I’m not more creative than you, I just write things down

In those rare moments where I impress someone, it’s usually related to creativity. “How did you come up with that?” or “Oh wow, that’s a long list of ideas.” In my experience, most people’s creativity equation is:

Creativity = Quantity(of ideas) + Distance (of ideas from main topic)

Oddly, quality rarely seems to factor in. So that’s (one way of looking at) creativity. Thinking of lots of things, and thinking of things that at first seem unrelated to the topic at hand.

So what’s an uncreative person, then?? All these people wandering around, wishing they were more creative, lamenting their own lack of creativity? Does a fuse blow in their brain after two or three thoughts leak out? Do they never wake up with an old song in their head? Or have someone they see on the bus remind them of an old friend? I have a hard time believing this is true.

Just to be sure, let’s do a test. Think about the board game Monopoly. Get a pen and a piece of paper (or open a text editor), and make a list of the things you think of while considering the idea of “Monopoly”. Any word that comes to mind, just write it down. Go for as long as you like.

I’ll wait.

What do you have? You might have thought of the Monopoly man. Monopoly money. Chance and Community Chest. Railroads and utilities. Cars and thimbles. Dice and houses. Friends. Family. The last time you played. Who did you play with? Your brother, sister, roommate. The way they played. Where you played it. What that room looks like. The shape of the coffee table you played on.

Wait a minute. I asked you to think about Monopoly. Why are you thinking about coffee tables (or whatever your brain took you to)? Huh. Look at you, being creative. How many more ideas could you have about coffee tables? Where might those ideas take you?

Or, maybe you didn’t make a list. Maybe you thought of one or two things and just kept reading. Or you started to write things down but it made you very uncomfortable, sitting there at your desk with an empty piece of paper, thinking about a children’s game. So which is it? Are you uncreative, or are you or lazy? Uncreative or prideful? Uncreative or afraid?

I’ve observed that most people tend to not write things down when they are trying to come up with ideas — brainstorming product features, writing a blog post, trying to name a baby, whatever. They sit and stare and grit their teeth, trying to force the perfect concept into being through sheer force of will. Or worse, they engage in idle and time-consuming chatter with other people doing the exact same thing. No one picks up the whiteboard marker. No one makes a list. Staring and mumbling and hemming and hawing. It’s nuts.

So here is my simple, earnest, completely-dead-serious advice on how you can be more ‘creative’: write things down. Use a pen. And a piece of paper. And when you think of a thing, write it down. 

When you write things down, they don’t have to stay in your head. Which makes room for new things to be in your head. That’s Quantity. When you write things down, you can think of things related to that new thing, instead of just the first thing that got you thinking. There’s Distance.

Most of my ideas end their lives as 3×5 cards torn neatly into four pieces and deposited in my recycling bin. Even in group brainstorming sessions, I make a private list of ideas. You don’t have to show the stuff you write down to anyone. It’s just for you. 

Call me crazy, but I’d be more afraid of a lifetime of feeling uncreative than 20 minutes of feeling foolish.

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