How to be creative (even in a pandemic)

Updated: Mar 16

If you’re in a creative business - or if you make a living by being creative - are you worried about how the pandemic has changed the way you work?

Many of us are. I see articles all the time about the future of the office, and how hard it is to be creative when you’re working from home.

It’s not surprising, because for years we’ve been told that things like brainstorms and open plan offices encourage creativity.

We believe this, because it calms our inner Rabbit. We have deadlines, and clients, and colleagues to please, so we feel like we have to go and fetch ideas. A brainstorm might help, we think - so we arrange one. Or maybe we’ll bump into inspiration by the coffee machine.

The trouble is, research has shown that brainstorms, for example, don’t work. They’re fun for extroverts, but excruciating for quieter, shy people. And for anyone who may feel unconfident, like newer colleagues. Or women, if there are braying men involved.

I once worked with a supremely talented woman who would dutifully turn up at brainstorms, and sit in silence for the hour or so required. At the end, on her way out, she would pass me a small note, on which she had written a single idea. Not always, but very often, it was brilliant.

I decided to dispense with brainstorms. At least until I’d asked her to have a think about whatever the problem was.

It turns out that research agrees - it shows the best thing is to brief people, give them all the relevant information, and let them think about it alone or in pairs, or small groups, as they wish. Then come together when inspiration has struck. Or as Pooh says, ideas have come to at least some of the people you’ve briefed.

But wait, you say - surely we need the serendipity of open plan offices, where we bump into other people and spark ideas?

No we don’t. Again, research shows people feel less free to talk and more inhibited in an office where anyone passing by might overhear them. This is not conducive to free-flowing creative thinking. More likely, it results in a room full of people wearing headphones and staring at screens.

And by the way, the real reason for open plan offices is not to stimulate creativity. That’s the sales pitch, also known as snake oil. The truth is they’re cheaper. You pack in more people per square foot, like in a battery chicken farm.

I don’t think ideas come easily in such an environment. I think offices are on the whole the worst places to try to have ideas. In fact, the whole business of trying is the mistake. As Pooh says.

Archimedes is famous for running down the street naked, shouting ‘Eureka!’ He had not been attending a brainstorm in the nude, nor did inspiration find him sitting at a desk. It came to him in the bath.

Mendeleev discovered the periodic table of elements in a dream. It came to him in his sleep.

The French mathematician Poincare believed logic limits ideas, and instead favoured walking - which he felt made the ideas fixed in his head move around and bump into each other, sparking new ones.

Bathing, dreaming, walking - all available at home, and probably never have been available in the office, unless you had a very enlightened boss.

But you need more. Whenever I’ve run courses on creative thinking, I’ve been able to send people out onto the streets of London, and told them to wander. In a city like this, you will find all kinds of things to stimulate your imagination, your intellect, your sense of wonder. All you need is curiosity. Be open, absorb, and your inner Pooh will respond. It’s not Brain, as he says. It’s not what the poet Keats called the ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (like Rabbit). It’s allowing your mind to play with whatever it finds fascinating.

And now I can’t shoo you out into the hubbub of the universe, as another genius called it - the photographer Leah Gordon. You can walk and you will find things to inspire you, but it’s harder when every door is closed, and anyway you’re not supposed to be out for very long.

Let’s think more about this. What is it about walking that stimulates ideas?

First of all, simply moving does something. When the male angler fish attaches himself to a female, he never moves again, and his brain withers away along with most of the rest of him. Movement needs brains, and brains need movement.

But wait - didn’t Pooh say ‘it’s not Brain’? He did, but with all due respect to him, let’s refine this to say it’s not brain in its usual mode. It’s brain wandering, encountering, and if I may put it so, feeding.

You’re going to have to wander in your own home. Are there books in it? Find the ones with dust on them. The ones someone else bought. The ones about subjects you’ve never given much thought to. Open them. Look inside.

What about the newspapers? Is there one you like to read? Online, I’m guessing. Find one that doesn’t share your views. Or one from another country. You can read The Lagos Times or the South China Morning Post online, for example. Suddenly, the ads are interesting! And illuminating.

Then there’s the radio. The TV. Podcasts. Music streaming. Do I need to go on? Just don’t go to the usual places - your usual places. Turn down a new, unknown mental side-street. What we have to do is step out of our habits. Wander, encounter, feed.

Then go for a walk. Or take a bath. Or have a nap.

And when the pandemic is over, the office may beckon once again - but remember it’s not full of ideas waiting to be discovered. It never was. They’re all out in the world, as you should be too. Be Pooh, not Rabbit, and they will find you.

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