How's your relationship with creativity?

A core idea that underpins so much of what we do at Sabre Tooth Panda is the difference between things that are hard and things that are complicated. Some are one, not the other. Some are both. And so many of the mistakes we see come down to failing to distinguish between the two.

Let me give you an example.

For most people getting fit and losing weight is not complicated at all. You eat less, exercise more, drink plenty of water and try to sleep eight hours a night. That's pretty much it.

Yet, in 2016, 26% of UK adults were classified as obese. 63% were overweight.

Access to healthy food and information about how to purchase, cook, and eat it has never been easier. You can get healthy meal plans for free online. Vegetables are cheap. Chicken breasts and tinned tuna are inexpensive.

So what exactly is the problem here?

Some things are Hard Not Complicated

Weight loss is what we call a Hard Not Complicated problem. It takes minimal knowledge but huge amounts of effort to make the lifestyle changes needed to lose weight and to maintain that weight loss. You live in an environment that wants you to constantly eat, eat, eat, and offers you unhealthy foods that are designed to bypass your rational decision making process.

But this is just the start of the problem. Where things get really crazy is when humans do what humans do and try to get clever.

Humans are clever, lazy apes

Now, humans are clever, lazy apes. The history of humanity is the history of finding clever ways to reduce how hard we have to work. It's complicated to train and keep horses but travelling long distances takes a lot less effort if you can ride. It's complicated to live in big groups with all the social dynamics and politics that comes with that. But it does make life a lot easier when you can co-operate and share resources. Huge, global supply chains are complicated like you wouldn't believe but, well, you get the idea.

What I'm saying is that humans are good at being clever in order to avoid hard work. And that's great. But there are some things that just don't seem to yield to that approach. Weight loss is one. Instead of just cutting out the junk food and taking the stairs we go and search Amazon for the latest weight loss plan that promises miraculous results with minimal effort so long as you follow an extensive set of complicated rules. We try to substitute hard work for a complicated system.

You can see other examples of Hard Not Complicated problems all over the place from learning to drive to parenting. You can probably think of a few examples from your own life when, no matter how clever you try to be, the effort required remains stubbornly high.

Creativity is Hard Not Complicated

We tend not to get involved in diet plans, driving lessons, or parenting classes, but one Hard Not Complicated problem we do deal with a lot is creativity.

Like losing weight, creativity is one of those things that many of us want to get better at. There are many books and endless items of online content offering creative processes and tools that, should you learn them, claim to be the Paleo diet of creative problem solving. But, just like complicated diet plans, these tools and processes almost always fail for a range of reasons that I am more than happy to go into at length but that would be another blog entirely.

For our purposes it is enough to know that, just like eating well, being creative isn't about what you know, it's about something far trickier. It's what we call your relationship with creativity.

Being creative isn’t about what you know

Creativity isn't a set of tools or even a singular skill. Creativity is a way to relate to the world. We like to tell people that we aren't here to help them to be creative but rather to _be_ creatively. We're not looking to manufacture walking, talking creativity text books. What we want to see are people who, when faced with a creative challenge, respond habitually with curiosity, playfulness, strong positions loosely held, a willingness to take risks and learn, not run, from painful mistakes.

That's what we mean by having a strong relationship with creativity. Like any other strong relationship it should be defined by trust, familiarity, understanding, and openness to change. Yes, you can use tools and processes but without that underlying relationship these tools and processes are a crutch, masking the weakness. You'll feel this and it will undermine you.

Creative tools, like other tools, can only enhance what is already there. No matter how expensive your running shoes, you can't run a marathon without getting into shape.

I hope, by now, I've convinced you to shift your mindset. Creativity isn't about what you know. It isn't about following a process. It's a relationship. If so then you're probably wondering what exactly you can do about it. Luckily, there are many ways to begin rebuilding your relationship with creativity.

Starting to rebuild your relationship with creativity is easy

Firstly, recognise that the world you live in has shaped your relationship with creativity. You live in a world that wants you to converge, to be "correct" and to do so quickly. Thinking is not encouraged. Thinking differently is actively discouraged. You have so much more to lose if you venture a new, unexpected idea, than you have to gain. Just as living next door to a bakery can make you fat, living in this world can play havoc with your relationship with creativity.

With this in mind become aware of the forces around you that are discouraging creative thinking. Notice them, recognise the limits they place on you and consider them not as blockers but as creative constraints. If having ideas in meetings is too dangerous then you'll need to find another way to introduce creativity into your work. If suggesting new things out of the blue triggers fear and defensiveness, cultivate subtle ways to coax people along.

The promise of creativity is that there is always another way

The promise of creativity is that there is always another way. To someone with a great relationship with creativity there is no such thing as a situation, circumstance, job, or activity that yields no space for creativity. There is always another way. Remember that, test it, and keep going until you believe it.

Next, remember that all relationships need quality time. You can't expect to have a strong relationship with creativity if you never spend any time with your creative side. So find activities and environments that offer you this quality time with creativity.

Sabre Tooth Panda runs No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical pub quiz which is designed for exactly that purpose. It's date night for you and your creative side. You get to play with ideas, go as weird or as dark as you like, say whatever comes to your mind, and notice that not only does the sky not fall on you but that your creative liberation offers liberation to others.

But that's far from the only option.

Look for hobbies and activities that spark curiosity in you, especially ones that are far, far away from your professional life, and try them out. Read books and listen to music from other cultures, travel, experiment with new ideas and see how they feel. Try things on as if trying on a new jacket.

This is a journey of learning about you. So anything that offers you a chance to see something new in yourself is a great lesson just waiting to be learned.

On top of this it's worthwhile doing an audit of your current relationship with creativity and finding ways to deal with any specific weaknesses you find there. For example, if when faced with a creative challenge you feel fear, then you should find ways to cultivate understanding. That fear is there to keep you safe. Don't try to conquer it. Lean into it and see if you can find out where it comes from.

Perhaps you find the act of staying open to new things, avoiding premature closing, drains you. Maybe you feel bored and want to quickly move on. If so then try to work on your awareness. See if you can practice looking at things more closely until you find that even simple things can be endlessly interesting. Life drawing is a great exercise for this. Once you realise that a human hand is a subject that you could study for a hundred hours you might begin to feel more open to staying open. You'll know that there's more to find if only you can stay curious.

It’s not so serious, even, or especially, when the pressure is on

Lastly, although this is by no means an exhaustive list, see if you're taking it all too seriously.

Creativity is intelligence at play, so it follows that playfulness is a key element of any creative endeavour. And this brings us right back to the issue of environment. We feel that we must be serious, especially in our work lives. This tendency is exacerbated when the pressure is on which is, tragically, when creativity is needed the most.

If you bring too much heaviness into the process, if you feel burdened by what you know and how you must behave, then the childlike spontaneity that is your birthright is stifled. This cannot be allowed to stand because the world needs your little spark of madness.

This is the end of the blog, not the end of the journey

At Sabre Tooth Panda we try to avoid providing simple "take home messages" because what we do not want is to leave you feeling like the learning is done. So please, if you have found any value in this, don't allow yourself to feel a sense of completion.

You are, at this moment, standing at the foot of a great mountain. You don't have to climb it but it is there and the views are amazing.