How can we be more creative?

It’s a common enough question. Most people realise that we need to be more creative. Creativity is about new ways of doing things and new things done. So in a world where change is certain, creativity is the method we have to be able to cope with and surf on that change.

There are numerous books written on the subject (three of them are mine) and immeasurable articles telling us the top tips on how we can unlock our creativity. Some put forward things they call tools (like MindMaps, Thinking Hats or other mind games). Some say there is a process you have to go through. And some say simply, ‘do something different’.

But it seems that there are a few things you need:

• some level of self confidence in your abilities,

• a lack of judgmental thinking (i.e. you’re open to ideas without labeling them right, wrong or can’t be done).

• time

• focus (i.e. free from distractions that do not concern the task in hand)

It sounds easy. If that was all that was needed, wouldn’t more people have more brilliant ideas? Why are so many people, well, so uninspired? Surely there’s some other missing ingredient, some magic spark?

Creativity can be reduced down to connections being made between other ideas that make connections between different neurons in the brain which then results in some action being taken to manifest the new combination (the new idea).

So if we’re not having ideas, it’s that process that isn’t happening.

Let’s look back at the things we need and see why their needed and why one or more of them is often missing.

Self confidence in our abilities: this is the main reason people don’t manifest their greatness, don’t go for their dreams, don’t have the best ideas and don’t carry them through. Deep down at some level they have doubt. Doubt in some aspect of their ability, their personality or what they feel others might think. In some way all of us have doubt. We fear we won’t be loved or that we’re not lovable. We fear we’re not good enough and that paralyses our creativity. The origin of this doubt is complex, it can be a remnant from childhood, a defence mechanism to keep us out of embarrassment or a belief based on evidence from the past that may be real, but we fear failure so much that we can’t get past it to try again.

Non-judgmental thinking: we’re trained to think critically, to test and measure, to examine the facts and reject the false. That’s a good thing. But we sometimes jump too quickly to criticise and judge, squashing potentially great ideas when they’re in a delicate primordial state. This type of thinking shuts down the connection process in the brain.

Time: we’re all to busy. far to busy to find the time to sit quietly and think, or to take a walk or whatever it takes to allow our brains to make the secret connections we need it to make. One thing is certain – the brain doesn’t perform at it’s most creative under undue stress. It will find an answer, the task will be done, but at a cost. The brain will only make the most obvious connection, the quickest route to the solution. This is why we appear to work well under pressure. But in reality, that work is rarely truly ground breaking. Finding the right time is important too. It’s not likely the be after lunch or when you’re tired.

Focus: This is also connected to time. We’re so busy multitasking and live in a world of distraction that even if we think we’ve found a time slot to be creative in, we contaminate it with emails, tweets, other tasks, worry and interruptions. Creativity is a solo activity, a solo activity that also works when creative individuals create a solo team that acts as one mind.

If that is beginning to sound complex again, it can be reduced down to this: to be more creative we need to do whatever is possible to enable more and more varied connections between our neurons. Now since we can’t sit there and ‘do’ that, we have to follow the suggestions described above which create the opportunity for those neurons to connect and build mindflow.

If we do that, then the other tools DO come into play: read more, travel more, do different things, draw more, write more, play more.

If we are able to do that, when we are later faced with a new problem, such as ‘how can I make more money’ – we will have more resources (i.e. more connections in our neural net) to draw upon. Our brain becomes less like a railway track that always takes us back and forth on the same line, and becomes more like paths through the wood, that takes us left, right, back, forward, where paths merge and have dead ends but may well just lead to a secret glade where the answer to our problem awaits.

Get connecting.

Book Ayd to speak at your event.
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I own the only surviving copy of time

Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors, Christopher Instone, Sean Murphy, Kevin Tall

School mates, 1980. That’s Sean bottom left, my brother 3rd from right at the back. I’m not there as I was rubbish at football.

No school reunion information ever came. No invite ever came. No word of any kind ever came from anyone. Not to me anyway. It was as if no-one from 1981 wanted to make contact with anyone from 2011. None of the names etched on my memory ever turned up on Facebook. Friends Reunited revealed no clues. Even a Google search produced no results. It was as if they didn’t exist, or rather they only ever existed in the past. And the past only exists in my mind.

Childhood and schooldays seem so very long when it’s all you have. Those formative years loom so large in making us who we are and yet it’s only 12 years. Most of us have a working memory of only around seven of those years, just seven magical Christmases (if we were lucky). Many of us spend the rest of out lives trying to re-enter the Eden of those seven years – or sometimes sadly to try to escape from or forget it.

At this point there’s something you must know. I own the past. I am a custodian of time. I keep it filed away neatly in the catacombs of my mind. Bigger on the inside, I can store whole volumes of reality, all tidily stacked and all in order on wooden bookshelves. The coloured spines haven’t faded in the sun. In that sense I’m a collector.

I didn’t set out with that in mind, rather I became a custodian by default. Each one of us was given a subscription to time. I kept the payments up and kept every single copy. All placed in binders and catalogued contextually. The others didn’t. They cancelled their subscription somewhere along the way. They failed to pick up their copies from the newsagent. The ones they did get were never read and thrown out with the Hubba Bubba wrappers and the Tip Top drinks cartons. Any that did remain that they must have kept by accident, behind the sofa, under the stairs, in the attic, have all yellowed in age and either rotted away into dank indescribable matter or crisped up like brittle dry leaves to crumble upon inspection.

I know that I have the only surviving copy of that time.

So I went back. To find the truth. To find out if the past was real and that it had actually existed. In the centre of Durham, apart from the art deco cinema where I saw all three Star Wars films being boarded up, along with Woolworths, little seemed to have changed since the 1970s. Little seemed to have changed since the 1870s. Sherburn Village lies three miles out of the city. Nothing had changed but everything was different.

Because I didn’t know anyone, there was no-one to call on to talk about old times. I couldn’t really knock on a door and say, “Hello, you may remember me. I used to come round and play with Sean when we were seven. Is he in?” Of course he’s not in. He’s not coming out to play. Not now. I realised that I’d never said goodbye to any of my old playmates. I’d never said goodbye to any of my teachers. Life had simply moved on to the next episode. It feels as though they are all still part of my life and that the past thirty years has just been an extended summer holiday. Any moment now a new term will begin and we’ll all be back again, lining up in the playground with excitement and anticipation about the new year and the fun we’ll have. And then Saturday will come around again and we’ll be free to play out for the whole day up on Sherburn Hill, until tea time and Doctor Who.

I drove past Sean’s house. Perhaps he was in? Perhaps he was waiting for me to call? I’d borrow his sister’s plastic skateboard and he’d have his wooden green one and we’d set off on an adventure to save the world. Perhaps we’d be able to pick up from before things went wrong and be best friends again?

It was hard to turn the car round in the estate as the pavements were straddled on both sides by cheap Japanese and French cars in a cluttered contrast to the wide open streets I owned in the pictures in my mind.

I drove up the main street, up to the school. Being the largest building in the village by far, dwarfing the rows of coal miners cottages that surrounded and paid homage to it, it became the centre of village life. It was one long single-storey building but due to it’s enormously high ceilings, it looked from the outside that it would have at least three floors. A highly polished wooden corridor ran down the centre of the building like a major artery with classrooms off to the right and the main hall down the left. The infants were at the near end with the juniors down the opposite end with the headmaster’s office located at the far end on the left.

Outside the headmasters office was ‘the copier’. It was a magical futuristic machine that copied things. I longed to be able to learn its secrets. Perhaps I could put my Palitoy Talking Dalek in there, press the button and it would copy it and I’d have two. My Talking Dalek was my most treasured possession. It was the silver one with blue spots. When you pressed the button on the top it said a variety of phrases that were etched on a tiny record inside. Simon McKitterick’s dad got him one from Doggarts’ sale and it didn’t have an eye, gun or sucker arm. I made him some from bits of plastic. His older brother swapped the record with that of some girl’s doll. So the Dalek said ‘Mama’ and someone’s pink dolly said ‘Exterminate’ and ‘You will obey’.

There was a playground to the front of the school for the juniors and to the rear for the infants. Behind the rear playground was the dining hall, a stand alone refectory where we all had our dinners in either a first or second sitting. Behind that were allotments. Sean and I crept round there and collected as many snails as we could find and lined them all up on the dining hall’s open windows. By lunchtime the parade of thirty plus snails had slithered into the building like a mysterious Biblical plague that flumuxed the catering staff.

I often thought of us all being there in the late 1970s having followed in the same footprints of children from six previous decades. Some of the children in my class were following in their parents and grandparents footsteps by attending the school in that very same building. I thought about 1913 when it had been built and how it must have been to live in a time when the coal mines gave a steady and honourable way of life that looked like it would last forever. Even here, in a small, irrelevant, working class north eastern village there would have been that feeling of Edwardian tranquility. I thought how that would have been shattered by just the following year. How many children would have lost fathers or brothers in the Great War? How many children who attended the school in its early years would have themselves had to leave village life to go off to the horror of the Second World War two decades later. It made the late 1970s seem like an even more peaceful and perfect golden age. I never thought of the World Wars as being distant events. They were always close. Grandad Pedley had been a mechanic in the Second World War, serving in Egypt. My other Grandad, my Dad’s dad, was in the Durham Light Infantry. He fought at the Somme in 1914 as a Lewis gunner. He had told my Dad a few stories and these were retold to me. One evening he had been given orders to take a message to another trench, a few miles away. He had to cross an area of no-mans-land to get there. He slowly crossed, slithering on his belly through the deep mire of mud in the dark. He returned the following day, in daylight. As he saw the fields he had crawled across the previous night he could now see that it hadn’t been mud at all but the bodies of hundreds and hundreds or horses and men. He was later injured, his helmet took a shot and jammed onto his head, knocking him unconscious. When he awoke he was hundreds of miles away. He survived and eventually came back, fortunately for me. Millions didn’t.

I drove up from the crossroads. It was one hundred metres from the VG grocery shop on the corner. I knew that because I’d measured it with a measuring wheel from school when we were learning about measurements, units and maths. Then I could see the school railings. They comprised of a wall bricked up to about a foot high upon which were yard high gloss black railings each ending in a point.

But beyond the railings there was no school.

I drove past, confused, not able to stop to look properly. I turned the car around and drove past again. No school. No building from 1913. No playgrounds. There was just a higgldy piggldy set of late 1980s flats, all squashed up within the familiar railings upon which my school adventures had begun. It was as if the school building had never been there. It was such an obvious cover-up job. The school had been erased from history, denied, hidden. Surely the foundations would still be there? Perhaps we’d see evidence from aerial photography? There must be records? Photographs? The ugly flats stood firm, blatantly lying that they’d always been there, challenging me to prove otherwise. A mist of amnesia had descended on the village. The people and the architecture had drunk a draft from the well of forgetfulness. New had denied the old.

But I can prove it wrong. I still have the original copy, my records, in my mind. I can think of them and can bring them to life once more and as children we’ll all live and laugh again.

I own the only surviving copy of that time.

When you’ve a moment, search your mind archives and see what unique time recordings you have stored away.


If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Book Ayd to speak about Creativity and Inspiration for Innovation at your event. A great way to open your conference!
For more interesting info see:

Brain over capacity (Another reason people don’t innovate)

If you’re a regular user of Twitter you’ll have noticed that occasionally you get met with an error message that says ‘Twitter over capacity’. It means that too many users are trying upload too much data in too shorter time.

I think this has happened to my brain.

If you’re interested in things it’s worse. I’m interested in lots of things. I used to have to go searching for information on my interests. Now, the universe seems to just serve it up daily. I used to hunt down the next great book to read, now they’re stockpiled on my shelves along with unwatched DVDs and four months worth of Doctor Who Magazines to catch up on (I’ve never missed an issue since issue 1 in October 1979).

I’ve got dozens of links to websites and YouTube videos that would be interesting but I just don’t seem to have the time.

But when it comes to procedural, administrative and systematic tasks, time is found and the tasks are done. It’s the creative tasks that get left out. They have one thing in common; they are all big picture holistic ‘right brain’ tasks. And the one that matters most to us in our businesses right now is: innovation.

So what’s going on and what can we do about it?

The new world of instant gratification has turned us all into brilliant multitaskers, living in a heightened state of alert. We used to get on with a job and stopped when it was finished. Now we get distracted, bored and restless if the results and rewards take more than a few seconds to arrive. If we do have to wait for anything, we don’t stop to think, we whip out our dumbphone like some sort of pacifier to give our brains something to fiddle with lest it have time to pause.

For millions of years humans got on with a task such as making a tool or building a dwelling or stone circle. Then something that might distract them came along, like a storm, a wild animal or an invasion from another tribe. So the task would be paused and the new threat dealt with.

Now, we swim in an endless sea of data which appears to our minds to be just as important as the storm, the sabre-toothed tiger or the invaders. We haven’t evolved an ‘off switch’ or an information priority filter, so we deal with and process the incoming news with as much attention as everything else, giving those interrupts a level of attention far beyond what they deserve. We can’t help it. Emails, phones ringing, text messages and Friendface alerts all shout ‘emergency! emergency!’ and switch us into our ancient flight or fight behaviour.

Is it any wonder so many of us are on edge, stresses or tired out?

We’re suffering from a condition that has only recently come to light, where we feel we have to respond to interrupts and take action on everything: Attention Reductive Systematic Execution.

There is only one cure, and it’s a paradox and counter intuitive as it uses up the one commodity that we feel we need more of: time.
“If only had a bit more time” we all say. But that would never work. If we had more time, we’d just surf the internet more, watch more inane telly and mess about on Friendface.

What we need to do is to take a certain amount of time, build a fence around it and only let in ourselves and one task. It could be a certain evening or a certain day. It could be every morning before 9am. Whatever it is, it needs to be a regular time so it gets catalogued as a procedural, administrative and systematic task by our brain, to sneak past our multitasking brainfever mode.

When you’ve created your protected ring-fenced timeplace, free from mobile phones, emails and tweets, you can then use it to work on just the creative, right-brain activity that has been squeezed out of your daily or weekly routine: innovation. (Innovation by the way, is how to make things better or do better things.)

I use Thursdays. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written this. I’d be too busy answering emails and making jokes up on Twitter complaining that I don’t seem to have any time.

Get Ayd to come into your business to run a masterclass on innovation.