I write for a living, I take photographs as a hobby, I studied design in school and even worked as a 3D artist. And I think I’ve done some decent work in these areas, if I may say so myself.
At the same time, if anyone were to ask me about what makes a person creative, my truthful answer would make them think I’m nuts.
Creativity in 2 Parts
I believe that creativity lies in 2 parts: the muse and the work. The muse is the source of inspiration for all creative work, and the work is the getting-your-hands-dirty act of making things.
Making anything good requires both inspiration and work. Inspiration without work is daydreaming, work without inspiration is dreary. The tricky part is when people use the lack of either as an excuse not to do anything.
But Where Does Inspiration Come From?
I have no idea.
I work my ass off and suddenly a divine idea springs into my head from out of nowhere, just begging for me to help bring it to life. And when it’s done, all I can do is look at it and go “I did that?”
In her TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert describes this as a ‘genius’, an age-old idea that creative genius doesn’t lie inside the person, but from an external, divine source. Sounds kinda kooky, but I think every creative person will tell you how much it rings true. In any great creative work, there are strange moments where you happen upon an idea that doesn’t feel so much thought up, but given to you from somewhere.
That’s all well and good, but practically speaking then, is there a way to get more inspiration?
More Work Gets You More Inspiration
Here’s my theory: more work begets more inspiration, which is the opposite of what most people believe about the creative process. Most people think that crazy creative people get regular bolts of inspiration from the divine and then do the work.
But what really happens is that some normal person tries very hard to do something well, and while sweating it a freakish jolt of inspiration comes to add an extra dash of specialness to the work.
Why was Mozart so Creative?
Here’s a second theory: the better you are at your work, the better the quality of inspiration that will flow through you.
This is where most people think the opposite too; that some people are touched by God more regularly than others and that’s why they’re more creative. But if you look at these people, you’ll notice that besides having great ideas, they also have the ability to execute those ideas really well.
I have a feeling that these invisible creativity muses don’t hand off their precious ideas to people whom they know don’t have the ability to handle it. There’s no way any self-respecting muse would give a beginner a Mozart-level sonata, he wouldn’t have any idea what to do with it and the idea would die a silent death.
Instead, the muse searches for the person who has a corresponding level of ability to the level of creative idea. (To make it interesting, muses seem to like finding people who have levels of ability slightly lower than the level of idea, just to stretch them and see them in torment for a while. Nobody said giving birth was easy.)
This translates into a really simple principle: if you want to have better ideas, get better at using the tools of your creative work, whether it’s a camera, a pencil or your own body.