For those of us who grew up thinking creativity was an endowment you either magically had or unmagically didn’t have, today’s creativity research offers some welcome food for (re)thought:
- Creativity is the product of consistent effort, not innate talent or divine intervention.
- It’s about showing up no matter the circumstances, not about waiting for the right mood or moment to strike.
- Creative thinking can be strengthened through practice.
- Even wildly successful creative people get stuck occasionally.
- What distinguishes many wildly successful creative people is that, when they are stuck, they rely on proven strategies for getting unstuck.
In short, creativity ≠ magic.
In my last piece, I wrote about Conditional Design, a collective of designers whose creative process entails strict adherence to fundamentally arbitrary rules. What began as a parlor game /slash/ productivity experiment has put Conditional Design on the creativity map. Over the past three years, their programming-inspired strategy has become the basis for the collective’s popular workshops and 2013 book (Amazon).
Several decades earlier, the musician Brian Eno and a friend, painter Peter Schmidt, developed Oblique Strategies, a deck of 100+ cards offering unusual prompts for overcoming creative blocks. The project was born when the two friends learned that both of them kept ad hoc lists of strategies for responding to creative anxiety, time pressure, and other dampers on creativity.
Oblique Strategies contains simple prompts: Do something boring, Just carry on, Listen to the quiet voice, and Only one element of each kind. The idea is to draw one card from the deck and follow it even if it feels strange or makes little sense.
Though there’s no penalty for putting a card back and picking another, the idea is to move forward, not wait for perfection.
In a candid 1980 interview, Brian Eno described how Oblique Strategies was born from creative “panic”:
The panic of the situation — particularly in studios — tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working, and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.
If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case — it’s just the most obvious and — apparently — reliable method.
The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.”
Now in its sixth edition, Oblique Strategies‘ success reveals the usefulness of unexpected and random pathways for overcoming creative blocks. In other words, tactics that do not rely on reason, that are completely unburdened by the creative context, are often the most effective in dismantling the deer-in-the-headlights “panic” that undermines creativity.
After all, when you are blocked, nothing feels right. Oblique Strategies is a reminder that the best action is any action.