The Surprising Truth About Creativity


Everyone is fascinated by the unique power creativity has to improve our lives (and the world with it). We’re not just talking about creativity in terms of art, crafts and the creative industries. We are talking about those everyday acts of creativity that drive a life less ordinary: the new way to respond to our lover so we avoid a fight; a fresh approach to being a leader that inspires the workforce to embrace a new future; a way to play with our kids so that they feel safer.

Creativity, at all levels, is a fundamental driver of evolution, growth, learning and, therefore, thriving.

You, me, and everyone around us has creativity written into their DNA. It is a large part of what makes us human. Creativity is a unique characteristic of living things. No matter how powerful a computer, it cannot be creative. It can look as if it’s being creative, yet every outcome is predictable, driven by a set of algorithms (equations that generate solutions based on a predetermined set of mathematical relationships). No breakthroughs can emerge from linear machines.

However, even the youngest child and the simplest cellular organism can create breakthroughs — unpredictable, often non-linear solutions — that simply didn’t exist before. While computational theories can account for basic cognition, they cannot account for human creativity.

Biological brilliance
This is what the field of Breakthrough Biodynamics is focused on. Living organisms are the creative products of our own creativity. We are auto-poetic. Powered by biological brilliance, life is continuously creating more life from a bunch of seemingly inert chemical building blocks. As we evolve, both biologically and culturally, we open up more and more fields of possibility that were not there before.

The result has been everything from opposable thumbs to Shakespeare’s plays.

Along the way, nations, political systems, technologies, and enterprises have all been created by our imaginations.

The ruling explanation for what creativity is is two (or more) previously unconnected ideas that are recombined together into something new. Yes, this does tend to happen. But it is not the key to creativity. Something way more fundamental has to happen first.

In a landmark study in the last couple of years, rappers (MCs) were put into MRI scanners while performing. First, they sang lyrics they had written in advance. Then they were asked to improvise in the moment, in the flow. The difference between their brains in these two states was enormous. With the scripted lyrics, areas of the pre-frontal cortex associated with control, decisions, and judgment lit up. But when the MCs were freestyling, the areas of control, willpower, and attention were all less active. In the moments they gave up being conventionally “smart,” they were most creative! Similar results have been found with jazz musicians when they improvise, too. People given psychedelics show a muted activity in their brain’s control center. The deeper the inhibition of their prefrontal cortex, the more intense their imagination!

Letting go
I spent years thinking that my job as an innovation consultant — paid to help organizations innovate and teams become more creative — was to help people have ideas. I thought the same as a transformational coach and wisdom teacher working with social workers, celebrities, students and parents. Yet, after hundreds of projects with some of the best companies in the world (and having taught and coached thousands of people), I began to realize something quite revolutionary.

Creativity is not simply about having new ideas. In fact, the most important prerequisite for enjoying a breakthrough is letting go of the old. It’s what we are prepared to give up that counts.

This is quite a challenge given that we rely on our existing assumptions, habits and emotional patterns to survive life; and succeed in the system. There is never a blank canvas to create with. No artist, entrepreneur, leader or parent starts with one. Instead, we all start with notions about what a great company does, how good leaders act and what a great love life should be like. We engage every problem in life with an idea of what the “right” way to solve it is; habits are conditioned over a lifetime about how to act around them. These old ideas and habits have been burnished into our nervous system over a lifetime of constant conditioning and consolidation of our neurons. So, when faced with an issue or conflict, we fall back on the familiar to deal with it.

The canvases of our lives, societies and businesses are chock full of imagery and there is little space to create or room to innovate. Until we are ready to let go of these assumptions and habits, we simply cannot have a breakthrough. It is a literal impossibility.

This is why so many large companies fail to spot massive opportunities for innovation, even though they have more consultants, agencies, MBAs on staff, investment capital and resources than the tiny companies that challenge them. It is also why a few, like Kodak or Blackberry, have gone down, even when the everyone else can see the writing on the wall. The same attachment to old habits and assumptions locks us into repeated patterns that stop us having consistently awesome relationships. If we always respond to our friends and colleagues in the same way, there is no opportunity for breakthrough.

Release the old
No matter how much effort we expend, creativity cannot occur until we release the old, leaving room for the new to emerge.

Very few people understand this secret. In fact, most people in positions of authority want people — whether employees, school kids, college students or workers — to keep doing things exactly as they have been told. The results are predictable. Little innovation. Zero breakthroughs. Little wonder that conventional governments and hierarchal organizations find it so hard to create.

The same can be said for those of us taught how to follow the rules by our parents, teachers and leaders. Culture, and the group-think that pervades in it, stops people from letting go of the old. And we have to question the dominant way of doing things, often ruffling feathers, if we want to truly create.

Picasso broke through because he questioned everything about how to represent truth in art. Einstein questioned Newtonian laws. Steve Jobs questioned the role of a personal computer (and what it could look and feel like as a tool for creativity). Gandhi questioned the conventions of how to create a revolution.

Famously innovative figures like these, that we so like to revere years after their breakthroughs, were laughed at, ignored and criticized for years precisely because they broke the rules and didn’t listen to “no, we don’t do it like that ’round here” for an answer. Every time friends of loved ones act predictably, and expect us to do the same, they crush our creativity. Yet, it is we who have let them!

You can either be right about your assumptions or you can be consistently creative. Never both. The tragedy of many people’s lives is that the organizations they work in, and the schools and colleges they study in, have been designed from scratch to reduce originality and promote a fixed way of being. What makes things even more challenging is that the habits and assumptions that stop us from questioning the ways things have always been can rarely be relinquished by simple cognitive choice. Many of our most fundamental habits and assumptions about how to deal with life / business / the market are anchored into our neurobiology by our emotions. As neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown, without emotions we cannot make decisions. Emotions lock in habits and assumptions that seem to be able to defend us against change, danger and uncertainty.

As we go through life, we hardwire a specific neural response to familiar threats.

Fear and stress
The more intense the initial emotion was when we created a response, the deeper the programming and the harder it will be to change it. This is the primary obstacle to our creativity: the fear and stress that drives our habits and assumptions to keep on repeating. Fear shuts down our nervous system, foxing us into tunnel vision and tunnel memory. Yet, connection and courage open us up to new ideas and new experiences, while allowing us the freedom to let go.

Studies show that distance and space can also really help us break through. By consciously taking a break to play ball, go on a vacation or have a shower, we force our busy brain to stop focusing on a problem and let go of our old ideas long enough to allow new ones to emerge.

There is a system of brain activity that shows up when the brain is at rest. It fades out whenever we start doing a task. This Default Mode Network (DMN) turns out to be more active at rest in people who have more spontaneous ideas. Resting, letting go, allows our body/mind to wander between ideas and connect up the dots, free from tension, habit and pressure. Early studies show that we can use the more focused, “smart” parts of our brain to direct our DMN to wander, carefree, in directions, which might come up with the ideas we are looking for. In other words, we can consciously promote the chances of creative serendipity without trying to control it.

If we don’t embrace creativity in all areas, our quality of life soon suffers. The patterns we use to survive life often will create more problems than they solve because the old ways of acting, thinking, and feeling are no longer a fit for purpose.

What worked in the 1980s to rent movies to customers may not work so well in a digital age. What worked wonderfully on the savannah in Africa doesn’t work so well in an office cubicle in Savannah, Georgia. What worked brilliantly when we started our career as an intern at a multi-national may not work so well in a Silicon Valley start-up. What worked well as a 5-year-old to keep our parents happy may not work so well as a lover or spouse?

If we want creative breakthroughs, we have to engage in a process of letting go before we get to the fun part when we get to recombine ideas and enjoy the rush of breakthrough. That means surfacing and questioning our assumptions. Spotting and breaking our habits. And, above all, encountering and releasing our fears.

This is why true creativity, in whatever area in life, is a whole mind and body thing. We need all our faculties aligned if we want to be creative, as opposed to just talking about being creative. This is a way of life, not a title at work. It is a way of engaging with the problems we want to solve and feeling our way, thinking our way and acting our way to solve them with a creative breakthrough. As we practice this art, craft and science, we learn to break through anything that is blocking us, at will. The blockages are inside. As soon as we let go of them, things begin to flow.

7 Steps to Boost Your Creativity

  • Remember you are creative in your DNA — Pause for a moment and feel, right now, the hundreds of trillions of cells that make up your body/mind. Each one is alive and auto-poetic. Each is pulsating with creativity because it can self-create. Which means you are creative in your essence, no matter what your old art teacher, uncle, or boss said to you. Every chromosome, cell membrane, organ, and neuron within you is fundamentally creative. You can break through anything you choose to.
  • Bring all your attention to a problem you want to break through — Although we want to let go of old ideas and habits, first we must bring a challenge and issue into our awareness, focusing our brain and body on it. It can be a challenge in our relationships, in our career, in our marketplace, in society. Anything at all is raw material for a problem. As we bring it to our attention, we signal to our brain and body that we are ready to create.
  • Feel the problem all over; don’t just think it — We are fully embodied minds. The science of embodied cognition is showing us that we think with our whole body, not just our brain. The insula cortex is able to sense our body’s intelligence and feed it into the emotional parts of the brain. Elite athletes and soldiers have highly developed insulas because they are so highly tuned to their bodily senses. The more we feel the problem, as opposed to just think about it, the more we recruit more parts of our emotionally-guided nervous system for a breakthrough.
  • Notice the habitual ways you have of dealing with this problem or ones like it — How do you usually react? What behaviors do you show? What thoughts do you have about the situation or any of the people in it? What do you assume about those involved? What are you being right about? What feelings do you usually have? Are any of them stressful, tense or fearful?
  • Find your still point to step out of your comfort zone — Before you can let go of all those old habits, assumptions and ideas it helps to reconnect your heart to something bigger than your worries and fears. What inspires you most about the creative spirit? Can you use mindfulness or meditation to find a still point, where you can step out of your comfort zone? How can you unblock any connections you have to the universe you are intrinsically part of?
  • Let go of anything that holds you in the past — You can break through anything, IF (and it’s a big if) you are prepared to get out of the way of yourself by jettisoning each and every assumption that is holding you back. Take a break, have a bath, just starting writing. Whatever it takes to let go.
  • Let the Ah Ha! Out — Allow a fresh insight or idea to emerge from within. Allow it to come into your heart and mind without censorship, cynicism or self-criticism. Creativity is at its peak when we get out of the way of ourselves. You have to get the Tiny Me out of the way of the Great We so an “Ah Ha!” can burst through you. In Taoism, this concept is called wei wu wei, which can roughly be translated as “doing not doing.” Action is occurring. Things are being created. Yet, it is not the “I,” in the sense of the Tiny Me, that is doing all the work. We are totally attuned and attentive, yet have let go of control. This same concept is present in Indian wisdom as “action less action.” It is similar to the experiences people describe as flow states.

When we do things in a way that doesn’t feel like there is an “I” doing them — an I that is a small, fearful Tiny Me (or ego) — we allow breakthroughs to come through us. We become “entangled” with the thing we are creating. We are the subject, object and verb all at once. We are not merely the dancer; we are the dance and the dancing too.

We are not just the scientist; we are the science, as well. We are not just the lover; we are the loving and the lovemaking too. Ideas are not simply “ours.” They come through us. We co-create them with the universe we are part of. The more we work at clearing out the old assumptions and letting go of control, the more fitted and brilliant the ideas “we” will have.

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Nick Seneca Jankel
Nick Seneca Jankel is a 21st century Shaman who works at the cutting-edge of personal and corporate change. He has helped over 50,000 people, scores of world-class brands like Disney, Pepsi and Nike, governments and millions of TV viewers learn and use powerful tools for transformation and future-ready breakthrough. He runs people-powered innovation and leadership consultancy, Wecreate Worldwide, which works with teams and leaders to have and sustain breakthroughs in products, services, processes and business models. His latest book, Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity and Thrive with the New Science and Spirit of Breakthrough, is published globally.


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