How to Unlock your Creative Potential in Three Steps

By practicing consistently, lowering the stakes, and embracing useful constraints, you give your mind and spirit the room to expand.

I have a confession…I love experimenting on people.

Don’t worry, I usually only target students.

Worse? Oh well.

The book, Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, describes a ceramics teacher who split his class into two groups. One group was graded on the quantity of work, the other was graded solely on the quality of one piece.

Guess which group had better pieces?

The quantity group did better by far. You see, instead of theorizing, planning, and talking about what makes the best pot, the quantity group took action. Freed from the expectation of competence, they spent their time exploring, experimenting and creating.

This inspired me to test the theory for myself. While lecturing at a Chinese University, I taught a few sections of a course called “Innovation in Business.” I assigned one group a semester-long project to find a business need and design a product/business to solve. The other section was to do the same work (though abbreviated) every week.

Do you need to ask which group had better ideas?

Of course, the weekly group knocked it out of the park. The ideas were far more creative, the briefs were much better written, and intriguingly, the class’s satisfaction was reported to be far higher.

Both these examples track with the research done on creative productivity that discovered two elements of highly creative people:

  1. They are terrible at judging whether a project will succeed or fail
  2. Their ability to produce a higher quantity of work is what sets them apart more than their talent

“On average, creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peer; they simply produce a greater volume of work, which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality.” — Professor Dean Simonton, a psychologist studying creative productivity

Never forget the ghost detection machine

Here are some examples: quick! What did Edison invent? Well, a lot of things actually. He held a total of 1,093 U.S. patents. Shakespeare wrote close to 40 plays and over 150 sonnets, while Alexander Dumas wrote 277 novels over his lifetime — six every year of his working life.

Since creative people are prolific idea-generators, they have more misses than hits. But, using Edison as the example, we tend to remember the hits like the lightbulb and the telephone while forgetting the misses; a talking doll and a ghost detection machine (both were on the list as misses, but your mileage may vary…)

As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Let’s add research done on people who perform at the elite levels to the conversation. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

Or, as John Maxwell said: “Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.”

There are a few factors at work here:

Consistent and focused practice

We all know that more practice equates to better performance. However, when we are thinking about high stakes projects, we believe perfection demands a great deal of time and focus channeled into one project. Instead, research shows that trying many things in quick succession and consistently has more impact.

Reduce the Stakes

Imagine this, I put a 1 foot wide by 12-foot longboard on the ground and offer you $100 to walk all the way across without falling off.

See, no sweat!

Think you can do it? Of course, and it would be no challenge at all. Now suspend that same board between two-20 story buildings, 260 feet in the air. Would you still be willing or able to do it?

The skill needed hasn’t changed. The difficulty hasn’t changed.

The stakes have changed.

In my experiment, the quality group had one high-stakes project. If they failed to produce a good piece of work, they’d do poorly in the class. Because of this: they were less willing to take risks, to experiment with new opportunities. The second group, on the other hand, had no such stakes. Their only failure would come from not trying at all. Experimentation was, therefore, easy and fun.

Embrace Effective Constraints

Finally, both the above stories showed the value of constraints. In both examples, each group had opposite rules. One had the limitation of needing to deliver their best work in one piece with no time constraints, whereas the second group had the condition of needing to produce a great deal of work in a short period. Time-pressure and the need to continually ideate and create led to better ideas and outcomes than those with no such constraint.

In your own life, you can use these three elements to increase your work’s effectiveness and creativity.

By practicing consistently, lowering the stakes, and embracing useful constraints, you give your mind and spirit the room to expand.

See, experimenting on people can be fun and useful!!

A socially awkward jumble of contradictions, questions, and tangents.