self improvement

The Secret to Creativity

Editor’s Note: This post (by the original Editor in Chief, Jon Wesley) is being republished in the wake of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman – my favorite actor. We spend a lot of time talking about Creativity on this blog and for all of those that aspire to pursue a career in the arts, or for those that simply appreciate these endeavors from a theater chair, as I do – take notes. Creativity this great deserves to be shouted from any soap box you can find. It’s just that rare. RIP PSH, you are simply, one of the greatest that ever lived.

——–

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. -Einstein

The biggest misconception about creativity is that it involves a moment of magical creation when the incredible appears out of thin air. The truth is less romantic. Everything comes from somewhere. All ideas have been thought before and all artists, especially the most brilliant, have their sources of inspiration. I’m going to break Einstein’s famous rule by revealing some of my sources and explaining how I use the genius of others to further my own ambitions.

Everyone starts somewhere so I might as well come clean from the beginning. Before I started this website my creative credentials were nonexistent. I had no tangible experience as a writer, designer, marketer, or entrepreneur. Aside from this site I still don’t. All I can say for myself is that I read voraciously and draw fairly well. You’d think a chump like me wouldn’t stand a chance in the hyper competitive online world.

So how did I end up with this fine looking site, a readership that’s growing every day, and over 100 original articles, several of which have been featured on the likes of Lifehacker.com, Problogger.net, lifehack.org and all the major social sites?

By observing how others became creatively successful and combining their genius with my own.

A seed was planted the day I read Steve Pavlina’s, 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job. Through that article I found How to Make Money From Your Blog and ever since I’ve been obsessed with creating a profitable website based on my own original writing. It wasn’t Steve’s monetary success that inspired me, it was his literary style. The wit, the humor, the brutal honesty, and the fact that people were eating it up and begging for more made me believe that I could do it too; that I could build a business around my passion.

From Steve I learned the value of lengthy original articles, serving the reader, writing from personal experience, and choosing topics that apply to everyone. More than through his words, I’ve learned from observation; from the locations of his ads, the frequency of his posts, and a thousand other details the casual reader would never notice.

Sure, I could have ignored everything that worked for Steve, but what would be the point of that? Too many people try to reinvent the wheel when a Ferrari’s roaring past. During the Renaissance apprentice artists learned by replicating the works of the masters. The secret to being creative is recognizing the genius of others and re-purposing it for your own ends.

If you want be more creative, you have to learn from people who are smarter than you are. Unless you can find a mentor this means learning from observation. When you see a piece of work you admire, dissect it scientifically and discover exactly what makes it great. Is it the tone of an article? the subject matter? the author’s personality? its usefulness? The same concept applies to design. What creates that feeling of visual pleasure? What made you click that ad? What made you subscribe? The clues to creativity are everywhere. You need to gather them and apply that understanding to your own creative work.

It’s also important to find models that fit your profile. If you’re a nobody like me, don’t try to build the next TechCrunch. It won’t work because you don’t have Mike Arrington’s insider connections. Think of yourself as an engine in need of a body. You can find one that fits by investigating people with a background and style similar to yours.

It’s important to note that collecting inspiration is distinctly different than plagiarism. Although Steve’s work has influenced mine I haven’t stolen any of his content. I’ve taken the model and adjusted it to my own needs, the same way Steve probably followed the examples of other successful people when building his site.

In truth, he’s only one of many influences. If I had to list them all this post would be 100,000 words. Some of the more prominent dead ones include Bertrand Russell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Henry David Thoreau, and George Orwell. Some living ones you may know include Jason Kottke, Merlin Mann, Brian Clark, Robert Scoble, Darren Rowse, Seth Godin, Hugh MacLeod, J.D. Roth, and Tim Ferriss. But only naming a select few neglects countless others. I draw inspiration from everything I read and everyone I come in contact with.

I need to give an extra special thanks to Chris Pearson for designing the Cutline Theme. When I started this site I didn’t know any CSS or HTML. Like any beginner I downloaded the best free theme I could find. Over time I’ve continuously built on it, doing at least 3 major overhauls and making small changes on a daily basis. The key to making a good design if you have no experience is looking at other sites, finding what works, and blending it into a unique creation.

All art is imitation. The most creative people imitate rarer, more brilliant sources and cover their tracks. That’s why reading nothing but blogs makes you write dull generic posts. If you absorb a mediocre style, your output will be mediocre. If you scour the classics for the most intelligent, passionate writing in existence your own inspiration will follow. Pay close attention and you’ll even notice the passing of ideas through history. No one could read this essay by Oscar Wilde and Plato’s Symposium without noting a remarkable similarity.

There’s a reason great artists are always clustered together, both geographically and chronologically. Interacting with creative individuals makes you more creative. Rival artists exchange techniques and competition increases effort. The present is the ideal age for creative people. The internet has connected everything, allowing us to draw inspiration from classic works of art and our finest contemporaries without leaving the couch.

It’s also important to draw from a wide array of sources. Your best option is to play the statistics. Creativity isn’t a spark it’s a boiling pot. Sample an enormous amount of creative work and you’ll produce an inspirational concoction. The most important creative asset is curiosity.

Genuine creativity doesn’t exist, particularly in a cosmic sense. Living beings don’t create life, they re-purpose existing matter into offspring. Nothing has been created since the Big Bang. All we can do is rearrange the stuff we find around us. If you want to be more creative, stop waiting for inspiration and start experimenting. Creativity isn’t creation at all, it’s reorganization.

  • http://www.quincycloet.net Quincy

    Wonderfull writing, again.
    I have to agree on this one. As a musician I also have the reaction of observing other music styles, and try to use those influences to make my one music. Everything is – like you said – rearranged.
    This text makes me go back to the beginning of everything: the Big Bang. It seems that every kind of ‘culture’ (art, music, …) al goes back to that one moment of creativity. But no one can explain how it all happened.
    It reminds me of Eastern philosophy that talks about ‘a great explosion of energy with information. After the explosion, the energy spreads out, and we get the energy to have a culture’.

    Sorry for my bad english.

  • http://creativegene.blogspot.com Jasia

    I couldn’t agree with you more, John. I always look to different sources for inspiration, nature, music, graphics, writing, people watching… changing my environment changes my writing, or designing. It’s amazing how much is out there to inspire our creativity if we just take the time to look.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Quincy,

    You’re English isn’t bad at all, at least not compared to my French. I’ve also wondered about that one unexplainable instant when music, art, etc. were created. That’s the great mystery of life I suppose and a reason you should never be too cynical about the world.

  • http://www.steve-olson.com Steve Olson

    Well written…
    Imitation? No. Influenced? Yes.

    John,
    Creation through influence, not imitation. Is that another way to say re-organization?

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    I agree, Steve. There is a big difference between imitation and influence. Imitators are rarely successful because they try to take someone else’s creativity without blending it with their own. Imitation always feels like it’s missing something, like it’s only a shell of the original.

  • http://www.traviseneix.com Travis

    Interesting stuff. I agree with you, there is nothing new under the sun, just new ways to put them together.

    • Jeremiah Jefone R. Credo

      yep there’s nothing new under the heat of the sun… In its strickest sense, creatio (latin) means to create out of nothing. Since no one, in the cosmic order of things, has created out of nothing ,(except the Absolute Being) then reason forces us to accept the reality that the term creation is then used in a loose manner :) Only the Supreme Being can create while I, you and the rests only cooperate with His mysterious and magistic capability. . .

  • Wilson

    I just want to know…what influenced the creation of the Pet Rock? And why in the hell was that thing so popular?

  • http://www.alimadzi.com Patrick Lee

    My repurposed matter sure says the darnedest things. Things I don’t think anyone else has ever said before. Pretty good for a recombination of existing genetic material…

  • Dax

    Good writing John. I agree with everything except the last paragraph. That paragraph doesn’t sound like you, more like someone else’s words.
    I think genuine creativity does exist. Although 95% of the time people just rearrange things, as you say.
    What did Mozart rearrange when he created his first piece at the age of five ?
    Creativity is creation and it’s also reorganization. And it is so much easier to reorganize than to create :-)
    If nothing, you must consider Big Bang as genuine creativity, so it does exist.

    • http://cystonovarycure.com/enlarged-ovary-causes-and-treatment/ Lily

      I agree with your ideas.

    • Guest

      the last line is just right. ‘Creativity isn’t creation at all,it’s reorganization.’.
      in the case of Mozart, he might have some influence before he was able to create that piece when he was 5. Maybe from playing/ her mother’s hum, etc.. :)

    • Matt Maresca

      Mozart didn’t really explore his creativity until much later, as in his 20s. At a young age, while an incredibly brilliant prodigy, his works were mostly adaptations of works of popular composers at the time/place. He had many different influences as he travelled Europe at a young age and didn’t really explore his own style until he grew “older”. He said himself that his early works were mostly attempts to make better what was already popular.

  • http://www.realityshifter.com Kristen

    Hi John, Very interesting article. I enjoyed it, though I have to disagree with the last paragraph. While it may be possible to say no *matter* has been created since the Big Bang, that doesn’t necessarily mean nothing at all has been created since that point. Is an idea considered “matter”? Is the manifestation of an idea always considered “matter”? For example, is a poem considered “matter”? The paper it’s written on…yes. The ink it’s written in…yes. But the concepts and ideas? The particular arrangement of words? I don’t think the notion can be carried that far unless you take scientific reductionism to its fullest extreme and assume everything — including ideas — can eventually be reduced to the smallest bits of matter (particles, strings, or whatever else is being touted by the latest popular theories. :-)

  • Jacki Jinx

    Although what you say is true, isn’t it also true that you learn vasts amounts from observing what doesn’t work?

  • Tom

    So you’re saying that everything we do is influenced by other people – the more ‘creative’ other people are the more it reflects upon ourselves?
    Where does our own personal experiences or thought processes come into it? This is taking too much of a behaviourist explanation of human behaviour for my liking… I want my free will and the creativity that comes with it back!!!

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  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Jacki Jinx,

    We certainly do learn from our mistakes. I should have emphasized that it’s not possible to learn from observation entirely, you need to starting doing and learn from the results.

  • Sjefke

    Speaking about ‘re-arranging’: I once had a bad dream (literally) – I enjoy listening to music a lot, many different genres etc.
    Completely failed at it, can’t read it, no hope. But. There is a limited number of notes, right? Wouldn’t that mean that sooner or later all combinations would have been used? Meaning, there can’t be created any new, original song or music anymore?

    It was a bad dream, but the thought keeps recurring – perhaps some musicians out there could clarify it? (it is in a way similar to the saying about the monkeys, the typewriters and Shakespeare – but when I dreamed it, I didn’t know that saying yet :-))

  • Sara

    There may in fact be something new under the sun, but there’d be no way to know. Great post, John.

  • http://www.best-of-time-management.com/success.htm Pamela

    Great article.
    You make a valid and strong point regarding creativity. Creativity can’t be done alone without the help of inspiration and we know this based on experience.

  • http://www.allbusiness.com/sales/customer-service/10783-1.html Glenn (Customer Service Experience) Ross

    You should have gotten Holiday Inn Express to sponsor this post:-)

    Great post.

    I’ll be reading…

    Glenn

  • http://www.MyTimemanagementTips.com Alan

    Great post. I believe that in most things that we do we need to have inspiration. We can’t be motivated in doing every task every time. There’s are a lot of factors that affects our willingness to do work.

  • http://patriciasingleton.blogspot.com Patricia – Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker

    Hi. I checked out and read your post because I have started my own blog recently. I have been looking at other blogs for inspiration for content and also to see what other blogs look like. I am definitely at that “making small changes daily” stage with my own blog. Thanks for the insights. Patricia

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  • http://www.savvysuzy.com Suzy

    I like your statement, “The most important creative asset is curiosity.” I’m finding out that that’s so true from doing research on the “net” — it has helped to awaken my inner-creativity, which was asleep for a while.

  • http://www.tariqdesign.com tariq sheshani

    Creativity is culture …… a common sense …. relations … mystery
    that what i can feel

  • Colleen

    I Googled on “secrets of creative people” and discovered this article. THANK YOU. I love your insights; many of your comments I’ll be memorizing to inspire me during those bleak dry dull periods. Needless to say, I’ve bookmarked this page!

  • http://www.sendwisecards.com Jurgen

    Thanks John, your writing really helped me!

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  • http:///mindmedia.com Bruce Ehrlich

    I’m doing a dissertation at Saybrook Institute about creativity and writing. The best model I’ve found so far is the Flow model. Can you say anything about flow in relationship to “the secrets” of creative people.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Victor wrote a piece about creative flow that might interest you: http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/how-to-achieve-the-creative-state-of-flow/

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  • http://www.transcendentalconsciousness.com Did Einstein Experience Transcendental Consciousness?

    I once read that Einstein said he got most of his brilliant ideas while lying in bed without being asleep. I think he was spontaneously experiencing Transcendental Consciousness. Why? Just because this state of consciousness is pure silence, which is the home of all creativity within. Everybody has Transcendental Consciousness, but most of us fall asleep before consciously experiencing this most silent state of awareness. Transcendental Consciousness is THE most desirable thing which you could ever possess and the nice thing is that you already possess it. You only have to become aware of it, that’s all.
    Jan.

  • Dax

    I completely agree Jan. Transcendental consciousness or “pure consciosness” is source of everything. Fortunately it is available to everyone. You can easely tap into that source through some good form of peaceful meditation. I think everybody should do that daily. Maybe then, the world would be a better place.

  • adrian

    creativity doesnt exist? I dont know if I agree. All things are created. Creativity has influence yes but does that mean that all new thought is standing on the shoulders of others, I dont think so, at least I hope not. Thought, art, poetry, music, all have aspects that influence them, but if one is true in creating then that is just background. When one truly creates they take an idea in a moment, this may have influences yes but in the moment of creation of an idea or a piece of work that is not based conciously on another then you have true creation. It exists as a new phenomenon. Like art or poetry, everytime someone looks on a piece of work for the first time without a knowledge of the painter, writer etc, they see what they alone see, they enjoy it for what it is to them, they have their own subjective truth of what it means, stands for, tells them. Art is recreated every time it is looked at by eyes that have no predetermined knowledge. Creation can exist in itself as long as we allow ourselves to be truly creative. We are not doomed to recreate the works of others, be inspired yes, but we have a duty to ourselves to make something that exists only in the moment, not the past or the future but just in the second of its creation and what it means to us. Its up to us to choose to do that.

  • Joanie

    Yes we are influenced by others when it comes to creativity, but I agree with Adrian in that when we look at a painter or read a book, etc..we don’t really know what was in the mind of the painter or the author but we are influenced by what we see and/or read..we imagine what we want, not necessarily what the author/painter..etc. had intended, because we use are own imagination via our own creativity…but anyone else could have looked at that painting or read that book and have been influenced in a different way. So what we do as a result of what influenced us is our own new rearranged creation. It is a creation because no one else before had either wrote a book word for word like yours, or drawn a painting exactly like yours, so it is your own creation; driven from other influences, but still a creation in it’s own.

  • http://www.alternative-spiritual-healing.com ryan

    Brainwaves created when meditating are similar to that of creative genius. Meditation is one of the easiest ways to become creative.

    Mother Teresa said ‘Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.’ Being aware and receptive is an important part of receiving, understanding, and benefiting from Creativity.

    An easy way to do this is to repeat a word over and over again while lying or sitting. Every time the internal dialogue gets going use your chosen word to interrupt it. Suggested words are peace, love, or simply the word one has wonderful results.

    Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School reports that by eliciting this form of relaxation, or as he called it The Relaxation Response, reduces blood pressure when practiced three times a week for ten minutes each.

    When you reduce blood pressure you counteract hypertension, hardening of the arteries, which may reduce development of heart disease.

    There are a host of other health benefits from regular meditation including increased level of neurotransmitters GABA, the hormones DHEA, Melatonin, Serotonin, higher levels of Endorphins, and helps bring balance to the PH of the body. The health benefits are too many to list!

    Warm wishes,
    Ryan
    PS for more information on how to become more creative with meditation check out…
    —————————————————–

    —————————————————–

    • Yup

      Yes. Always remember that meditation is a practice; it will likely not have instant results if you are new to it. There is A LOT of noise in the mind (media, gossip, stress, etc) that you don’t even realize is there until you continue practicing. Eventually the chatter of the ego quiets, and the purity of your deep natural infinite self shines through. Then the creative juices flow, because you’ve learned to shed the world’s nonsense and be yourself, which IS creativity.

  • http://www.privatedimension.at/ Christa

    You come up with great points in your articles and there are some – which I find very interesting – where I would say: Yes and no. Everything was always here, but still lots of artists come up with something new – even thought they were inspired having seen something somewhere. When I write something, it is based on knowledge I have read or heard somewhere and still I put it into another light and I would guess you do the same. Something which does not exist yet, we can’t imagine and it does not have words. It is a new combination of known things. Every inventor takes already existing material, but it makes the combination, for example which made the light bulb light up. Didn’t it take a thousand different tests with different elements.

  • http://www.olc.com.tr Yurtdışı Eğitim

    Creativity. What’s the Creativity. I think creativity, combined with those in hand to set up and a new results. This result as a summary of this article, I take off work.

  • Randomly Directed

    While it is certainly true that many examples of creativity are mutated forms of other works, sudden creativity also exists. I’d argue that the sudden-ignition form of creativity is generally more impactful and revolutionary (but not necessarily “better”) than the kind discussed in this article. Examples of such epiphanies include Newton’s realization of how gravity works, and Einstein’s work on the theories of general and special relativity.

  • http://www.probodybuildingdiets.com Bodybuilding Diets

    How does one become truly creative? Does he need to be able to produce a poem or piece of art? What if he does not have the capability to do any of those?

  • Saaniu

    Deserve best for those who try’s….I agry with u, creativity Comes from curiousity….n success is key for every thin…..

  • Rachana

    Very powerful article..like enrich soup…Thanks for writing…keep it up & up..Regards !

  • http://screw9-5.blogspot.com/ Screw9to5man

    I honestly believe that creativity also comes when other areas of your life are doing well. For example, if I’ve been eating healthy and working out, I feel more creative and full of ideas towards the end of that day, but if I’ve been lazy and eating junk, my mind does not want to even think about creating something. 

  • Wentinghappy

     awesome

  • Givans1980

    I love this! Thank you for sharing! In addition to working to help site owners, like the site owner of http://www.qmattresses.com/, I am working on a novel. I sometimes get hung up on making my art amazing and finding my creativity after spending a full work day completing tasks for my clients. I will definitely enjoy some of these tips and might even drop in to let you know how well some of them worked. Again, thank you!

  • Osanda W

    Good artists copy , Great artists steal – Steve Jobs

  • david c

    as a politican myself, I do feel the way of observing, and having influences from other collegeues.

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  • http://www.kingpinlifestyle.com/ Brian

    This is definately one of the best posts I’ve read in awhile.

    This is the first post on creativity that caught my eye and kept it there. I love the insight and perspective and I’ve got to completely agree. My favourite part of the article states “If you want to be more creative, learn from people who are smarter than you.” 

    I plan to use the content in this article to inspire my own creativity. Thank you :)

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    How to be creativity is very important to our working and studying.Thanks for sharing this great post!It really helps me a lot!

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  • James

    its hard to take someone serious when they admit they have no experience. 

  • Fargol

    I disagree. every bit of re-organization does in fact involve the creative process, it does involve and engage the mind and insight of the organizer, therefore it is individualized, personalized creation.

  • http://www.acaiberrygreece.gr/ Adriana Bratsa

    Inspired article.
    On my opinion curiosity isn’t enough. To be creative you must delve deep inside think and find that little gem that will make your article attractive and valuable to share.

  • Eagle Dream

    It’s an interesting perspective, but I can’t say I agree with you. True inspiration exist, and it’s being inspired by what is to make something new. It’s not reorganizing; it’s using part of what exists to make something new and bigger than the parts you used. 

  • Iamaekansh

    really appreciable 
    and excellent writing style 

  • Leslie

    This article is wonderful and really speaks to me. For a long time I felt very disappointed because I knew I was a creative person, but just wasn’t coming up with a great original idea. So I just gave up on my creative spark. I understand now that drawing inspiration from the work of others is natural and perfectly fine. Thank you for this article! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisgoodhallgo Kgooden Go

    Well said. Im in need of a mentor and more reading time

  • Nonnie

    I think you should put your name on every article or page. If I want to quote you, and I do, I can’t find your name!

  • Anitra Sailor

    10/10 great article! That Einstein quote is my favorite quote of all time.

  • Steven | Selfdestination

    Yes. Learning from your peers is most valuable.
    Great ideas are a recombination of existing concepts.

    However I do think that the sum of our earthly creativeness advances.
    Individual minds that thrive on the best ideas of their forefathers’ can bring quantum leap.
    You might call such an act of (re)discovery…

    Additionally, by changing our abstraction, we can practice a routine for creative association.
    This is useful when creativity is needed on-the-go.

  • Jagoda Perich-Anderson

    Our creative muses hunger for inspiration from multiple sources. It’s the way we combine and interpret these various inputs to create our own ideas that makes them unique and creative. Wonderful post.

  • http://brian-hermelijn.deviantart.com/ Brian Hermelijn

    Love this article. It really makes you rethink what you thought creativity was. Since we always ask, how to be creative?

    While the answer is lies in front of you.

  • http://thetopfivepercent.com/ Stephen W. Anderson

    The way to real creativity is to add something new to the existing recipe and come up with something new that has not been thought of before – at least in the way that we have been accustomed to. Art is imitation, with a twist. Bushiness is the same way, imitation with a twist.

  • u_gulamov

    Thank you! I’ve opened up this article but have been postponing reading it until this moment. It came at the right time!

  • Yup

    How about this, we ARE creativity….what? WHOA! That’s right, a single out-of-body experience will fill you in on the fact that we are all one consciousness made of light, living out this physical reality as separate human beings who interact with one another. I/we thought up this world from the start. I/we created the universe because I/we/God simply IS. You can pull ideas right out of the collective consciousness if you practice meditation regularly, forgive people, help people etc. Basically the more you nurture your true essence, the light that we all are, the more creative you will be.