Three Steps to Unleashing Your Creativity

Jan 24, 2019

By William F. Baker and Evan Leatherwood

The roots of creativity may be a mystery, but making use of it is a habit. Here are three simple mental habits that once established, will help you get the creative juices flowing.

1. Be foolish.
Your biggest enemy in any creative project is probably yourself. The minute you come up with an idea, a voice in your head tells you the idea is terrible. In fact, says this voice, this whole project is way too risky and you’d be a fool to see it through.

The trick here is simple: don’t listen to the voice. Even if it is right some of the time, the voice won’t help you start and finish your project. Think of it this way: it is impossible for all of your ideas to be good, especially the first ones you have. People who get labeled creative have just as many bad ideas as everybody else. The difference is, they don’t let it slow them down. They push past the initial bad ideas until they get to the good ones. They are comfortable being foolish for a little while. Feeling like you’re out on a limb is a normal part of making something new. You can’t avoid these feelings, but you can learn to wait them out.

2. Don’t wait for permission.
Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes never had official permission to explore Mexico. For a whole year before he set sail, he was mired in a political struggle with his boss, the governor of Cuba. After months of tedious fundraising and red tape, Cortes was set to go, only to have the governor try to arrest him at the last second.

How did Cortes respond?  He went any way, launching his ships literally within sight of the governor’s advancing soldiers. It wasn’t until eight years after he returned from Mexico that Cortes got official permission and recognition. By then he had conquered the Aztec empire and was almost as rich as the king of Spain himself.

Of course we’re not endorsing the exploits of a bloodthirsty conqueror. But we do believe that anybody blazing a new trail is going to have to fight for the right to do it.

The path to creative work is counterintuitive. You don’t get the job first and then have a chance to prove yourself. You go out and do it, and if you succeed, then you get the job.

3. Be radically honest with yourself.
This is about practicality, not virtue.  Imagine your project as a voyage and yourself as captain of the ship. You can either navigate using a chart that shows your real position or one that shows you as somewhere else. Unless you want to get hopelessly lost or even shipwrecked, you have to go with the first option.

This seems obvious, but in our experience, a lot of people effectively choose the second option. They are willing to operate with inaccurate or delusional information about the most basic factors, like how much time and money is available to complete a project.

Sometimes the key to succeeding in creative work is as simple as being honest about where you really are in relation to your goals. Ask yourself (and answer honestly): “Have I taken the time to acquire the right skills? Have I assembled the right team? Am I clear about my goals? Do I have the proper resources available to complete this project?”

Many great artists and innovators have a reputation for not respecting social niceties and procedures. This may be because they have cultivated the habit of radical self-honesty, not because they are arrogant or unkind. You don’t write Huckleberry Finn or paint "The Last Judgment" without first spending years learning your craft and humbly acknowledging that every time you sit down to work, you still have more to learn and more room to grow.

Start where you are and you may find that you can go a lot farther than you ever thought possible.

About the Author(s)

William F. Baker and Evan Leatherwood William F. Baker is coauthor of Every Leader Is an Artist, which argues that great leaders and great artists are one and the same. Evan Leatherwood is a freelance writer.