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How can we become more creative

This is the second of a 2 part-series on creativity. In part 1, we examined what creativity is - it is not an abstract concept or a gift that some people have and others don't. It is simply being able to form more connections between neural networks. (you can read more in part 1, here).

This biological understanding of creativity is important. While some people might find that creativity comes more naturally, our understanding of creativity lets us know that it is possible for everyone to be more creative (at least in some ways). Indeed, as you read on, you'd see examples of people whom we would regularly consider to be naturally creative... and find that they are much more similar to you and I then we might have originally thought. 


The generation of creativity is dependent on 3 broad steps:

  1. First - knowing. It's very difficult to find something that is completely original*. What is much more common is borrowing a concept, an idea, or a process from someone else or from another field, and applying it in the area you are currently working on. Obviously, to be able to do so, you first need to know about this concept, idea, or process. 
    (This is true even for our most famous inventions, the car, telephone, light blub, aeroplane - read more here) 


  2. Second - linking. Being able to link these concepts, ideas, or processes between fields. Remember our previous page? Information is stored in networks of neurons, linked together by synapses. To access this information requires a firing of neurons - but there is a threshold for firing. In simpler terms, linkage* will not happen by chance - it needs to be stimulated.
    (*forming new linkages is part neuroplasticity - our brains are plastic and change quite drastically over time. This works both ways - while new linkages can be formed, old linkages are also pruned off if not used. This is also why I keep repeating biological explanations, not to piss you off, but to reinforce the most important concepts behind how our brain functions and why we behave the way we do. You can read more about neuroplasticity here.


  3. Third - confirming. While the popular belief is that it is hard for creative ideas to come by, in reality an biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation—it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87 percent were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They’re constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.

So what exactly are some steps we can take to become more creative? 

Learning, experience, and luck



It doesn't get any more obvious than the need to keep learning. We need sufficient knowledge first and foremost across a variety of fields. Rice university's Erik Dane found that the more expertise and experience people gained in only one specific field, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world. For example, very experienced accountants were worse than new accountants at applying new tax laws. Expert bridge players struggled much more to cope with rule changes than beginners. We learnt in a previous chapter that once we have formulated a story to view something, it becomes very difficult to change our minds. We cannot become creative if we are trapped within our own stories. 

What's the best and most common way to learn? Reading (well, books can also be consumed in audio or visual form through audiobooks or lectures... but you get the point). You can't get away from it. We have limited time on this earth, so we can't learn everything by ourselves. However, it is possible to take a massive short-cut in life but learning what others have learnt. In just 10-20 hours, we can finish a book which includes knowledge and experience that someone else took 10-20 years to acquire. Click on the links below for some recommended learning sources:


*Charlie Munger, long-time partner to Warren Buffett (and arguably the wiser fo the 2) often credits a multidisciplinary approach for his success: "No one can know everything, but you can work to understand the big important models in each discipline at a basic level so they can collectively add value in a decision-making process."


Of course, learning doesn't just need to come from a fixed body of knowledge, but rather through personal experience. This happens at several levels:

  • New experiences such as volunteering or travelling provide new perspectives (stored in new neural networks). There are many examples of this. A whole industry of fusion food emerged combining the cuisine of one culture with another. Similarly in music. One of the greatest songs of all time, Bohemian Rhapsody, combines several genres of music, including pop, soft rock, hard rock, and opera. Many creative looking buildings were inspired by nature (below, from left to right: the ministry of municipal affairs and agriculture, Qatar - inspired by cactus; Sagrada Familia, Barcelona - Gaudi was inspired by the structure of forests; and the bird nest museum in China.. inspired by... well a bird nest). 




Related to the point above on experience, luck also plays a role in creativity. How? 

Well first, what do we mean by luck? In this case, luck refers to chance encounters which provide some form of stimulus for you to come up with a better idea. You didn't and can't plan for this to definitively happen, but you can increase the chances of such chance encounters happening. How?


At this year's (2020) Academy Awards, Bong Joon-Ho won 4 Oscars for his excellent movie, "Parasite", including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay. Like all his other movies, Parasite was written and directed by him. Bong has peculiar writing habits. He writes predominantly in cafes. This is perhaps no surprise, some people like working in cafes (this is also written in a cafe btw, with a guy eating a huge-ass pizza beside me. I had to replace the picture above because I had initially included a picture of a pizza instead of Bong above), and Korea has some excellent cafes. But Bong cycles across 4 cafes per day, writing for about 2 hours in each. Why does he keep changing cafes? 

It turns out that Koreans talk pretty loudly, and even if he did not mean to do so, Bong gets to hear many of their conversations. Each cafe attracts a different clientele, which provides him with inspiration and source material. And it shows - Bong's movies feature very strong and complex characters,  who never fall neatly into "good" or "bad" buckets.

Bong deliberately creates opportunities for himself to get inspiration, by shifting where he writes every 2 hours. Of course, it is no guarantee that shifting cafes would definitely provide better stimulus. Remember to trigger new ideas, we need a stimulus. If we just
 followed the same routine everyday meeting and talking to the same people on the same topics, we are reducing the opportunity for new stimulus to come our way. Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire studied luck and concluded that "lucky" people are often those who generated their own fortune. Bong makes his own luck.  

You can read more about Wiseman's research here. It turns out that people who saw themselves as "lucky" or "unlucky" noticed vastly different things even when exposed to the same stimulus. 

Questions before answers

Imagine you are the sports minister/secretary of your country. You want to encourage your citizens to exercise more. Ok, how would you do this?

If your definition of the problem is simply: "how can we get encourage people to exercise more?",  you're likely to get some familiar answers.

  • Educate people on the importance of exercise and the consequences of not exercising

  • Make exercise cheaper and more convenient. For example, cheap/free exercise areas and gyms. And more of these in every neighbourhood

  • Maybe one of your subordinates hoping to impress you might suggest that people follow in the footsteps of someone they admire... perhaps you, the good minister, can be the ambassador for exercise and galvanise the people with your enthusiasm.




There's nothing inherently wrong with this question and these answers, they might work. But if we think about it, these suggestions have always been made. Are people really not aware that exercise is good for them? Also, there many countries that have walking/cycling/hiking trails and exercise booths in parks which people can use for free. Yet, many countries are still continually trying to  promote more exercise. This brings us to a more interesting question:

"Why do people not exercise even if they know they should?"


By changing the question, we change our thinking. People probably do know of the benefits of exercise. And perhaps it is not convenience that is holding them back.

  • Could people need more incentive than just good health?
    (this sounds pretty shocking, but think about people who do not wear seatbelts, who drink and drive, or who hang off a cliff for more likes on instagram. Or consider how doctors had to introduce a lottery system to incentivise people to take medicine which would save their lives...)

  • Would people exercise more if they were part of a workout group? What if we helped people to find groups to join instead of focussing on the equipment or the cost?


On that note, could we change the question to take yet anothe angle?


"Can we indirectly get people to exercise as part of their normal lives?"


  • People love their Instagram and Facebook likes:

    • What if we worked wtih animal welfare groups where people can take stray dogs out for a walk?​

    • What if we promoted hiking routes to beautiful places where people can snap photos for their social media?

  • Or perhaps a little more extreme:​

    • What if you could only get access to free wifi in public spaces or popular cafes ​only if you had walked a certain number of steps the previous day?

Changing the question, our defintion of the problem, has been a major impetus for many major breakthroughs in different fields. We have the famous story of Newton, the apple, and gravity. Newton wondered why was it that the apple fell perpendicular to the ground, and the moon did not. (No one knows the exact question that Newton asked himself because... well he asked himself. But it was almost certainly, based on his later discussion with friends, not just the simplistic "why does the apple fall?"). His question gave rise to our first robust theory of gravity (even though as it turns out, Newton, and most our textbooks, are not quite right about gravity)


In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Adrin became the first humans to step onto the moon, "a giant step or humanity". 51 years later, humans still haven't set foot anywhere further.  It takes hundreds of millions of dollars to send a rocket into space, and each rocket can only be used once. It is simply too expensive for countries to invest in space travel. This was until Elon Musk set up SpaceX in 2003, with a new question - what if rockets were resuable, just like aeroplanes, cars, bicycles? If rockets can be used many times over, the average cost of each launch is almost 2 orders of magnitude lesser. Who can forget this remarkable scene of SpaceX rockets landing back down upright and in-sync after launch (when all others end up wrecked and destroyed)?


Our minds are naturally tuned towards solutions. What are the possible answers? Which is the best answer? But we should consider if we even know what the right question is to begin with. Take a look at this Math question that stumped the internet. What would your answer be?

As we see in the video, we can also be like the folks who are too fixated with givin an answer, that we didn't consider the question and the information we possess. Even if we did somehow come up with unique solutions to this question, it would still be an unuseful form of creativity.

Creativity need not beign with the answers. It might require you to find out more information. It could simply be changing the question, which could then change our assumptions, our thinking, and consequently our answers. Or as Einstein (who trumped his hero Newton with a better explanation of gravity - which is not the version in our texbooks....) opines:


Transient Hypofrontality 

We've all had this experience:

  • You've been thinking about a problem or trying to understand something for some time.

  • And it's just not working out. No solutions. No progress in understanding. 

  • Finally, you give up. You take a break. You go for a walk or a jog or a swim or just a shower.

  • And that cliched lightbulb goes off in your head

    • You saw the problem in a way you hadn't before​

    • You came up with a creative idea that never struck you, no matter how hard you were thinking before. In fact, you might have more than 1 idea. 

    • You suddenly recalled a past concept or solution that you seemed to have forgotten

    • You are able to draw links between different fields that did not seem related. Some advice or some knowledge you learnt in the past suddenly comes to mind and can be applied to your current situation.

Ah, you've just experienced transient hypofrontality. 


At this point, every article you can find on the internet starts making a big fuss over the name. There's nothing really that complicated about transient hypofrontality - it pretty much self-explanatory:

  • Transient is a fancier word for temporary

  • Hypo is a lack of (hypothermia is simply a lack of heat); and

  • Frontality simply refers to our pre-frontal cortex

Video is 5 mins long

Recall some of the best ideas you had in life. Were you really thinking about them? Or did they just appear in your brain suddenly? It just came to you?

Chances are, you will recall more cases of the latter. Why is this so? Because we are only aware of what we are consciously thinking, we find it hard to realise that our brain is always working. Your body temperature is being regulated right now and you don't notice it. You are able to do daily tasks like running or brushing your teeth or 2+2 automatically, try it. You would actually find it quite difficult to explain how exactly one should run - but your body performs it. You meet someone from the opposite sex and you find him/her attractive? Why? the feeling just came to you. Someone offers you a deal, and somehow intuition kicks in, and a voice in your heads tells you, don't trust this person, something is not right.

What is happening?

By definition, we can only be aware of what we are aware of. But this doesn't mean that your brain is only working on the things that you are conscious of. Re-look at the examples above. Hey, you weren't aware of any of those things happening - but yet it was your brain that conjured of these actions and emotions and thoughts.


Your brain is always working, it's just that a lot of it is subconscious. You are thinking without you knowing you are thinking. 

When we agonise over a problem, what is also happening is that we are concentrating our brains on what is conscious to us. As this is taking place, we are leaving less resources for our subconscious to think, to redefine, to draw links which we might miss. 


If we periodically stopped concentrating on our problem, and just take a step back, our subconscious kicks back in. And this creates the possibility for your subconscious space and time to run through your neural networks, and come up with something unique. Ironically, by over-concentrating, we could be making the situation worse.

Here is where transient hypo-frontality kicks in. Remember what it means? A temporary lack of usage of our pre-frontal cortex. In other words, take a break from conscious thought. Let whatever you were thinking about gestate and ferment in your subconscious. And then come back to it. 

Wharton's Adam Grant invited people to submit business ideas, which would be evaluated by an independent panel for their creativity. The people were divided into 3 groups - 1) those who had to start right away with no distractions, 2) those who could play games (i.e. minesweeper) for 5 minutes while they were thinking and, 3) those who could play minesweeper for 10 minutes. And as the picture below shows:

  • People who went straight into coming up with ideas with no distractions had the least creative ideas.

  • People who played the game for too long was marginally better

  • Those who played the game for a moderate period of time before getting back to their task was judged to be on average 16% more creative. 

Moderate (middle group) rated as 16% mor

3 final things to note about transient hypo-frontality:

1) You should take a break after thinking about your problem for some time, having taken in some information. It's not going to work if you just randomly go for a walk hoping for lightning bolts of brilliance to illuminate your brain. 

2) It seems to work best when you do something routine, which is almost habitual and require little conscious thought. For example, running, swimming, taking a bath, smoking, driving, taking a walk, ironing. Something repetitive. Something easy. 

3) There is individual difference in this. Some folks get better ideas when they take a walk or they go for a run. For me, I find running excruciatingly boring and meaningless, which causes me o feel frustrated and... no ideas. Similarly, sometimes when I take a walk, there might be something that distracts me, a new scenery, something novel is happening, someone is doing something, someone wants to talk to you. So walking only works if I do it over the same route, during a quiet time. But personally, most of ideas come in the shower or while I am driving.   

The numbers game

A tautology that we sometimes cannot resist falling for is that creative people produce creative solutions because they are... creative.

Imagine if this were ture. "Creatives" would think up masterpieces all the time. And the would be very sure their original ideas would become masterpieces. 

Yet, this does not seem to be the case. UC Davies psychologist Dean Simonton found that: "The odds of producing an influential or successul idea, are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated." "creative geniuses" weren' proportionately better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a lot more work, which gave them a higher chance of their original ideas becoming a masterpiece. 


Hard to believe? Let's start by taking a look at the graph below. 

Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are the 3 most accomplished composers, widely recognised for their genius. Yet, their proportion of great compositions to the total number of compositions isn't astounding high, about 15-20%, or 80-100 great compositions for 500-700 pieces composed. If you look at other composers on this chart, there were a number of composers who averaged the same rate of greatness. In a study of over 15,000 classical music compositions, the more pieces a composer produced in a given five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.


Beethoven was often described to be an introspective self-critic, yet as Simonton found, Beethoven's own favourites among his compositions were also some of the least popular. You might argue that what the artist himself likes does not need to correspond with popular opinion. But CUNY's Aaron Kozebelt research sheds more light. Beethoven had often evaluated his own compositions if they would do well or not. In a set of letters, Beethoven evaluated 70 of his compositions. Out of those 70, there were 15 pieces that Beethoven thought would turn out great, but didn't. Another 8 pieces he thought would not do well, but became highly rated. Beethoven had a 33% error rate on his work. 33% doesn't seem all that high, until you realise that Beethoven made these assessments after receiving audience feedback. 

(the following is adapted from Adam Grant's "Originals")

From music we move to literature. We're all familiar with Shakespeare and the classics he produced, while neglecting that these were a small fraction of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets he produced, most of which didn't perform well. Simonton tracked the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, measuring how often they’re performed and how widely they were acclaimed by experts and critics. In the same five-year window that Shakespeare produced three of his five most popular works—Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello—he also churned out the comparatively average Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, both of which rank among the worst of his plays and have been consistently slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plot and character development. In other words, even Shakespeare couldn't tell for sure if his work was going to be good or not.

Next, art. Picasso’s oeuvre includes more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, not to mention prints, rugs, and tapestries—only a fraction of which have garnered acclaim.

In poetry, we pay attention to  Maya Angelou’s acclaimed poem “Still I Rise”, but have almost no impression of the 165 others that she wrote. We might have been moved by her memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings", but few would have bothered with the other 6 autobiographies she wrote.


In science, Einstein wrote papers on general and special relativity that transformed physics, but many of his 248 publications had minimal impact.

What we can observe is that "creatives" across different fields do not have a spectacularly high proportion of work that eventually became great. But they must have produced each piece thinking it would amount to something. Even the very best in their fields are not able to tell if their work would be widely acclaimed or not. But it didn't deter them from simply producing more

Or as Ira Glass, the producer of This American Life and the popular podcast Serial shares:  If you want to be original, “the most important thing you could do, is to do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.”


Photo credit:
Adam Grant Ted Talk
"The surprising habits of orginal thinkers."

A friendly, different voice

We've discussed how creativity can be triggered by stimuli, for example, changing how we look at the question or problem we are trying to solve. A stimulus for your creativity can also be provided by our interactions with other people. This is what fundamentally how we have introduced creativity - we belong in different networks each with its own conversations and thinking. Creativity then is the transferring of ideas and thinking from one network to another.  

We also went through how creativity is in part also a numbers game. People who have produced creative, original work are often not proportionately more likely than their peers to do so, but rather have simply produced the most amount of work. What this means is also that even for the most creative among us, there will likely be a number of failures. Failures are painful, and if not dealt with in the right spirit, could be a major discouragement from further efforts. Good Friends, those who stick in your corner and truly root for you, will help you recover from setbacks

Finally, we examined how creativity isn't just about idea generation, but also idea-selection. Most of us are capable of coming up with unique and original thinking. The issue is, how do we know if these "creative ideas are any good? Most of us are susceptible to some extent of the IKEA effect - we are more attached to what we have spent effort coming up with, overrating the value of our ideas or work. 

When we’ve developed an idea, we’re typically too attached to it to evaluate it accurately. And here is where friends plays a third and critical role - to provide feedback without the attachment, to give us a view we might not have considered, and to inject new impetus that could improve our ideas. 

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