I've always been fascinated by creativity and the processes behind it. Recently made a research on the subject, and was surprised on how little we know about it. On the web, most of the things found on inspiration, come from creative artists, and more than 50% are devoid of any scientific rationalisation. Explanation for creativity include: Ghosts, angels and other divine entities, sleep, lack of sleep, brain damage, mental illness and much much more. I thought to myself. It's time for an engineer to write something about it. How amusing could it be ?
Not going to introduce any new theory nor going to deny any of the existing. As an engineer, my take on it, is not to discuss the source of the AHA! moment, but rather to enumerate the routines and the mindset that favour creativity and the ones that don't.
Creativity is quite often associated with the creation of arts, but it is much broader than that. From an engineering perspective, creativity is tightly linked with innovation. In other words finding an original and elegant solution to a given problem.
Sometimes, identifying a problem requires more creativity than to solve it. For example, when we sit at the table and eat a meal, we rarely think that there was a man somewhere in history that was eating settled on the floor and thought: "Sitting on the floor is not that comfortable to eat". Before solving the dinner table problem, someone had to see it as a problem. Maybe he even had resistance to the idea. I find amusing to imagine that there was someone at that time saying - "But we always eat sitting on the floor, why do we need a freakin table ? And that will require so many chairs." Which leads me to the first point.
1. Seeing the world as unperfected
"The world is full of imperfections", I heard it somewhere and it resonated on my mind. There might be a more efficient way to do this. If we integrate this thought into our daily lives we are bound to discover a lot of room for improvement. Paying attention to all you do and see around you is the first condition to be creative. Specially what we do by routine is where we fail more to see its inefficiencies.
2. Flex the creativity muscle
If for each "imperfection candidate", spend a moment imagining it differently, that is like doing creativity push-ups. It might sound a bit stupid, but, it can be quite funny, to imagine a different way to eat soup. A kind of small water mill, a kind of soup cannon, or perhaps the plate would be shaped so that a part would fit your mouth, what other possibilities exist ? It's normal if nothing comes out, or what comes is a worse solution than an existing one. We don't expect that a new and better potato peeler be discovered each year. Simply not possible, no matter how intelligent you are. But the mental activity of trying the problem solving is preparing the soil for good stuff.
3. Background work
The brain works on ideas in background mode. When you plant a seed on the earth and water it, it will take a while before it will germinate. The brain works in the same way. If you challenged you with a problem and nothing came out right away, that doesn't mean that the brain stopped thinking about it. It may take hours, days or even weeks may pass before something pops up.
4. Note your ideas
When finally that AHA! moment comes be sure to write it down as soon as possible. If it comes in the middle of the night, be willing to get up to fetch a pencil a piece of paper. Not doing it so, you may have troubles later to make the same neurons spark and bring back the idea as you conceived initially.
So, make sure you leave yourself enough details on to get back the idea to life. This also helps you to scrutinize the idea to whether it really makes sense. Often, a closer look at an idea, is enough to dismiss it. If not, you can pass to the next step, which is for an engineer, is selling the idea to someone else. That will require exposing yourself more than you would like to. That may be challenging for self-confidence. Don't be defensive if someone sees too many flaws in the idea, its for your own good. One way to do it, is to treat it as if it wasn't your idea at the first place. I think this explains the frequent attribution of ideas to an external entity. Just blame it on the angel that passed, if you believe in their existence.
5. First Time Right
Sure, it can happen, but don't make plans counting on it. Throughout history, so many ideas appeared to be great at the beginning and then turned out to be total flops. Still, I'm still very surprised when I see people making plans supposing that everything will be perfect at the first try.
6. When to give up
Sometimes, things simply don't go as expected. There is a natural tendency is to continue believing that somehow something can happen that can save the project. It's hard to let go, especially when too much time and money was invested. The best advice I heard for this, is simply to establish well defined failure checkpoints. If this doesn't get to that point till that date, then it means a stop. Another advice, is as simple as discussing with someone knowledgeable on the field, who hasn't emotional attachment.
Other tips and resources
Innovation doesn't mean that the idea has to be completely original. One can innovate by taking an existing idea and applying it on a different context. This can be by copying from Nature, which had millions of years to perfect itself, or copy an idea from a different area of expertise. Supermarket spaces were tagging higher prices for shelves located at eye level, much before Google started to do the same with Sponsored Links. Same principle, different areas of application. In other words, there is merit in improving an existing idea.
There is a limited amount of work that your brain can do everyday. This not only includes the obvious ones such as memorizing and processing data or playing an instrument but also small things as deciding which choosing clothes to wear. Einstein always wore the same clothes and ate always the same desert to not get distracted with mundane issues. Other things such as self imposing a discipline, driving, discussing with someone, answering emails, etc... all of this steals attention from your brain. This is why, you probably noticed that your best ideas don't come while you are at work, but when your mind is more relaxed.
If you really need to be creative, then you may want to avoid playing video games for 2 hours, or watching an action movie on TV.
I hope it brought you something useful.