THE BLOG

What School Won't Teach You About Creativity

02/13/2015 06:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

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Your interests are naturally creative.

Creativity is simply having a wide range of specific interests and activities and finding ways to combine them to communicate better, help people, or solve problems.

What you might not know is how important this one simple practice for improving the quality of your creative output is to your personal and professional excellence.

If you've read anything about professional creatives, you know creativity is a practice for which you must carve out time. If you don't make time for regular creativity in your life good ideas happen in the shower instead.

The process of creativity is usually thought of as making time, getting rid of self judgment, making a lot of work, and re-engaging your judgment to sort out the "good" stuff from the rest of what you created (and then repeating this process). People tend to stop there, but the best artists and engineers (yes, engineering is a very creative field) know there's more to it.

The list above outlines much of the process, but if you haven't done one important thing first you will continue to make work that is way below your creative potential.

Professional Creative Practice
Take the example of illustrators. Essentially, any type of drawing is a matter of trying things out, erasing what doesn't work, then adding to what does work over and over again until you have a remarkable finished piece. Whether you have ever drawn before or not, when you're willing to follow that process for 30 to 60 hours you'll come up with something better than you ever knew you could make. In fact, this applies to almost anything you could want to do, and it's why you should start before you're ready.

Now, there's one key difference between the best illustrators in the world and those of us who are just willing to spend a lot of time drawing. The best illustrators are constantly exposing themselves to different new ways of describing the worlds they want to create with their pen or brush. They know the tricks to make noses, fingers, and lips look natural on the first try. When they learn even better tricks they employ those to save themselves time or give themselves room for greater creative expression next time.

Explore Outside Your Expertise
What does this mean for you and your creativity? It means that you need to be exposing yourself to new ways to think about the world and new ways to express yourself on a regular basis.

The powerful part of your creative spark is your ability to synthesize different aspects of your understanding of the world in new and useful ways.

Most people think this means attending career development conferences and talking to leaders in their industry. It might also involve reading self development blogs -- but I'd encourage you to go even further.

The one thing that the most successful and prolific creative people in our world (Turing, Tesla, Ai Wei Wei, Grace Hopper, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, etc.) have in common is that they were willing to work to understand technical details of entire fields of expertise that appeared to have nothing to do with their work. Once they had a good grasp of the first principles and best practices in a diverse range of fields they were able to apply all of those insights to their work in a single industry or pursuit. That is what makes their work outstanding and relevant.

To make truly world-changing work you need to dive deeply into learning things you have no obvious reason to know.

This goal of wide technical understanding is not as impractical as it sounds.

Remember, this isn't about comparing yourself to others, instead it's about learning from others. All you have to do is cultivate your own curiosity in a wide range of fields. Learn how developers, fashion designers, psychologists, football coaches, and manufacturing plant managers think about the world. Make it your job to understand how they think about the world, their own work, and how their work relates to the world.

Story Time
The greatest example I know of this is Aubrey De Grey. If I recall his story correctly, he was deeply involved in work about Artificial Intelligence (AI) when his close relationship with a biologist led to a career-changing discovery: No one was working seriously on the problem of human aging.

He has since gone on to get a PhD in biology, and make serious headway in the field of biological gerontology where no one else could because of the insular nature of the field. He brought expertise and critical thinking from the world of AI and applied it to medical science. I think he was surprised to find that it wasn't a long time before he made meaningful progress in such a complex industry. This progress is because he was willing to think differently.

That's what Apple has been telling you to do all these years with its ads and its ideology. Now you know exactly how to use different thinking to your professional advantage.

But how can you put this new source of creativity into practice, and why should you?

Diverse Expertise is Essential For The Future
Creativity at its best is about integrating separate, diverse kinds of expertise and finding new ways to make the world (and ourselves) better. This is where humans excel right now, and it's a skill we absolutely must encourage in everyone as we move into an era where automation is quickly making thousands of kinds of jobs irrelevant.

Artists, engineers, and managers who can think creatively will lead the world as we move into a society that relies less on calculation and repetition and more on the synthesis and practical application of new ideas.

What You Can Do Today
How can you make this new revelation part of your every day life?

Become the type of person who is unafraid to ask questions at any time. Get curious.

In fact, I made "how to learn anything" a significant part of my free online course, because I want everyone to know how to cultivate their curiosity.

It doesn't seem like it at first, but once you start you'll see why the most influential people in the world like to interview each other and be interviewed.

The first step is just a matter of asking how someone works today.

Make a habit of practicing curiosity on a daily basis. Ask the waiter how he memorized all the menu items, or ask a professor how she puts together her syllabus each semester and what she does to improve it each time.

Just message a few people you know and ask them if they have some time to walk you through the tools they use to do their work.

Most recently I asked a software engineer and iOS developer who has just started work for a new location-independent company to explain how he works. The tools companies like his use to coordinate 40 people doing complex system-level work from home are absolutely fascinating. The insights from that helped me improve my thinking about how the world of education needs better tools for communication.

I've even done this while waiting in line at Lenscrafters, and let me tell you, learning from lens engineers is fascinating stuff if you're a photographer!

Hopefully, you'll find similar creative spark as you learn about the professional lives of people in your life.

Have fun!