not be your best idea ever. But no-one needs to see it. Treat it as practice for applying your skills.

I record ALL my riffs and song ideas. I will at least record them, and 90% of the time I will also tab them out on guitar pro. If I don’t have access to my recording setup, I’ll make a video on my phone, so I can hear the idea and see what my hands were doing. Once a month or so, I separate my ideas into three groups:

  1. Best ideas. Definitely going on the next record
  2. Good ideas - potential to be turned into something good
  3. Sucky ideas. No-one hears these

The best ideas receive the most attention and I will flesh these out into full songs, record demos, maybe bring in some other people to work on melodies and harmonies. But the reason I have these good ideas is because I put a lot of time into making sure I gave all my ideas some attention.

If I have ideas for a blog post or something I want to write about, I grab my laptop, open a new text file, and at the very least write the working title of the blog as a reminder. Maybe some key bullet points, then save it to work on later. A few nights ago for example, I had ideas for 11 new posts that I’ll work on. This was one of them. I won’t publish all of them, but I will publish the best ones and there will be some gems in there.

Some of the ideas will never see the light of day, but I will work on them and see where they take me.

Indulge your ideas, think them through… play with them. Explore them.

Yes there will be some garbage… but if you give your ideas a chance to shine… maybe they just will…

You can check what happened when I applied these rules here