The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

#5: Learn things you don’t need to know.

Okay, say you write a blog about software engineering. What should you spend your time reading tonight?

Your choices are:

  1. Java Programming for the New Generation of Mobile Devices.
  2. The C++ Programming Language, Second Edition.
  3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

What did you decide?

Well, if you really want to excel creatively, you’ll want to spend a fair amount of time learning about things that are not related in any way to your area of expertise. So the correct answer is C.

(Which, by the way, is an incredible book. I highly recommend it to anyone hoping to enhance their creativity—or their ability to stomach really gross things.)

If you’re going to build something, you need to have the raw materials around. The thing about creativity is you never know what you’re going to build.

So you need to have all sorts of materials—ideas, notions, knowledge, trivia, thoughts, facts, images, etc.—floating around in your mind, ready to be used.

Granted, many of those raw materials might never get used. (I’m still trying to find a way to incorporate something I learned about human cadavers into one of my blog posts.) But you never know. And there’s simply no other way.

Creativity is the process of putting stuff together in new ways. The more stuff you have at your disposal, the better off you’ll be.

What have you learned lately that has nothing to do with your main area of knowledge? Leave a comment below.

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The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

#4: Don’t be overly self-critical.

Picasso turned out some “okay” paintings.

Mozart wrote pieces of music that nobody ever hums.

And Thomas Edison developed tons of inventions that didn’t work.

If you’re going to be creative, you’ve got to get used to the idea that, at least some of the time, the ideas that come out of you won’t be absolutely stellar.

Don’t beat yourself up over that. Because those sub-par ideas are very important.

If you let bad ideas come out and live a short, harmless life (maybe just on your pad of paper—no one else need ever know), then the other ideas inside your head will feel like it’s safe to come out.

On the other hand, if you berate bad ideas once they show themselves, even the really good ideas are going to be a little nervous about making themselves known.

Another important consideration:

There are many “okay” ideas that, given a little time and attention, turn out to be really good ideas.

For example, when I’m working on a headline, I rarely write something that I instantly believe is a winner.

But I often write things that have a faint, hopeful glow that makes me think, “Hmm, there might be something there.”

That tells me I’ve got to play with it, because it might just turn into something that deserves to see the light of day.

And finally, mediocre ideas help you to get into a flow.

You need them. They’re like stepping stones. So get comfortable with them. Be friends with them. They won’t feel bad if you just use them to get to an idea that’s really spectacular.

Are you comfortable coming up with “okay” ideas? Has one of them ever transmogrified into something great? Leave a comment below.

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The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

#3: Obey your curiosity.

My high school calculus teacher once said that Albert Einstein was a second-rate mathematician.

Second-rate! I was appalled. But now I don’t find that statement so surprising.

Because if Albert Einstein was first-rate at anything, it was at being a creative thinker. And perhaps the biggest reason he was so creative was because he obeyed his curiosity.

When Einstein was a child, he got a compass as a gift. He was fascinated by the way it behaved.

Millions of people had looked at compasses before. But young Albert was enthralled by the way the compass needle always pointed north. As a result, he became convinced that there was “something behind things. Something deeply hidden.”

He was also curious about how light behaved. It was known that nothing could move faster than a beam of light, but he was curious about that.

He envisioned himself riding alongside a beam of light, then holding a mirror up in front of his face.

Would he see his own reflection? He believed that he would, even though that would suggest that light was breaking its own speed limit. This curiosity led him to some of the most amazing discoveries in the history of the world.

So ask yourself, what fascinates you about the world? About your life? About the project you’re working on? Then go after it.

Find the answers to your question. Google it. Talk to your mom. Find an expert at a local university. Ask strange questions. Embrace information that everyone else thinks is useless.

Be a slave to your curiosity. Look at things from that unique perspective which no one else ever has—yours.

So what are you curious about? Leave a comment below.

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The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

#2: Make every project fun for you.

I had a secret method that helped me immensely in high school and college:

Whenever I was assigned a project, I manipulated it into something I was actually interested in working on.

When I had to write a paper about a corporation, I chose Porsche because I loved their cars.

When I had to put on a performance for German class, I’d make it funny, because I loved to make people laugh.

Or, I’d make something go up in smoke—because I had a nerdy interest in magic.

Whatever it was I had to do, I’d twist it into something I wanted to do.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: There’s only so much twisting you can do when you have a definite assignment.

But the most creative people in the world twist pretty much everything around to somehow reflect themselves, their voice or their interests. And the world is so much the better for it.

I once read a story about jazz great Oscar Peterson. One day when he was about to perform, he learned that his childhood hero—legendary pianist Art Tatum—was in the audience.

As a result, it was challenging for him to play, and the legend could see that Peterson was struggling—struggling, perhaps, to prove that he was as good as the legend.

So Tatum visited him backstage. And what did he tell him? To paraphrase: Only Peterson could be exceptional at letting his own voice be heard. Tatum could never match him at that.

So at the very minimum, when you write something make it sound like you. Don’t try to make it sound like every other blog you’ve ever read—even one of the great ones. Write it like it’s just you talking.

If you have to come up with a new idea, come up with one that enchants you. Don’t think about what other people will think of it.

Does it make you crazy with excitement? Does it make you laugh? Does it make you excited about the possibilities? Then that’s the idea you’re looking for. Those are the ideas that change the world. Or at least, make people pay attention.

Whether people notice or not, you already benefited. It was fun for you.

What’s the most fun you ever had on a project?

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The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

The Seven Habits of Highly Creative People.

Before becoming a freelance writer, I had a small ad agency with two partners. One of my partners, Karl, mentioned a book that he said had a big impact on him.

It was called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Looking at Karl and noting how effective he was, I thought that maybe I should read it, too. After all, I wanted to be as effective as I possibly could in making our new agency a success.

I dug up a copy of that book that my sister had given me years before. My ineffectiveness was already quite evident—I had never even opened it.

I glanced through its pages, delaying the actual reading of the 340-page book (and undoubtedly breaking one of the rules contained therein).

I noticed that the chapter titles gave much of the story. One of them was “Be Proactive.” Another, “Begin with the end in mind.” The third, “Put first things first.”

These all sounded good. But already my mind was wandering. I was losing interest. But why? Was I destined to put the book back on the shelf, dooming myself to an ineffective life?

As I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. The fact is, I’m extremely effective as a creative person—but the principles in this book simply weren’t the ones that had made that happen.

So I started thinking about the many creative individuals I had worked with—and others whom I had only read about. And I realized there was a completely different set of principles for people whose lives revolve around being creative.

So let’s talk about the first of the seven habits I discovered.

Habit #1: Quantity, not just quality. 

Have you ever gotten stuck right as you began writing a blog article, unable to find the absolute perfect thing to say at the start?

You probably figured, “If the beginning’s mediocre, it’ll all be downhill from there.” But in your quest for perfection, you were immobilized.

Here’s how highly creative people handle that: They don’t just look for that one perfect idea. They develop a large quantity of ideas. Some good, some bad, some awful.

Then they sort through those ideas for the very best ones.

In Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, Sullivan, Luke Sullivan, a writer at the great ad agency Fallon in their heyday, shows 20 or 30 headlines for an ad he was working on.

Some of them are good, some of them are okay, a few are really terrific. But what struck me was this:

He was one of the best copywriters in the world, yet he had to write dozens of headlines in order to get to a single good one.

But it’s not just ad guys. Great artists are the same way. Sketch after sketch, canvas after canvas. Not all of them are masterpieces. But the very fact that they create so much work increases the odds that a masterpiece will be among them.

It makes perfect sense. Because by turning out a lot of ideas, you are getting engaged in the process, rather then freezing at the very start of it.

You’re letting your mind relax, because you’re not expecting greatness from every thought it spits out. You are practicing your craft (and we’ll talk more about that in another post). And practice, more than anything else, makes perfect.

So don’t try to come up with one great idea. Come up with a bunch of ideas. Then look for the great ones among them.

How can you us the habit of developing ideas in greater quantity? Is this something that you do now?

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