Think Again: Tips On Finding And Flexing Your Creativity

Technical work — including problem-solving — is creative work. In addition, creativity is more than a vague and nebulous attribute that either is or isn’t present when it’s needed. A short article by [Anthony D. Fredericks] gives some practical and useful tips on energizing and exercising one’s creativity.

Why would creative thinking be meaningful to a technical person? The author shares an anonymous observation that as children we’re taught to stay inside the lines, while as adults we are often expected to think outside the box. Certainly when it comes to technical tasks, our focus is more on logical thinking. But problem solving benefits as much from creative thinking as it does from more logical approaches.

How can one cultivate creative thinking? The main idea is that creativity is best flexed and exercised by actively looking for connections and similarities between highly dissimilar elements, rather than focusing on their differences. Some thought exercises are provided to help with this process. Like with any exercise, the more one does it, the better one becomes.

Practicing more creative thinking can help jolt new ideas and approaches to a tough problem, so give it a shot. It’s also worth keeping in mind that we all need a feeling of progress, especially during extended times of applying effort to something, so do yourself a favor and give yourself an occasional win.

19 thoughts on “Think Again: Tips On Finding And Flexing Your Creativity

  1. Okay, so… I’ve been studying psychology for a couple of years now, with a focus on creativity.

    The article states a claim: that creativity lies in looking for similarities rather than differences.

    I’ve never seen this claim before, and I’ve read several books on creativity and am familiar with numerous psychological aspects of creativity in the literature. Such as whether creatives are more likely to have mental illness, the overjustification effect (there’s a wikipedia page for that) and so on.

    So my first question is this: is his position a recognized belief in the field, backed up by studies?

    If the answer is “yes”, can anyone post a link to papers that test this? I’d be very interested in this.

    If the answer is “no”, then is this just a well-meaning professional with years of experience just writing down something he believes is true?

    Setting aside the article, for people who want to be more creative, the best quick “how to” I’ve seen is a video lecture by John Cleese. His findings track with findings I’ve found from other researchers in the field, and I actually use this technique myself. Get into the open mode and you become lots more creative.

    (I’ve also read John Cleese’s book, which says essentially what’s in the video.)

    1. I can’t speak to your request for documented studies (and I didn’t read his article, so I can’t speak to that, either). I can speak from a lifetime of being a creative individual working as technical support in scientific research. My observations:
      – the most creative professors/scientists/support staff were interested in learning about disciplines other than their own
      – they had interests outside their discipline and work, such as music, or art, or history/philosophy/literature
      – they asked questions about “why”. Lots and lots of questions.
      – many were able to extract an underlying concept from specific examples, which is exactly the stated “looking for similarities”. From the underlying concepts, they were able to imagine additional applications, as well as draw a corollary with their own field (again, similarity), and imagine a range of applications for that concept.

      Conversely, the least creative scientists and support staff didn’t want to attend talks outside their discipline, didn’t want to add to their knowledge of new techniques or other disciplines. These people were very good at doing one or two things, could be depended on to do “that thing” well, but fell behind as technology and knowledge of their field advanced.

    2. Interesting. Wouldn’t the finding [unexpected] similarities be at least somewhat like to the Cleeseian ‘open mode’? Whereas finding differences would be somewhat similar to the Cleeseian ‘closed mode’?

    3. My understanding is the article diverges (oddly?) from the common understanding that creativity usually involves “divergent thinking”, or thinking of something “different”, rather than of finding “similarities”, or of “convergent thinking”. Finding similarities between different things could be a kind of creativity exercise though of finding “new” connections that weren’t thought of before, I think that’s a valid point, but to find something “new” in a way is to engage in “divergent thinking”, no?

    4. Free association allows one to bridge capability voids, invent new knowledge parented by semantic clusters that otherwise have low connectivity. How is that new or controversial?

  2. First step is to take care of the body, really. The classical Greeks didn’t have this newer dual concept in which the mind is thought of as somehow magically separate and independent from the body, or that you have to choose to exercise either the mind OR the body. It was always both; a sound mind in a sound body as one.

    Nietzsche always said not to trust any thought which did not come to you while standing upright outside, under the sun. There’s something to that. Reduce body fat, get some lean muscle mass, keep the body in motion, these are the foundation of creative thinking. Everything else mentioned in the article is of course very good as well.

  3. Define tech work.

    Science is creative. Engineering is less creative, but not factory work either.
    I could write multiple books on this, but the best engineers accept they are engineers, and aren’t doing anything “new”. The worst engineers are the ones who believe they are scientists and are hell bent on reinventing everything. Then, when they fail, they always pull out the excuse of “its a fundamentally creative process”. That answer isn’t wrong, as I said, engineering isn’t factory work, but its not science – exploring the unknown, either. Building a bridge for example, do you start from scratch and choose the most difficult material you can think of to work with because “Steel has been done”? Of course not. You’re almost certainly going to start with steel. Are you going to randomly throw girders at it, but claim you’re using design patterns because you made all girders in a square pattern? Of course not. Are you going to have to see how existing designs can be stretched to meet your requirements? Absolutely. After all, if we could make a generic bridge that was just copied over and over again, it would be factory work (and yes, the majority of spans probably are “factory work” as they cross, 1 lane roads, 2 lane roads, 4 lane roads, and so on. The ones crossing rivers get more into the creative realm, with the longest of them probably requiring the most creativity to solve the problem.
    No engineering is fundamentally different from that example. None. There will be times when you will need to be creative. However, most of your work will be quite boring. Accept it. However, you aren’t a factory worker, so when the opportunities do come up to be creative, step up to the plate, and knock it out of the park. (How do we meet this complex set of requirements with cost and schedule, existing tools, and fit it into a structure that won’t confuse junior engineers?) Some engineering types hit that creative section far more often than others. So much so, that those engineers have been quoted as saying they need to design the aircraft while they’re flying it, and they’re wrong, or their management is wrong, or both. You don’t want to work there. Because the working set size of the human brain is so tiny compared to the problem space of these types of engineering, it inevitably leads to weird dependency chains, strange behavior that cannot be reproduced, and other complex defects. Most engineers working in this environment spend most of their time trying to fit the entire problem space into their heads to make fixes with minimal side effects. Had the system been properly designed, as sub pieces, where the entire problem space could fit into a human’s working set size, the complex defect wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Development of the product would have been much faster, because they wouldn’t have run into crazy defects that required intensive problem solving just to get to a 90% solution. Again, the excuse that group uses is, “well, engineering is a fundamentally creative process”. This excuse is accepted because its true, as I said earlier, however, the bad engineer is thinking its over on the spectrum where scientists live, while the sane person knows its between scientists and factory workers. (And in science, they have their own spectrum nailed by the XKCD purity scale). So because they talk past each other, the “creative engineer” wins, and continues what is effectively the worst practice, rather than the best practice.
    Again, I could go on forever, but if you’re an engineer, accept it. If you want creativity with almost no bounds, you want to be a PhD Mathematician working in academia. Otherwise, accept the restrictions and have a ton of fun working in tech. Restrictions don’t make sports less fun, they make sports more fun. The engineering fields who believe they are the most creative will likely have more restrictions imposed by lawyers and politicians soon enough because more and more, their products are being put in charge of human life. Those restrictions will likely make the game far less fun, but the lack of self imposed restrictions are doing the same and will lead to the very predictable outcome.

    I should also note, factory workers are even encouraged to be creative – within limits – to improves processes, so we shouldn’t consider factory work to be the end of the spectrum. Just closer to the 0 creativity than scientists and engineers.

    1. I reject your assertion that engineering is less creative than science. Design engineering is inherently creative – by definition. I am sure that there are those with the title of “engineer” who do nothing but look up numbers in tables; but I have never worked among them. And, yes, good engineering re-uses the best of existing methods; but, for any problem there are an infinite number of solutions and the best solution is not always the obvious one. Further, I would argue that an unexpectedly simple and robust technical solution is truly beautiful and requires a great deal of creativity.
      And science is no different from engineering; the vast majority of scientific papers are simply incremental steps built upon previous work.

    2. The essence of engineering is creation of applications. The essence of science is understanding of existing truth. Engineering is synthetic, and science is analytic.
      “…the best engineers accept they are engineers, and aren’t doing anything “new”.” Hmmm. What qualifies as ‘new’.
      “I could write multiple books on this…” Seems you’re well on your way to at least one.
      I respect your viewpoint.

    3. Something tells me you’re not a creative engineer, because if you were you might believe as I do that working within constraints such as what supplies you can use is not at all a limitation on creativity. It’s like saying that the corn maze that allows for the most creative solution is one with an empty field and no restrictions between the entry and exit.

      And as a side note, you do realize that civil engineers who do experiments with new materials do it back at the lab, not on floor 37 of a half-finished building? It’s not like scientists are creative 100% of the time either, there also has to be time for things like making observations, writing things up, reading papers, sending emails, begging for money to replace the microscope, etc.

      If a scientist calculated that some random substance should do exactly what they want and ordered it special from a chemical supplier at great expense, but someone else came along and found a clever way to produce it for pennies from common feedstocks, which one is really creative?

    4. Most of you are missing the point. I didn’t say engineering isn’t creative and science is, I said it’s a spectrum. Science is more creative. For example, the scientists that were searching for the best liquid rocket propellants. They were pretty much unconstrained. Try anything (but base it on science, still some constraints) vs the guys who built the engines that would use the new fuels (making a product) or making the fuel in mass quantities (using existing reactors and processes to make it cheap) – many more constraints. That’s not to say there isn’t creativity, it’s just not fundamental, as in it’s not the extreme basis for it, because that leads to engineers claiming they have to design the jet while flying it. That’s insane. That’s what “creative engineer” means to me, the idiot who thinks they can design the jet while flying it. Tone it down. You may again say this is semantics, and you’d argue that’s just a bad engineer. However, the engineers in my experience that say this sort of thing are the same engineers who say engineering is fundamentally creative. So my experience says this is one of many indicators of an engineer you don’t want in your team. Follow industry best practice, engage creativity only after laying out a standard design to customize it to your problem. None of this is rocket science :)

      1. Awful lot of aero, chemical, or other engineers you’re leaving out there, I’d have thought. Some energetic compounds always attracted attention, for instance boranes for zip fuel or various unstable, poisonous, corrosive, explosive, or otherwise nasty bipropellant ideas. Especially with the latter, the energy release and vague reaction concept can be guessed at even by an uncreative student plugging numbers into formulae. The real accomplishment was making them usable. The scientists were doing engineering, sometimes. For instance, when applications of the science were put into practice, a problem was discovered with one of the substances that worked very well. For the problem “we need to be able to store this stuff in metal without it being eaten and turned into gel”, the solution was “So add HF to passivate the metals and don’t let them get scratched”. Still, at the time we really didn’t know without experimentation and scaling up tests whether we could keep various proposed stuff stable – even after the scientists had taken down the basic properties of the substance, it may turn out that in real use new problems emerged. I think it’s fair to say that the engineers were into the unknown right alongside the scientists on that one.

        I get the feeling you’ll say that is “missing the point” since it doesn’t agree. Or maybe we’re just playing word games with “fundamental” and with choosing which fields to look at which people in. Take computers – one thing you may do to become a computer scientist is to take very deep looks at algorithms we use. Any individual person is unlikely to every day come home with a solution to the great unsolved problems, or a creative sorting algorithm that beats the current best known, or a flaw in a widely used algorithm. Well, that last one someone’s always finding, but it’s not the same person every time; most days you don’t do any such thing and often it’s the implementation that’s at fault anyway. But the engineers, well they could be doing anything I suppose, from fabbing chips to working on the same things as the scientists, but they might well spend more time coming up with creative ideas for how to make things do what we want, and less time on uncreative work. It’s really not cut and dry to me.

        That expression about the plane, though, I think that’s more of a manglement buzzword thing. Engineers might sometimes enjoy expressing creativity, but I’ll tangentially agree with you to the extent that I’ll say situations where that’s appropriate are generally avoided by workplaces for anything that’s not right at the edge of our current knowledge. “Maybe you can fix XYZ, but we’re buying a new one. Maybe your idea would do the job, but we need to pay someone else to tell us their thing can do it, just in case someone blames us later.”

  4. I consider myself to be a very creative person. Here’s my take on it. The first and most important action is to give yourself time to create. You can’t work hard all day at your job, and expect to sit down in your free hour and be productive immediately. Rest time cannot double as creative time, at least not I’m my experience. You need to be rested, give yourself time to get bored, and then your mind can really start to create. A perfect example would be to take a day off from work, have a coffee and breakfast, and then instead of going to your job, you go to your studio or even just your desk, and you really take your time and start creating.

    That’s not all there is too it, but IMO that’s the most important part. Creating takes energy, and if you give all you’ve got to work, you will not have any left for creativity. Its like trying to wring water out of a dry sponge.

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