It was a tough day in the trenches at The Travel Hacking Cartel, a business I run with friends.
We’d launched a new feature and the support inbox was blowing up with requests to test it out. Just when I’d worked through the backlog of support tickets (yep, I still do the support tickets), one last message comes in from Nora, a longtime member:
Hi, I’m checking my credit card statement and it looks like I’m being billed twice every month.
Hmm, haven’t seen that one before. Sure enough, though, two accounts had somehow been created, and she’d paid twice for a long time.
Looking back, there are lots of ways to solve this problem but, in the moment, I was tired and uncreative. I couldn’t see an easy answer to the problem. So, I do what I do every time I feel burned out in the middle of the day; I head to the coffee shop. I order kombucha and hand over my credit card. The barista starts to pull the tap and, halfway though, it starts to fizz out. She moves to the second tap and tries again. Nothing. Kombucha’s gone.
The barista looks at me with a frown and apologizes. I’ve already paid, but there’s no kombucha and she can’t run refunds from her terminal. She thinks for a second and comes up with the perfect solution: “If you want to order something else, I’ll give you a gift certificate for a kombucha. Come back tomorrow and it’ll be ready for you.” I happily took the offer and was on my way.
When I sat down with my revised order and opened my laptop, I knew exactly how to respond to Nora:
Hey! You’re right. I’m so sorry about that. What if I take what you’ve paid so far and credit your account so you don’t have to pay again for a long time?
Nora was perfectly happy with that, and the problem was solved.
Neither of these scenarios are what you probably think of when you think of creativity. No one wrote a song, drafted a book, painted a mural, or designed a product. But they were creative. They were unique solutions to a difficult problem.
Creativity is all around us but, for so many, it remains invisible—hidden in plain sight—because we’ve conditioned ourselves to look for it in only a few places. There are so many places you can draw new ideas from to improve your work if you look just a little harder.
When you have a problem to solve or need to create something new and keep coming up short, try these practical ideas for finding inspiration and upping your game.
Difficult Problems Need Space to Breathe
I’ve learned many things starting and running different business, learning to write, and building better relationships. One that stands out is that problems you can’t solve now also probably can’t be solved in the next five minutes.
When you know there’s a problem, your brain doesn’t want to leave it alone. It’s like a scab from a wound you just can’t help but pick. Most problems won’t solve themselves, but they often do need some space. Fixating on them narrows your ability to think about other things and “other things”—particularly the connections between them and the thing you’re working on—are where creativity comes from.
Einstein once said:
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
To creatively solve problems, you have to actually make space (and time) for creativity. It’s difficult with the intensely busy lives we lead, but necessary nonetheless.
And the bigger the problem, the more space it needs. One reason I made the connection between the kombucha problem and the customer service issue is because I took 20 minutes to relax and walk to the café. That let my brain start to wander to other ideas. Had I run into the problem while I was at the café, I probably wouldn’t have been as open to seeing the opportunity.
Small problems may only need a few minutes or a change of pace to find the creativity needed to solve them. Medium-sized problems may need a few hours of separation. Big ones may need a few days.
Look for Creativity Where You Don’t Normally Expect It
Creativity can be hard to find because we’ve grown up being taught to look for it in specific places. We go to art galleries to see the creativity of painters. We turn on the stereo to get lost in the creativity of our favorite musicians or read books to picture the stories of our favorite writers. Basically, we look for creativity in art, but our general definition of what constitutes art can be incredibly limited.
Creativity is all around you and in seemingly mundane places. When you see creativity in more places, you find it more often in yourself. This Facebook post explains how I like to rearrange my thoughts when I’m struggling to appreciate creativity:
Just replace the word “gratitude” in that post with “creativity” to find the lesson. Just a few examples of creativity we gloss over daily:
- The mail man who finds a way to shave 30 minutes off his route
- The small business owner who creates an amazing refund policy
- The engineer who finds a way to build a bridge with less steel
- The stay at home mom who teaches her kids without a textbook
- The bachelor who can cook a gourmet meal in 30 minutes
Thinking you can only find creativity in traditional art is like thinking you can only find money by withdrawing it from the bank. Rich people know money is everywhere. Creative people know creativity is everywhere.
Set Limits and Deadlines to Breed Creativity
Sometimes, we procrastinate for good reason. Sometimes, we don’t. Whatever the reason and whatever the result, we can all know this: however much time you give yourself to complete a creative task is how long it will take.
That’s called Parkinson’s Law, and it’s been true since long before it had a name. If you’ve ever struggled with a creative project, you can probably relate.
There’s something about the pressure of a deadline that jolts your brain out of La La Land and turns it into a drill sergeant. It isn’t the most pleasant experience, but no one said creativity was easy.
So, how do you do deadlines right? When it comes to creative work—especially work you’re doing for yourself—it’s easy to set deadlines you blow right through because you know they aren’t real. Creativity is bred from real constraints, so the deadlines you set for yourself have to have some sort of bite. They have to feel real to inspire that “last-minute panic” Calvin describes.
Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this deadline feel real?” When you answer that question successfully, the creative inspiration starts flowing because it knows it can’t wait any longer.
Likewise, limiting the amount of things you’re allowed to use to solve a problem will force you to come up with simple, creative answers. Use one color to create your drawing. Write your article in less than 500 words. Build things with the tools you already have and nothing else.
The ground control crew who saved the astronauts of the doomed Apollo 13 mission invented their life-saving contraptions from seemingly thin air. They had to because the only materials they could use were what was already on the space capsule. It had to be simple because they could only give the flight crew instructions for how to build it via radio transmission. And they did it in less than 24 hours because that’s how long they had before the astronauts would run out of oxygen and die.
Hopefully, your creative endeavors won’t come with such dire stakes, but the more real and terrible failure seems, the more creative you’ll become.
Do This in the Next 10 Minutes
To inspire yourself to be more creative—even when you don’t feel creative at all, you can do these three things:
- Take a break. Give your brain some space to think of other things.
- Expand your definition of creativity. You’re probably conditioned to look for it in specific places. Break that mold.
- Limit yourself. Fewer tools and less time, counterintuitively, force you to be more creative.
Think about a creative project you’re struggling with. Give yourself permission to take a break from it for a while, go look for examples of people creatively solving problems you don’t normally think about, and then come back to work on it with strict limits on the time and resources you’re allowed to use.
You might find you’re more creative than you think.
- Certainly not my scenario; I just copied the barista.
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