What I Wish I Knew About Creativity When I Was 20

advice on creativityImagine you could go back in time and give your 20-year-old self a bit of advice on investing in the creative process, coming up with new ideas, and producing good, fun work.

What would you say?

I’ve thought a bit about this topic lately, as I reflect on how I’ve changed from the person I was in my twenties to the person I’ve become in my thirties. Creativity has become more and more important to me, both at work and at play. And the lessons I’ve learned along the way (and the ones I’m still learning) seem like something 20-year-old me would have liked to know.

Here’s what I’ve come up with for advice to the 20-year-old version of me on being creative.

1. You’re as creative as anyone

I’ve heard people tell me, “I’m just not that creative.” I don’t believe it. You are creative and ingenious and resourceful and brilliant. Creativity doesn’t have to be defined by the bounds of art or literature. Your creativity can reveal itself in so many different ways: parenting, relationships, wardrobe, problem-solving, ideas, shoelaces, Tumblrs, cooking.

Everyone is capable of creativity.

2. Never underestimate the value of a creative outlet

Is the work you’re doing feeding your need for creativity? There are seasons of life when it might not. In those seasons, it’s so incredibly useful to have a creative outlet on which to rely.

From experience, I can say that this is essential. I wrote for six years about nutrition and health, serious discussions about good fats and the colon. On the side, I wrote about sports, silly, creative stories about touchdowns and championships. All of it was writing—some that paid the bills, some that fed my joy.

The psychological research supports these types of creative pursuits. In a San Francisco State study measuring employees with a creative side project and those without, those with a creative hobby were more likely to be helpful, collaborative, and creative with their job performance. Best of all, side projects are unlike whatever you’d experience at work. They’re low-risk, low-pressure, and something you love doing. Side projects

3. Make time for creativity. The same time. Every day.

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” – W. Somerset Maugham

If you want to be more creative, to come up with more ideas, and to have a more efficient creation process, schedule it.

Put creative time on the calendar.

Then show up every day.

The ballyhooed “lightning bolt of inspiration” might make it seem that these moments strike randomly, that you catch one in a bottle and keep yourself ready to go at a moment’s notice. This is all well and good. However, waiting around for creativity to strike might mean you never see it coming.

Instead, you can boost brain activity by keeping a consistent routine. Routine reinforces neural circuitry, and the more you work at the same routine, the stronger those connections become.

4. Embrace constraints

Though it might seem counterintuitive, constraints can help you be even more creative. Embrace these constraints, whichever way they come—constraints on your time, your resources, your energy. If you’ve got 20 minutes to be creative, it might be all the time you need.

Twitter is a great example: creativity in 140 characters or fewer. Some take this to an even deeper level with six-word memoirs, summing up a bio in only six words.

There are speed painters, coffee cup artists, and timed TED talks. These examples—and so many more —show that creativity is possible and sometimes preferable under the right constraints.

5. Trying and failing is better than never trying at all

What holds you back from creating something?

For many of us, it’s fear. Fear that something might not be good enough, unique enough or novel enough.

Overcoming this fear is a huge and important step. Start here: It’s okay to fail. In fact, it can be helpful to create something silly, strange, ugly, or useless because you’ve taken the step that so many people never do. You’ve created.

Author Clay Shirky noted the importance of the simple act of creating—creating anything, even a silly thing—in his book Cognitive Surplus:

The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.

The Creativity Spectrum

6. Be prepared to toss your best ideas

There’s a popular bit of writing advice that sounds really tough yet rings really true: “Kill your darlings.” In many cases, in order to move on with a creative pursuit, you’ll have to let a favorite pursuit—one of your darlings—fall by the wayside.

No hard feelings. Sometimes the idea is too grand to pull off. Other times, the timing just isn’t right. Perhaps it sounded really great in your head and looked a whole lot different on paper. Whatever the reason, don’t hold onto an idea too long. Make room for more.

7. Soak up all the influence you can

Become a culture sponge, a content sponge, a role model sponge. Have more experiences and interactions with life around you, and take note of what you see—particularly the stuff you like.

By distinguishing the creative things you love, you’ll soon discover your own tastes. You’ll get better at identifying what you like and what you don’t, and your personal creativity will take shape even clearer.

8. Collect what inspires you

Author Neil Gaiman understood the value of soaking up everything (see the point above). He also knew the value in noticing these sources of inspiration and collecting ideas when they came.

For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.

What might this look like? For me, it looks like a swipe file, a repository for ideas and the bits and bops that inspire me. I keep my swipe files in a WordPress draft on my website, on a visual online pinboard, and in our Buffer Trello board. Anything and everything that could one day be used for a creative burst, I find and collect.

trello

9. Creativity is about making connections

This graphic by Hugh McLeod does a great job showing the impact that connections make between knowledge and experience. The same could be said for knowledge and creativity. knowledge versus experience

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. – Steve Jobs

Neurologically this is true, as researchers have found that the brain operates creatively when multiple areas of the brain are connected. We piece together our different experiences in such a way that creative ideas are born. In Steve Jobs’s case, he connected the dots between touchscreens, personal computing, user interface, and great design and ended up with some of the best mobile devices on the market.

10. Others will be better than you. And that’s a good thing.

I sometimes get the urge to stop and drop everything when I see someone doing something I love better than I can do it. Turns out, it’s not best for me that I be the best.

Have you heard the phrase, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room”? I think this can hold true for the authors you read, the musicians you admire, and the creatives you follow. Set up shop in a room where you will be motivated to achieve great things and to grow your creativity.

11. Surround yourself with greatness

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And you are the sum of your influences. Put together, these pieces of advice offer a call to have amazing people in your life along with amazing experiences and influences.

surround yourself with greatness Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more there is to choose from when the time comes to be inspired and create.

12. Create without thinking

What do I think about when I write? Ideally nothing. I guess, sure, I’ll think about the next word to type or the direction the story’s headed. But I’m not thinking about how it will be received (will people love it? loathe it?) or whether I should be writing something else entirely or what I’ll be working on next..

Thinking leads to self-conscious thought. In the words of Ray Bradbury, “Anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” Think as little as possible.

13. It’s okay to create alone

Creative solitude might be a huge stumbling block to a young creator. So know this: It’s okay to create alone. There may be times for social and team collaboration, but there will also be plenty of times you create alone. Even after brainstorming together, you may find yourself creating solo. This solitude is often necessary, and you’ll learn to love it. Get comfortable with being by yourself, focusing, and creating.

14. Start something today

If you’re stuck on creating, take this bit of advice from Seth Godin. Start something. Anything. And for added motivation, put your start date on the calendar so you know you mean business.

Starting is like that. We can schedule for it. Thursday, April 3rd, 3:05…start something.

And you’ll feel even better when you get to another favorite Godin maxim: Ship it.

15. You’ll love the rush when you “ship it”

The dopamine pathways of the brain send feel-good hormones when we engage in an activity we enjoy—receiving new things, getting rewards, etc. Shipping your new creation can trigger a dopamine rush. There’s a huge happy feeling when you’ve shipped something you created. And when you link these feelings together day after day, you’ll start to long for the ability to create.

Get started. Finish. Ship. Repeat.

16. Go big with your goals

Many times, my creative ideas sound better in my head than they do once they’re created. And that’s okay. In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon tells the story of Conan O’Brien and his take on the late-night talk show hosts, including himself.

Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O’Brien. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”

Shooting for the stars and missing is still a good thing. We gain the experience of pursuing something valuable and great, and we’re likely to find our own path of excellence along the way.

17. Create what you enjoy

This is maybe my favorite lesson on creativity. Create the things that delight you, entertain you, and motivate you. Whatever you make, let it be something you love. Create something that you enjoy, not something you’re under contract to make or something you think others would find pretty cool. For one, you may lose the motivation to finish it if things don’t go your way. But more importantly, there’s power in creating from a place of love and enjoyment. Your finished product will absolutely reflect the joy and happiness you put into it.

Conclusion

What advice would you give for someone seeking creativity tips? What have you learned along the way?

I’ve found a number of areas that have helped me be more creative on a regular basis, and I’m still coming up with new lessons day after day. I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments, and if you’ve got any other ideas on what it takes to be creative.

Image credits: Death to the Stock Photo

  • Suzanne Harulow

    This post resonated with me Kevan. As a visual artist I used to get really frustrated with myself when the ideas were proving elusive. I understand that my creativity can be expressed in numerous different ways, so I’ll go and do something else completely unrelated to my ‘work’,,which I love and often this will help. Great read.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks for this inspiring comment, Suzanne! It’s so great to hear your experience! Glad this post resonated with you. :)

  • hdc77494

    Kevin, thanks for the inspiration, and the reminders. In the essay you mention using Buffer integrated with Trello. The only way I saw in Google to do that w/o writing an API is to use Zapier. How did you do it? I, like you, have inspiration files, pinboards, tutorials, evernote, in other words, disparate data everywhere and none of it connected. Some of it I use to develop content to share with my followers, some with collaborators and some is private. I’d love to see an essay on how you organize all your inspiration and make it more usable.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi there! Thanks for the comment! Sorry for causing any confusion: Our Buffer Trello board isn’t synced to any activity on Buffer, we just happen to use Trello as one of organization tools! An integration would be quite neat, though!

      So great to hear you keep a variety of swipe files, too! Curious, what do you use for your pinboard?

      • hdc77494

        I use public and private Pinterest boards and Evernote. One trick I’ve learned for stuff I look at every day is to keep folders of the subjects I work on daily in my Firefox bookmarks. Each subject file has a half dozen or so sites I follow. I can open a new instance of Firefox, click on the folder and open all the bookmarks under that tab at once. If you’re like me there’s no way you can open all the tabs you want to review at once, sorting them into subjects saves me a bit of work during the day.

  • http://mmmsocialmedia.com/ Danielle Miller

    Great post Kevan! I agree with sooo much of what you said and love the visuals you included in the article. As entrepreneurs we are only as successful as we are creative. The key to unlocking success is in executing the ideas. Thanks again, Danielle @mmmsocialmedia

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Danielle! Thanks so much for the comment! “We are only as successful as we are creative.” Amazing quote!

  • http://frantic-naturalist.com/ Vernon Swanepoel

    More than just the advice given in the post, Kevan, I like the motivation. The little graphic showing the line from doing nothing, to creative, to excellence is a great reminder that despite the frequent feeling that the stuff you’re making isn’t that good, if you keep on you’ll get good. In the mean time, at least you’re creating.

    I really believe that those who keep consistently creating eventually get way ahead of the perfectionist who never even got started. “Start something TODAY” is probably the key bit of advice you gave!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi there Vernon! Great to hear from you! I’m glad the ideas here are motivating for you and, hopefully, others!

  • Advertlines.com

    Good post. Keep up the good work.

  • http://angelajford.com Angela Ford

    Excellent post – I’m often deferred from creativity because someone else has already done it…better but I’ve been trying to put that aside and create anyway. One thing that helps me is changing up my environment and taking mini trips. I find myself inspired by nature and changing landscapes.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Angela! Thanks so much for sharing this! I can recognize some of those same moments of deferral, too. I think what helped me was knowing that I cannot create the same thing someone else has because whatever I do will include the bits and bops of who I am. It’ll be unique no matter what!

      I love hearing your inspirational sources of nature and landscapes! If you’ve got any favorite places, I’d love to be clued in. :)

      • http://angelajford.com Angela Ford

        Good point on uniqueness – I have to continually remind myself of that. As for inspirational landscape I hiked through Cummins Falls this weekend: http://instagram.com/p/sVZ5ezyY8B/?modal=true

  • kristinemsmith

    Don’t listen to the naysayers; listen to your champions. Naysayers are either afraid for you (my parents were afraid for me when I told them I wanted to become a writer decades before the Internet, cable news and the Information Age) or they don’t want you to to be happy in a career you’ll love, because they feel stuck in theirs, or they think you’ll change and “outgrow” them. I’ve seen all three of these personally.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great advice, Kristine! I think there’s a lot of value in surrounding yourself with these champions, too! Thanks for sharing your experience here. :)

  • David Butler

    Excellent messages. As a marketer, we need to return to being creative. I like to use a phrase called Creative Targeting to describe how marketing can be creative and compelling by targeting people, problems, messages, etc. Creativity comes from information and knowledge but its the marketer that applies creativity to deliver a fun and successful business outcome. Your list is great and maybe another piece of advice is on targeting your creativity.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great ideas, David! Thanks for the comment!

  • Jo Lowndes

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to get more people to recognise their innate creativity and how to take the pressure off just giving something creative a go. As a result, I’m currently launching a little initiative encouraging more people to exercise their creativity by anonymously making little pieces of Free Art for people in their neighbourhood.
    You can check it out at http://www.freeartbypost.com. It seems very well aligned with the sentiment of your post, so thought you might like it! @lowndesjo

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      How interesting! Thanks for sharing, Jo!

  • Tracy Stanley

    Thanks also from me Kevan for sharing your ideas on stimulating creative. I
    particularly like the comment about being a sponge and of being aware of how you are influenced of what you are reading and of the opinions of those you hang out with. Your article reminded me of a quote by the cartoonist Tom Meyer from the SF Chronicle who reflected on his own creativity that,
    ‘I used to think that it was like a well. And I worried that it would some day run dry. But it’s actually more like a muscle.’
    I also take inspiration from those two great innovators from history Thomas Edison and Leonardo Da Vinci. Thomas Edison understood the importance of writing down his ideas. He always had a notebook for doing this. This jotting down of ideas was something he got from Leonardo Da Vinci who produced a large number of sketches, notes and scribbling. Thomas Edison held the world record for the greatest number ofinventions. He forced an idea quote on
    himself and his employees. His goal was a minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months. I don’t really think that it matters how big
    the goal is, but having one, if only to start on a new idea – is a good one.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Tracy! Such great thoughts here! Love the quotes/metaphors!

  • Tony

    I’m 20…and a designer..i feel like this article was written for me…Great,inspirational and motivating…

  • http://sillymidoffprints.com Silly Mid Off Prints

    Fantastic post! I would reassure myself that just because I am not exactly reproducing the art I see in my head on paper, that it doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It means I’ve created something new and still have a goal to aim for in the future. I would like to see my younger self enjoying the work for the process itself as much as the end result. Not succeeding isn’t failure.

  • http://www.parttimephoto.com/ James Michael Taylor

    Thank you for this post Kevan. Definitely helped me overcome a creative hangup with my writing.

  • Prasita Kumaran

    I’m 23 and that’s great advice to me! Thanks

  • Guest

    Awesome post!