Creative Ideas and How to Cultivate Them


“The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.” Denise Shekerjian

Do I have a single useful thing to say about creativity that hasn’t been said? Perhaps not – but I will give it a try anyway. First, it is useful to dismiss stereotypical notions that creativity is the preserve of genius. The momentary fire of creative genius striking the individual like an apple bouncing on the head is a popular notion. But it is a flawed notion. Like winning the lottery, or becoming a celebrity, it is a beguiling idea. A notion we need to wean ourselves, and our students, off. They need to know that creativity, and the wealth that attends it, comes from gritty determination and committed work.

I much prefer the gritty, humdrum reality of creativity over the glamour of supposed genius. The moment of striking inspiration can occur – but this is the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. This momentary inspiration is founded on hour upon hour of disciplined and deliberate practice. Endless repetition and deliberate practice creates the fertile conditions required for creativity. Without disciplined ‘work‘, then creative ideas simply will not emerge. ‘Inspiration’ is more likely to strike the more time you spend hammering away.

By assiduously working away at learning new knowledge, or honing a procedural skill, we move to a state of automaticity. Like driving a car, our mind is able to coast on autopilot – freeing up our working memory to consider all the nuanced ideas, links and aspects of higher level understanding that is the domain of ‘creative thinking‘. Henry James in his short treatise, ‘Habit‘ wrote about how an education is the very act of automating our behaviour:

“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”

Our ‘higher powers‘ of mind, when freed by regular deliberate practice, cultivate the habits of mind whereat creativity thrives.

Arthur Koestler, in his book, ‘The Act of Creation‘ coined the term ‘bisociation‘. This term defines how creative ideas emerge when we recognise patterns, most often connections between two different areas of knowledge to create notionally ‘new ideas’. Much creativity need not be wholly original at all, but the connection between knowledge already widely known, synthesised in a new way. This post itself is simply the combination of the ideas of others – brought together with my particular angle of interest and personal bias.

I was recently described as being a ‘creative‘ person. I had never thought of myself as particularly creative. I do know I read a lot. I read and make connections and patterns which aid my capacity to automate my reading practice still further. Did this make me creative? When I read literature, or when I work at the school curriculum, I look for patterns and make connections. Of course, I become more creative the more I read. As I task myself to go one step further and reflect and write about my reading in blogs etc. then my knowledge deepens and my supposed creativity grows.

If we can establish and sustain daily habits of reading, painting, writing, or whatever creative endeavour we undertake, we will find ourselves in the position for creative inspiration to strike. The more regularly we undertake our habit, the more frequently that creativity will occur. Not by inspiration or momentary magic, but by disciplined habit.

I may never become a painter. Most famed creativity is built upon a lifetime of practice and a complex blend of environment, with a concoction of genetic strands for good measure. And yet, the brain is amazingly malleable – anything is possible with a commitment to habitual practice. I could bring a creative, original thought to painting through ‘bisociation‘ with my reading about other stuff – I need only cultivate the habit. The next time you hear somebody say they are not an ‘ideas person’ or that they are not ‘naturally creative’ challenge them that they can ‘grow‘ and cultivate their creative ideas.

Seth Godin neatly summarises the conflation of effort and habit to inspire what we perceive and typically define as creativity:

“Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.”

This rationale is less glamorous than some dramatic eureka moment, but habitual practice can be our well-spring of creativity.

Related posts:

How the mastery of boredom could be the key to success – here.

A post all about the impact of ‘deliberate practice‘ on becoming a better teacher – here.

7 thoughts on “Creative Ideas and How to Cultivate Them”

  1. That’s really interesting, Alex, thank you for this. I tend to see creativity as two separate (but definitely interwoven) processes. That ‘inspiration strikes’ moment often seems to come out of the exact opposite of discipline, practice, repetition – for me it’s more likely to happen when I stop working, thinking, focusing and just let my mind wander. I tried to describe it here: I’m not at all religious but there is something almost spiritual about it when it happens.

    The practice, discipline, hard work bit for me comes both before and after, but is not quite the same thing as the spark of inspiration which requires a complete open mind and no fear of failure. I do worry that we tie children up so heavily in assessment and ‘end product’ thinking that we might damage the ‘throw away’ nature of that first bit of the creative process. (Often my ‘great ideas’ get thrown away because they don’t work out, rather than every single ‘inspiration strikes’ moment leading to a great end product.)

  2. Thanks for this post, Alex. Really enjoyed it – probably because I whole-heartedly agree!

    My experiences of fruitful creativity are ones where I’ve had the time and sustained energy towards a gritty project I’m passionate about. I do think there is space for creative epiphanies but, usually, these moments are just the initial spark that inevitably lead to a much longer process of exploration and research, drafting, redrafting, leaving and returning and finalising before sharing with others.

    I think this is a process that our students should be able to see us modelling as teachers and be able to recognise the benefits of the various stages of creativity.


  3. Good post. Can you teach creativity directly, or in a way that encourages it? Can it be a trait/thing that emerges from the learning process? When would creativity be relevant (at what stage)? What are the prerequisites, or are there any?

    I generally agree with the notion that creative things arise out of the hard work that has been done. It has cross fertilisation elements, a drawing into proximity of facts/knowledge from different strands. It needs a deep framework from which to emerge. These connections do often arise during down time when no conscious effort is being expended on the problem (the brain is working on it in the background, looking for connections and dredging up knowledge). Is it important in education, though? Or is it something that is more important at a later date when the deep framework has been established?

    1. I think creativity is something that emerges indirectly from the deep framework established in subject domains. Once the domains of knowledge are deeply established, the the fruitful connections between domains occur. I think it is important in education, but it is a desired outcome, rather than a taught component.

      1. Intuitively (and partly based on my experience in other contexts) I agree. How, though, can you establish the expectation of creativity in the future, in the students ahead of the realisation? (Being aware of future possibilities is an important part of being ready when they arrive, I think).

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