The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind

Innovation requires no special thought processes, says an expert. Creative people just work harder at it

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A. Ah, here's where we come up against another of our cultural myths about creativity—that of the lone genius. Ideas don't magically appear in a genius' head from nowhere. They always build on what came before. And collaboration is key. Look at what others in your field are doing. Brainstorm with people in different fields. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that distant analogies lead to new ideas—like when a heart surgeon bounces things off an architect or a graphic designer.

Q. Can we become more creative by studying more than one field?

A. No one can be creative at everything. You have to work hard in your area, let's say music, and learn everything that's already been done. But multitasking on several music projects at once might foster unexpected connections and new ideas.

Q. Are great artists different from inventors and scientists?

A. All the research shows that the creative process is basically the same: generating ideas, evaluating them and executing them, with many creative sparks over time. The role of collaboration may be more obvious in business than in writing, but even apparently solitary creators like writers read constantly and talk to one another. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis batted around religious and literary ideas with the Inklings, a group of unfashionably Christian professors who met weekly at an Oxford pub.

Q. What advice can you give us nongeniuses to help us be more creative?

A. Take risks, and expect to make lots of mistakes, because creativity is a numbers game. Work hard, and take frequent breaks, but stay with it over time. Do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work. Develop a network of colleagues, and schedule time for freewheeling, unstructured discussions. Most of all, forget those romantic myths that creativity is all about being artsy and gifted and not about hard work. They discourage us because we're waiting for that one full-blown moment of inspiration. And while we're waiting, we may never start working on what we might someday create.

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