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by Paul McNeese

This quick course in creativity is designed to give you a platform to stand on as we look at the various ways you can handle home, social and workplace situations, job-search details and career-path decisions.

Let's examine what creativity might look like. Here are some of the ways in which creativity expresses itself.

Perhaps the creative idea is one that mixes and matches items or ideas that haven't been combined in just this way before. A wonderful example of this comes from Anita Roddick, who founded the Body Shop, a chain of personal care products and stores. She combined the need to help underdeveloped countries earn income with the need to avoid destroying their resources and environment.  She built her business by using natural products produced by these countries.

Or, perhaps the same item could be used in a different way. Which came first, the ballpoint pen or roll-on deodorant? Both use the same idea -- a rolling ball that applies liquid to a surface.

Perhaps you can take a new approach that works. This was the case, for instance, with Arm & Hammer Baking Soda when it was discovered that putting an open box into the refrigerator would soak up odors.

Finally, you might use your creative powers to develop special mastery in areas that can contribute to workplace effectiveness. For example, you might try opening yourself to new ways of experiencing life, increasing flexibility and open-mindedness. There are lots of ways in which creativity can be fostered to produce really great outcomes. And all it takes is practice. We all have the abilities...what we need to develop are the skills, the methods, the focus.

OK, now it's time to examine the process of creativity itself. There are five steps involved.

  • First, there's PREPARATION. By this I mean that all knowledge contributes to creativity. No matter what you read or see or hear, it might become a part of a brilliant, new idea. Truly creative people are always hungry for new knowledge and information, even on seemingly unrelated subjects.
  • The second step is INCUBATION. When a situation or project needs a shot of creativity, the real job is to get to know every intimate detail of the subject at hand, then to put it all into the very back of your brain and let it "stew." It's sort of like making bread. You mix all the ingredients, then you put them into the pan and let the dough "rise." The important thing here is that there's no way to force the process. You've got to let go and let it happen.
  • The third stage of creativity is ENLIGHTENMENT. This could also be called INSIGHT. It's the moment at which the unconscious and the subconscious minds, having finished working on the problem, present an "AHA!" A "EUREKA." An "I'VE GOT IT!" We've all had this happen. Sometimes it comes in a dream; sometimes it's as simple as suddenly remembering where we left our keys or glasses. But it's a critical part of the process, and those who forego it are taking a sort of foolish risk -- the risk that creativity won't present itself.
  • Next, there's an EVALUATION of what's come up. It's not always the right answer, even though it may be excitingly creative. At this stage, we match imagination to reality and make some decisions about practicality. There's room for imagination and creativity here, though. The question, "Why not?" is vital at this time and at this stage. Consider this to be the moment at which the real risking in life begins. 
  • And finally, the risk goes on as you begin the IMPLEMENTATION of the ideas your creativity produced. And the cycle can begin again right here with new information, new incubation, new insights, new evaluations and further implemented outcomes.


Now let's look at the ten keys to creativity.

The first step is to stimulate yourself to get the process started. One way to do this is to look back at all the creative things you've done. Every one of us has had really good creative ideas that have produced wonderful outcomes, and remembering those things often puts the wheels in motion. Then…

1. Write a list of creative achievements -- and add to it as new memories surface -- this can be a valuable tool that can be used time after time when creativity is what you're focusing on. I have such a list, and it grows, usually, by about one item a month.

2. "Can the Can't!" This is just a short and sweet way to say, "Get out of any negative place you're in." If you believe you can't do something, you probably can't. And it's not that you don't have the intelligence, the drive, the resources, or even the track record. It's that you BELIEVE you can't. Your mind is a neutral place. It listens to what you tell it and acts on that information without regard to whether or not it's good for you. So keep yourself aimed in a positive direction.

3. Be willing to bend. I always feel a little subversive when I talk about this key. Why? Because you need to read a couple of extra words into this phrase…the words are: "the rules." You see, I'm not talking about bending to someone else's will or adopting someone else's ideas.  I'm talking about bending your rules! This means, pay attention to whether your mind is locked in to a pattern of behaving a certain way because you've been told that this is the way it's done. You see, I was always told that the rules are the rules because they work. What they didn't tell me was that sooner or later, things change. What used to work just fine may not work any more. As soon as that becomes clear, creativity has an opening. What's more, the old saying "If it works, don't fix it" can be a real cop-out. Maybe -- just maybe -- it could work a little better if it were creatively changed. Now, I don't believe the other extreme -- "If it works, break it" - I don't accept that as an option. But I do think that almost any rule can be re-written to work better so as to fit a changing, dynamic environment, and that's a real creative challenge. So question the rules. See if a different approach, a different method, or a different attitude might yield a different - and better -- outcome.

4. De-stress. Creativity and stress just don't fit together. You can't expect your mind to work well when your body is stressed, because they're both part of the same system -- the system called YOU. So take care of stress. Spend time relaxing, meditating, even daydreaming. This simple process can often be a direct route to creative insight. And, since stress is often a consequence of fear, there's a natural "fear" consequence when approaching creativity because the creative process usually takes you outside of your comfort zone. You need to be willing to…

5. Take chances -- to move outside of that comfort zone -- perhaps in small steps -- and be willing to fail or to make a mistake; that is, to have no outcome at all, or an unsatisfactory outcome. That's all part of the creative process. And here I'd like to add that most successful people failed many times on the way to their success. The minute you become willing to fail, you become capable of real success.

6. See mistakes as lessons, not failures. This is particularly interesting, because it's a creative act in itself to break out of the notion that a mistake isn't a failure. I think that our system of schooling builds this into us from a young age. Getting it "RIGHT" is very important...our grades depend on it. So, getting it "WRONG" is the same as "BEING BAD." Get off it. Look at mistakes as object lessons about what doesn't work. Forget about right and wrong.

7. Ask the right questions. We all seem to have a pat set of questions about life. "Why?" seems to be a leader.  But you know, it may not make any difference "why" something is, or happens. The right question might be, "What REALLY happened?" And the WAY we ask questions -- the languaging -- is important. In other words, it's also important to ask questions in the right way. In fact, when you're tempted to ask "why," here's a possibly valuable substitute question. "What is it about ______ that ________. For instance, instead of asking, "Why did you move to Los Angeles?," ask, "What is it about Los Angeles that made you choose to move there?" When you ask someone "Why?," that person sometimes may feel challenged, or negative. "Why did you move to Los Angeles?" might be perceived as questioning the wisdom of the decision. But if you ask, "What is it about Los Angeles that made you choose to move there?" there's no negativity. And when you ask this kind of question of yourself -- "What is it about this idea that appeals to me?" -- you'll find yourself opening up channels that wouldn't be available to you by wrestling with a "why" approach.

8. Ask your opposite. What I mean by this is, try a  "contrarian approach" to whatever it is you're working on. If it's a business problem, seek out a vendor, a competitor or a customer to interview. You'll get specific perspectives and information you'd never come up with yourself. It's a way of playing devil's advocate that is much more reliable and comprehensive than trying to do it yourself.

9. Study something new each year. The most creative people I know are folks who seem to have an unquenchable need for new knowledge. And they also seem to study a lot of different things. What they tell me is that by learning about unfamiliar subjects they learn new ways of thinking and relating and associating. This gives them broader platforms for decision making. And here's the final key

10. Identify the real problem. Many people ask me, "Why wasn't this the first key?" Are you thinking this, too? Well, observe what the key says...what's the REAL problem. After you've mulled over whatever is challenging you, be prepared to re-evaluate the first premise of what you're working on. Only after you've done all the creative work can you begin to see clearly where you're headed, and that's the time to ask yourself whether you're actually working on the right problem. One of the world's major creative failures, I think, is that too many people fail to take that last, long look, to question the work already done, and to be willing to start over or keep on going, but this time in a new direction.

Well, there it is, a short course in creativity - five steps, ten keys. It didn't take long to talk out, but it may take you a long time to master it. So please…start now.

About the Author

Paul McNeese, a California personal and corporate (executive) coach, is owner of Optimum Performance Associates, a consulting firm specializing in transitional and transformational change for individuals and institutions. His "Betterchange" workshop is a customized training that has been offered in California since 1994. Mr. McNeese may be contacted at  The "Betterchange" website is


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