If creativity means creating something from very little or nothing then I don’t consider myself an especially creative person. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an interesting thought that didn’t start with someone else’s. Whether you call it creativity or strategic randomness, I want to share with you how I have improved my creative productivity and process. I have focused my efforts on the kind of creativity that describes how things work (engineer here). The proof is embedded in the lines and graphics below. You be the judge!
I can’t say for certain that my method will work for everyone but, If a few find it useful then it’s a win in my book. I would be very curious to know if you or anyone you know achieved something similar in a different way.
I will say up front that this method turns creativity into a skill and bears the weight of any other skill. It takes practice, good form, and motivation to keep it up. So, do it for you.
The Layout of Your Mind
The first thing you will need is a place to work. While the jury still out about how the mind really works, that doesn’t need to stop you from coming up with an imaginative idea to help keep your thoughts organized. After all, you can’t figure out anything if you don’t at least guess first.
I’ve shared my layout here. You can use it as a template if you wish to create your own. My mind seems to have a viewing area that sits on top of a small lake so my mental production studio, or mindset, has a blank screen that sits just over the water. In the corner, I have a hammock on a small beach because it should always be movie-night on the beach.
This article is littered with analogies. Don’t take them too literally. Can you see what I am saying and what I might be thinking?
What the pieces do…
My mindset has two production crews which include my conscious and subconscious minds.
Here is a short explanation of the elements in the graphic above:
- The Viewing Area— Where are you looking? Think about daydreaming. Sometimes your thoughts can bleed into your visual field but in general, the screen you are looking at is in your head. Try to imagine your thoughts having properties you can sense e.g. shape and color or feeling
- Conscious Crew (in Conscious Corner)— This is the part of you that feels most you-ish. You are the director so everything shuts down when you speak up or think up. But, the director needs to keep quiet and provide critical but constructive feedback after each scene to make a good movie.
- Subconscious Crew — This is your relatively timid off-hours crew. They handle dreaming at night and in class but they are eager to daydream whenever. They just need practice. They use suggestions from Conscious Corner to create and modify movie scripts and graphics.
- Subconscious Sea — Your Subconscious Sea is the lake cooling your conscious and subconscious processing engines. If you want to do any work on those engines then you need to learn to work in the dark and underwater.
- Subconscious Heads-Up Display — The Subconscious Heads-Up Display or Sub-HUD shows the information on the status of submerged components. Each sensor gives Conscious Corner information on how the engines are doing. If you don’t have a mindset these generally appear as emotions, gut feelings, intuition and or instinct
Lastly, my movie set is based on science. No sense in making it up if I don’t have to. The primary elements and arrangements were borrowed from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I highly recommend it!
Okay, now that we have everything we need, let’s roll it!
Day Dreaming on Purpose — Hacking Your Creative Mind
Step 0: You can’t see what’s not there
Have you ever found yourself looking into the void hoping your subconscious would deliver a project idea with enough time to crush it before tomorrow’s deadline? I’ve been there.
If you find yourself perpetually stuck when trying to be creative chances are you are trying to create something from nothing. If you can do this, great (maybe tell a physicist), if not read on. I’ve found that effort here is simply not productive because my mind has nothing to hold on to. You’d just as soon push your parked car out of your driveway with the e-brake on. We just need to change our approach and break it down into smaller more manageable steps.
Step 1: Plant a seed!
Before I can be creative productively I need a random seed (aka random number). It can be a scene from a movie, book, or anything else you can imagine clearly. Bigger seeds are perhaps the things you are interested in while smaller ones are like your boss's “take-aways” from Friday’s 4 pm PowerPoint presentation. Do yourself a favor and start with the big seeds to keep yourself motivated.
If we shift the seed analogy to a plant seed then a seed is also creative inspiration. Remember that the two production crews don’t usually work at the same time. When you plant the seed you sit back and wait quietly. If there is nothing then you need a bigger seed or you need to add water. Adding water is your conscious mind thinking about what that plant might look like. Shine light on all the detail your plant doesn’t have yet and make it interesting.
Add light/water until you see or feel your subconscious wanting to kick in. Remember, while your watering or while your conscious mind is on your movie can’t start. Your seed needs to be interesting enough for your subconscious to clearly signal your conscious mind to quiet down.
Don’t wrestle with yourself by trying to control or direct your thoughts. This is practicing bad form. If you are trying to control or direct what your mind is generating you’re not being random anymore you are being a professional artist. I can’t help you there.
Step 2: “Yes, and…”
In this step, we practice keeping the movie rolling. “Yes, and…” is a catchy phrase that comes from improv. In improv, scenes are completely random and made-up on the spot between stage partners. It’s fun but can be pretty difficult. Interestingly though, much like a Rubik's cube, It can be done with a few simple rules. The biggest one(s) is “Yes, and…”. This mnemonic device reminds you to always accept suggestions and run with them. You just need to go with the flow by continuously adding detail and context to the scene. Don’t force it, it’s not stand up (a more conscious mind activity).
Our random imagination works in a similar fashion which is perhaps why improvisers practice this way. Going back to the seed-plant analogy, your primary goal is to keep your conscious mind from non-stop watering. It only grows when left alone. For me this is iterative. It runs on repeat and at the end of each run, it is a good time to water or imagine more detail to build off previous growth.
Always adding is important because when you take out a big enough concept it is like removing the midsection of your plant. It won’t survive and you will need to start over. You also want to take all the suggestions from your subconscious film crew, at first at least, because they won’t know how to build without it and they’ll rage quit.
It helps to think of each crew having separate responsibilities. Your subconscious crew is in charge of production and your conscious crew provides an overabundance of detailed scripts for the other crew to use as they see fit.
Step 3: Add Special Effects (SFX)!
Now that you have established a good workflow between your production crews you can add in scripts that contain graphics information about generating special effects. Let’s find your special effects dial and turn it up as high as you can.
A bit like the photo above, special effects are a kind of overlay in most scenes and they can be anything you want. To get the SFX department up and running you need interesting material. I find Scifi and fantasy movies to be helpful. Pay attention to the things you find the most visually interesting and try them out. If we are back at the plant analogy, we want to add nutrients to make it grow differently. It’s imaginary so nutrients can be anything such as liquid electricity, a miniature star, or a time machine powered by a black hole. Anything is game. Now sit back and wait to see how it trickles into each frame.
At this point, you may want to take a more proactive role with a lot of water. If you know the plotline then step in, take control, and play it in slow motion while weaving in your special effects. Think about it in as much detail as possible. Be interested in how everything interacts with your effect and when it doesn’t work try to figure out how to make it believable. Your curiosity and the interesting detail you add will burn it into your mind quicker.
If your effects involve complex physical interactions take the time to figure it out. This might also double as your physics homework. If you are thinking about people and what they are thinking this could double as your psych homework. Double the objectives mean double the motivation!
After a bit of training, your subconscious will begin to add the effects on its own. It won’t be as intense but it doesn’t need to be.
Step 4: Practice and Observe
It is often difficult to dedicate the concentration you need to have both crews running. Fortunately, you can passively practice at any time during the day. It takes a little more effort than being in a coffeeless-autopilot but it can pay dividends later. If you need more inspiration think back to when you were a kid and how interesting it was to find yourself in a jungle or an active volcano. You were on the right track then. Use your conscious mind to passively weave in unseen detail and or special effects into the world around you. Just remember to look both ways.
A few last tips:
- Most stories move along with time but time is only one of four available dimensions. You can move along any line or lines in 3D space too.
- Be curious and wonder how things work. The more you ignite your curiosity the easier and more effortless it will be in the future. You can use this to help you learn complex topics too.
- Try moving around and changing angles as much as you can. This will help you loosen your grip on your thoughts and give them more room to grow.
- Your mind isn’t a native English speaker and doesn’t natively see everything as flat 2D pictures. Push through the paper into a multidimensional space with no limits.
- Don’t be surprised if your mind shows you things that there are no words for. This is your native language and it is much easier to think this way than in the restricted world we all live in.
This is what has worked for me so I hope that someone else finds it useful. Just keep in mind that what I have described is not a literal translation. It is the best I can muster. Look for the meaning behind the analogies or embedded in them. Then, add or discard as needed. Thinking flexibly will help you find what’s right for you more quickly.