EVERYONE is creative, or has the potential to be.
I am known professionally for video storytelling. Before ELM, I worked at the Boston Globe producing and directing documentaries and daily news content. Before that I was a photojournalist in TV news. But I tell people all the time that the most creative thing I’ve ever done in my life is business. It requires a never-ending supply of problem-solving from every angle.
However, for some reason, creativity is only associated with creative sounding jobs: musician, writer, director, artist. . . but really creativity is nothing but making new connections with different ideas. It’s seeing patterns and having insights. Some of the most creative people I have ever met have not had creative job titles. Yet, people who don’t paint or do photography or edit video tend to put themselves in a separate category and limit their creativity.
The following 7 principles you’ll see are not exactly zingers, magic pills, or something you’ve never heard of before. They are a few of the fundamentals that have helped me. Trust me, I’m a tester. I’ve done the magic pills, sought the zingers and looked for answers from gurus in an effort to be my best self and produce meaningful work. But what I always come back to are these principles. They take some work on a regular basis. But over time, you’ll see incremental improvements in your overall well being and they will become healthy habits that help you optimize your life.
Unlocking Creativity With These 7 Methods
- Squash your ego
If you want to extinguish the flames of golden creation, be negative, be judgemental, and be critical. Whether you’re directing at yourself or you’re responding to someone else’s idea, you need to stop. If it isn’t directly sucking away good energy that you could be using for something productive, it’s planting the seeds of impurity. Creativity can’t grow while the seeds of resentment are stealing water and oxygen. If the voice in your head doesn’t shut up, therapy is fantastic. In fact, everyone should do therapy anyhow. An outsized ego is nothing more than simple insecurity. We all have one. But if you feel personally offended a few times a day or feel like your feathers get ruffled easily, that means you’re more insecure than most. It’s okay. It’s the voice in your head that starts blabbing away when someone has a better idea or when you’re trying to justify why you didn’t do better at something or when you’re putting someone else down. Learn to recognize it, take a deep breath and let it pass. The energy you free up will feed you creatively.
- Tame Your Inner Perfectionist
Being a perfectionist can be a good thing, especially if it’s at the final stages of a creative endeavor. I enjoy nothing more than having the documentary 90% complete and then applying the final touches that really bring it to life. It’s usually in the final stages of a project that I get obsessive. But if you’re having trouble getting an idea off the ground, applying too much scrutiny too early is like trying to run through mud up to your knees. A wonderful client of ours, Safwan Shah, always uses the term ‘escape velocity’ to describe when a video reaches a viral tipping point (he was once a NASA scientist). For a creative idea to reach escape velocity, you need to begin with lots of raw positive force.
One of the most prolific writers of all time, Stephen King, doesn’t plot out his books before he starts writing. King likes to begin with his main characters and a situation. That’s it. That’s generally all he knows. Then he writes. He says he sometimes has an idea of how it might end, but he says it changes most of the time while he’s writing and new ideas are always emerging. “I would never tell the characters what to do” he says in his book On Writing. Could you imagine if he was so type A that he had to have the whole story figured out before getting started? Either he probably wouldn’t even finish or the books would come off as predictable and boring.
My favorite brainstorming environment is when there are no wrong answers, just child-like creativity. To reduce the acidity levels in the creative soil, you have to use positive language. For instance, I like it when people follow up each person’s idea with “… I like that, but what if . … ” statements or “we could also try …” statements that either add to an existing idea or divert the energy without shutting it down. Using “no” or “we can’t” or “that won’t work because…” is the surest way to get fewer ideas blossoming out of your team. Again, it also depends on the stage the project or idea is at. In the beginning, I like to say anything and everything I want. Screw it! Don’t let the voice inside your head, self doubt, criticism from others or having a ‘perfect plan’ keep your rocket from escape velocity.
- Practice Stillness
I’ve always been an anxious person. Not always visibly on the outside, but on the inside. I’ve always felt like if I’m not accomplishing something at any given moment, I’m getting behind and I start getting irritated. However, in the last few years, I’ve practiced meditation on and off to varying degrees from sitting for an hour to sitting for a minute a day. It sounds counterintuitive and almost like a waste of precious time, but it floods me with ideas. It cuts out the noise. When I allow myself to be still I suddenly have answers and ideas filling my head. It can be scary to sit still. What if a negative emotion or memory appears. What if I can’t still my mind and it jumps from thought to thought. It will. First, it’s not about emptying your head. It’s about witnessing what’s happening and letting it pass. Our subconscious is powerful. I’ve read various books by Pema Chodron and others and done plenty of unguided meditation but I find the Headspace App, which is mostly guided, is a great way to go.
If you’re a person who doesn’t regularly exercise and want to boost your mental state immediately, start some kind of routine today. This for me is also a form of meditation. If I’m not feeling motivated or overwhelmed, I’ll go for a 10 minute walk and come back refreshed. If I want to be really mentally sharp I’ll lift some weights. Testosterone is proven to improve mental sharpness. It can be as little or as much as you want, but do something. I’ve stopped running because it doesn’t feel great on my joints, but when I did I would be flooded with visions. I’ve since bought a rowing machine which does the same thing and I can easily jump on it in my basement on a rainy day. You have to have a healthy body in order to have a healthy mind.
Brain games like the Lumosity app have been all the rage in recent years claiming to strengthen your memory, pliability and overall intelligence but neuroscientists around the world dispute these claims. However, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise is scientifically proven to make you smarter.
Reading sharpens your mind’s eye. Read stories, fiction or nonfiction. Read about topics you’re interested in. As a director of films and commercials, I often have to imagine how we’re going to shoot something before we shoot it. Of course, I’ve learned a lot from watching movies and I learn a lot from actually doing it. But I credit reading with much of my ability to “see” the scene, to storyboard, and think through a narrative. Reading forces you to imagine and is an active process that makes you think vs the passive process of TV simply channeling messaging through you, like you’re some kind of zombie vessel. And I find the more I do it, the more I crave it.
Reading also loads my subconscious with strong storytelling instincts because storytelling professionally is what I seek to master. Stephen King famously says that if you don’t have time to read then you don’t have time to write. You have to read if you want to be a writer, period. But you also have to read if you want to embue your creativity with business strategy, or marketing techniques, or anything you want to pursue. Creativity is not borne out of thin air. As mentioned above, it’s from making connections with ideas that are mostly already in your head. Therefore, filling your head with ideas from others in the field you are interested, helps create new connections.
I find that reading a lot of stories and books about storytelling also helps me find the language to describe my creative vision to others and reduces those ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ moments and greases the wheels of communication between teammembers.
And these days there’s no excuse not to read. You can get Audible and listen to a book on your way to work or mowing the lawn. And podcasts are another way to feed your subconscious and get major insights, especially when driving or shopping at the grocery store. What a world we live in these days when an aspiring filmmaker doesn’t have to go to an expensive school like NYU but can spend a few hours with oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and listen to how he approaches his job. It’s not as good as being his assistant on set but it’s damn close.
Why write, especially if you don’t want to be a writer? I’m not exactly sure how it works but for me but it completely unblocks my creativity. First off, you don’t need to write like James Joyce. Keep a journal next to your bed. Every morning write two pages of free hand notes in the journal as described in the book “The Artist’s Way.” The idea is not to make anything that is legible or well-written. The goal is to not stop writing, totally free form. It’s a stream of consciousness endeavor. Write as much gobbilty gook as you wish. Everytime I do it, I feel totally unconstipated. ‘The artists way’ is a fantastic book that outlines this method as part of a larger program for artists to get unblocked. I don’t know how or why but it releases the dam. On days I’m good about this, I find it much easier to reach a flow state.
The other side to writing, especially when paired with constant reading, is that it significantly improves understanding. Writing, like reading, is engaging. It forces you to think. Writing is simply refined thinking and allows you to get all those fleeting thoughts in one place, work out problems, and increase understanding. Video marketing is not exactly a topic that the little film director in me wishes to know all about, however, it is important as a video production company owner to understand it and learn about it as much as I can. It helps our clients, it helps the cause, and even helps with some of our own marketing for our business or our films. I decided to start writing about various video marketing topics on this blog a few years ago and every time I write an article I learn – and remember – so much that I can speak about it in any situation without much effort. But if you don’t have a blog, just keep a diary. Like reading, try to write a page every day. It can be personal or business or both. Just write.
- Discipline is the path to freedom
The War of Art is a fantastic book about how to just jump in and do it. It’s a quick read with very short chapters and I read it when I’m feeling discouraged. It’s a great kick in the ass to stop all the huffing around and just get in there do the work. I am the very opposite of a meathead, but I also find inspiration from extreme figures like Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL who often talks about how sleeping in (anything after 5am) is a dream killer. I don’t totally agree with this, but I do appreciate a good kick in the ass. After all, discipline is hard! If it doesn’t come natural to you, you need to find your own personal drill instructor.
I tend to like to try a lot of different things before I settle on a routine and then I like to tweak a lot once I get that routine. This has helped me grow in a lot of ways but can sometimes work against me in the consistency & discipline department. Harkening back to tip two, I sometimes fall victim to wanting something to be perfect before I get started. The idea that it doesn’t have to be perfect. The idea that doing something is better than nothing has been extremely freeing for me. Saving a little bit of your paycheck every time for a long period can have massive compounding gains. Going to the gym 5 times a week for 5 years and doing a least a little something is better than having an amazing workout 3 times a month.
Creativity is a muscle too. It can grow with consistent effort but it’s really hard as anything worth doing is. Just gotta do it.
Wanna brainstorm! Get in touch.