Creativity and Distraction

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Some of you may recall a publication created by Aaron Mahnke (now better known for Lore) called Read & Trust. It was a zine-style collection of works by a group of trusted bloggers. I was flattered to be included in it, and wrote a few pieces for it over the course of a year.

The publication no longer exists, but I got permission from Aaron to re-publish some of my work there. I enjoyed writing this piece on finding a creative spark when faced with a blank page or a tough problem, so I thought I’d share it here. I hope you find it useful.


Creativity and Distraction

By Brett Terpstra, originally published in Read & Trust magazine.

You may or may not consider yourself creative. You might not be a designer, a painter, a philosopher… but you solve problems every day, and that takes creativity. So what do you do when you need to be creative but can’t find the spark? It’s the equivalent of staring at a blank sheet of paper, and anybody who’s ever had to write anything knows what that feels like.

Creativity is the ability to approach a problem and solve it in a new way. That problem may be a storyline you’re working on, a repair that needs to be made on your house, taking over a small country or anything in your day that gives you pause. Creativity is our means of removing roadblocks from our daily lives.

You do it all the time; coming up with answers that you didn’t have the minute before. When there’s pressure to do it, though, your conscious mind often shuts down. That’s ok, though, because what we commonly call creativity actually starts in the subconscious. It’s always working on the problem, even when you’re asleep, and you just need to back up and let the ideas surface.

There are no purely original ideas. Every creative thought since the dawn of man has been inspired by something. Often by something unrelated, but the spark of an idea never comes out of an empty mind.

When you need ideas of your own, surround yourself with everyone else’s. Don’t think about the problem, your subconscious mind will take care of that. Just absorb as many ideas as you can, whether it’s reading articles on the web or walking around town.

When I worked as a designer, it was commonly suggested that when I hit a block on a design I should go watch a movie. I think that falls short, though; a movie is too passive for me to really do anything other than watch. Personally, I need to be actively engaged in something for the ideas to really start evolving.

Surfing design blogs and sifting through other people’s work fired the most neural connections for me. As I studied a growing number of designs, the most interesting elements would stick in my mind, and I’d eventually begin unknowingly creating connections between them. Ultimately, a solution to my problem would begin to form. The answer would be original in appearance, but – as with all creations – inspired by and generated from a wealth of existing ideas. These days, as a developer, my favorite idea farm is Github, where I start randomly digging into other people’s code and letting my mind wander.

You can’t make yourself creative. You can only nurture your strengths and ideas. When the pressure is on to do something original or solve a difficult problem, walk away from it. You can study it for a while first. It’s helpful to know as many details of the problem as you can find, but step back when you get frustrated. Take a walk, surf the web or even get together with your smartest friends and just start talking. Conversations with intelligent, passionate people always spark ideas for me.

The idea of hiding away in a lakefront cabin to do some “serious thinking” strikes me as a huge mistake. I understand that everyday distractions can be a hindrance to getting work done, but – at least for me – the initial creative process just cannot take place in hiding. When you have the idea, sure, go barricade the door to the cabin and get to work. Just don’t expect isolation to solve your lack of a starting point.

Sometimes, after all of this, my active mind still hasn’t found a starting point to work with. The solution for me at that point has always been sleep. If a problem is too baffling, thinking about it non-stop never gets me anywhere. Sleeping, even just for a few hours, almost always gives my mind a chance to put the pieces together. I’ve solved many a programming problem in my sleep. I’ll admit that it takes a conscious effort to get myself to go to bed when there’s a problem looming in my mind, but I know from experience that after all my apparent options are exhausted, Morpheus is my best hope.

When the heat is on and your creativity just isn’t there, let distractions in. Find your answer by not looking for it.