Fancy a cup of tea?

Fancy a cup of tea?

Welcome to the Hard Not Complicated Quick Start Field Guide.

This guide offers you everything you need to start building a strong relationship with creativity. When you're ready for more, you can download The Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Designing Your First Daily Practice.

For now, this guide will take you through a high level look at understanding your relationship with creativity and thinking about how you could change it for the better.

What is creativity?

Many people think of creativity in a narrow way. They think about art and design, inventing new gadgets and pursuing the pure sciences. We agree that all these things can be creative. But creativity itself is much broader.

We define creativity as: solving problems under conditions of uncertainty.

A problem is anything you wish to change or achieve. It could be the problem of how to express an idea in song or the problem of how to build a tree house, make a paper plane or wire up your home theatre system. Some or all of these problems may require creativity. That depends on whether or not you're facing them under conditions of uncertainty.

So what do we mean by that?

Broadly speaking, when it comes to solving problems, you either have a right way to do something or you don't. For example, making a cup of tea is a simple, step by step process. You can write it down and assuming the kettle works and you have access to teabags, cups and water, all you need to do is follow the steps and you'll end up with a cup of tea. This is an algorithmic problem.

But what if the kettle doesn't work? What if you have no cups? Now the problem of making tea becomes a creative challenge, something that requires heuristic thinking, learning, experimentation and the willingness to fail smart. In other words, creativity.

Take a moment to think about your life. Try to think of a dozen or so problems you've had to solve in the last week and then sort them into two columns:

  1. Algorithmic - problems you can solve with a step by step script
  2. Creative - problems solved under conditions of uncertainty where there is no obvious right answer

If you're struggling to get started, here are some common examples of algorithmic problems:

  • Choosing a shirt or blouse to wear
  • Driving to work
  • Finding a plumber

Similarly, commonly given examples of creative problems include:

  • Keeping the children entertained on a rainy day
  • Resolving an argument with a friend or work colleague
  • Choosing a career

Remember, any problem that can't be reduced to a simple set of instructions requires some degree of creativity to solve. Even if it's just realising that a solution you've used elsewhere could be applied here too, or figuring out who to ask for help.

In reality, most problems require a little algorithmic and a little creative thinking. But the ones that make a real difference to the world are problems that lean towards creativity. So, if you want to put a dent in the universe, you need to have a strong relationship with creativity.

Your relationship with creativity - part one

Performing well on creative tasks isn't about what you know. Learning every last creative technique in the world won't help you to be creative if you don't have a strong relationship with creativity.

Let's explore what that means.

Going back to our tea making example. Imagine that you're on a motorised boat in the middle of the ocean. You have fresh water but no working kettle, loose leaf tea but no strainer and no cup. Fortunately you do have milk and sugar.

Making tea in this situation isn't algorithmic. You have some problems to solve that require creative thinking.

  • You need to figure out a way to boil the water
  • You need to work out how to strain the tea
  • You have to find something to drink from

Allowing for the constraints above, can you imagine a way to solve these three problems?

There are no wrong answers here, you can be as liberal as you like with what you have on board the boat, as long as it's at least mildly realistic and don't just say that you happen to have a gas cooker and a pot - where's the fun in that?.

To help you to imagine what you might have at your disposal, there’s a picture of a motorboat at the top of this page.

Try to think of a solution to the three challenges above. And, as you do so, be aware of your emotional responses as you:

  • Explore your resources
  • Widen your options
  • Overcome obstacles and deal with constraints
  • Narrow down to the best approach

Don't worry if you struggle. Creativity is hard. Struggling is a sign you're getting better at it.

Your relationship with creativity - part two

Did you come up with an answer that you're happy with. Good. But, in fact, the point of this exercise wasn't making tea on a boat. The point of this exercise was for you to explore how you responded to the challenge.

People who have a strong relationship with creativity tend to approach challenges like this with certain attitudes, assumptions, emotional responses and patterns of thinking.

Explore your resources

Everything is more than one thing. People with a strong relationship with creativity don't just see a brick, they see a doorstop, a paperweight, a way to measure lengths, a stepping stone, something you can use to swing a rope across a river or grind up into sand to make an hour glass. They do this by being playful and curious and believing that there is always another angle as long as they look hard enough.

When you explored the resources on the boat, how many ways did you think about each object? How long did you spend exploring what you could do with the seat covers, the lightbulbs, the life vests and the captain's hat? Did you take things apart and put them back together again or did you accept them as just what they appeared to be, just what they were presented as?

In psychology circles, getting stuck like this means you're suffering from Functional Fixedness; seeing something as only one thing based on how it was presented to you. The cure for this isn't to learn more about psychology, it's to notice and to allow yourself to question; is this fishing pole useful kindling? Does this first aid kit contain bandages that could be used to strain tea? This sort of open minded thinking is typical of someone with a strong relationship with creativity.

If this part was tricky, you might want to work on being more:

  • Playful
  • Curious
  • Experimental

Widen your options

They say to have a good idea you need to have lots of ideas. People who can generate a lot of different options are more likely to find one that's great or stumble on something truly unique and interesting.

Thinking about this section, did you find that, once you had a solution, it became harder to move on to another one? Did you feel the need to answer the question quickly and close down before you'd explored far beyond the obvious? Was, in effect, a good idea, a weight you carried with you or a stepping stone?

When we coach people we often find that once a team or individual has hit on one good idea, they tend to circle it, sticking close to it with only minor forays into newness. It's as if the mind wants to close the loop as quickly as possible because leaving questions open, holding multiple alternatives in mind at one time, is tiring.

Someone with a strong relationship with creativity may have considered using the magnifying lens from a headlight to direct the sun onto a surface to heat water but then considered that passing electricity through a wire would be more effective. Then, unhappy even with that, he or she may have decided to combine the two! Rather than feeling that a strong idea is the end point, he or she would have found each idea pushed them further to find an even better one.

If you found yourself grabbing on to the first solution you were happy with perhaps you should consider working on being more:

  • Comfortable with uncertainty
  • Open to being wrong
  • Able to let go, even of things you like

Overcome obstacles and deal with constraints

Since creativity is solving problems under conditions of uncertainty, there's one thing you can always rely on; obstacles and constraints.

If you were really playing fair, when you were thinking of your potential solutions, you were also thinking of how they might not work and what might go wrong. Maybe you decided to heat the water by running the engine really hot and placing a bucket of water on top? But what about the risk of an engine fire? You've heard of people dying for a cup of tea but that's a little much. Perhaps you intended to use a glass light fitting as a cup? But what if it got hot? How would you hold it?

In improvisational theatre, one of the best places to go for a live, dynamic demonstration of creativity in action, they have a saying: everything is an offer. What that means, when acting out a scene, is that whatever you're given, you accept and work with. Someone tells you he's in your bookshop to buy some pork chops, that's an offer - maybe he's short sighted or maybe it's a code word for something else and he's a rather odd sort of spy?!

In creative problem solving, constraints and obstacles are information. Someone with a strong relationship with creativity will see them as offers, more material to work with, extra data points on the graph

If you came across obstacles and constraints and found yourself annoyed or irritated by them, feeling a sense of resistance and rejection, maybe you might want to look at:

  • Acceptance, even when you don't like what you see
  • Reframing of events and ideas in different ways
  • Having a positive approach to flexibility and change

Narrow down to the best approach

Some people find it really easy to have ideas. These people are often referred to as having a great level of creative fluency. Often this is seen as the whole of creativity - just having ideas. But, in reality, having ideas is just part of it. As we have seen, you need to be able to have ideas and the have the flexibility to alter them when the world demands it.

And, at the other side of the process, you need to choose a direction. After all, you might have a dozen good ideas and not enough information to know which one is the best. For many people this can cause paralysis!

Thinking back on this part of the process, did you find it easy to narrow down or did you have a nagging sense that you were choosing a suboptimal option? Did you struggle to let go of one solution in favour of another? Was there a feeling that you might be making a mistake and you didn't know how to deal with this practically?

This fear response is one of the main reasons that ideas fail to get off of the ground but if you have a strong relationship with creativity you aren't afraid to try something out even if you aren't certain it's the right path. You see failure, like constraints and obstacles, as information, not as a sign of personal failing or weakness. You know that being wrong for the right reasons is a huge step towards being right.

While diverging (opening up and seeking new options) requires us to find smart ways to rule things in, converging (closing down and narrowing in) requires us to find smart ways to rule things out.

Maybe you have several solutions; which is the least dangerous option? Which has the fewest moving parts? Is one clearly quicker than the others? Is one of them more certain to work? Depending on whether you're most interested in safety, simplicity, speed or dependability, you can narrow this list down to the best option. Perhaps you don't know enough to make a clear choice; could an experiment tell you what you need to know?

Creativity is meaningless unless it leads to action. Which means not just having fun in the world of blue skies and free association, but also being disciplined and rational when it comes to making decisions and moving forward.

If this element of the process made you uneasy or you noticed a resistance to it, you might benefit from working on:

  • Remaining detached and focused on the problem at hand
  • Thinking of life as a series of experiments
  • Remembering that there are no real certainties in life so you need to be OK with uncertainty

What did you feel?

We've now explored an example creative problem and looked closely at different ways people often respond to the component parts of a creative problem solving process. In this section we will look at what those responses mean and how they can help you to build a strong relationship with creativity.

Building a strong relationship with creativity begins with self knowledge. You need to really understand how you currently relate to creativity before you can focus in on the parts you want to change.

And we must be clear, we're not asking you what you thought, we're asking you how you felt. Thoughts and feelings aren't the same thing. Thinking is great. We love thinking. But feelings are far less likely to mislead you when you want to understand how you relate to something.

For example, some people get very stressed about money. When it comes time to deal with the bills and the credit card they struggle. They don't want to face it, they pull away and put it off. They might rationalise this as simply not wanting to do an unpleasant task but if they are really in touch with their feelings they may notice that the stress is due to uncertainty, perhaps they aren't really sure what they spend and how? Some may realise that guilt has something to do with it, maybe because they know they spend money they shouldn't on things they don't need.

Being more aware of how you feel can allow you to get to the bottom of a problem far more quickly than thinking about it. That's because feelings are a guidance system, evolved to help us understand the world and guide us in what to do as we go through life.

Some struggle with this question but if you allow yourself to just sit back and replay in the mind how you worked through the exercise above, with a soft focus on bodily sensations, you'll be amazed what you notice.

Did you initially feel a knot in the stomach when faced with the task? Perhaps tension in the shoulders? Or maybe you got a rush, a tingling feeling, from the opportunity ahead of you?

Maybe you felt deflated, heavy when you realised that your idea didn't work? Or maybe you felt even and calm at that point, quickly letting go and moving on?

And when you had to narrow down; was there a sensation of jittery, unsettled energy? Maybe this was you not feeling OK with letting go of some old ideas you really liked.

If you allow yourself time to reflect on your experience you'll start to spot these telltale signs of emotional responses. Resistance or heaviness, acceptance or lightness, energy or deflation, warmth or coolness, calmness in the chest or jitters in the stomach.

And if you think back at other examples, other times you've had the opportunity to be creative, you may notice similar feelings there too.

And it doesn't matter if these feelings are pleasant or unpleasant. What matters is that you are aware of them and realise that they are guiding you. If you feel positive emotional responses to creative challenges that means you're relationship with creativity is strong and working for you. If you feel negative emotions, there's likely something you should try to work on.

How to work on it

This is the part where a lot of these kinds of documents would pull the old bait-and-switch and offer you a big slab of pricy coaching but that's not Sabre Tooth Panda's style.

Coaching works on the principal that you can solve your own problems. All the coach does is help you to think through the challenge, make a choice and then hold yourself accountable for what you do; awareness and responsibility.

With that in mind, how you work on the problems you've found in your relationship with creativity is entirely your choice. But we do have some tips for you, to get you started on your first Daily Practice.

Your first Daily Practice

Your Daily Practice is simply a set of activities you carry out to alter and improve how you relate to creativity. Some of them may be daily (hence the name) while others may be weekly or occasional. What matters is that they:

  • Build good habits
  • Fit into your lifestyle
  • Remain fresh and fun

Getting into the habit

A habit is simply a behaviour loop that starts with a trigger and ends with a reward and that is driven by a craving of some sort.

A trigger can be anything. Maybe when you get home from work you get to your kitchen and you see your little wine rack on the side. This trigger leads to a craving because you associate a glass of wine with relaxation after a hard day. So, without really thinking, you reach for the bottle and pour a glass - this is your routine. The reward is closing the loop with the pleasant taste of the wine.

When it comes to changing your relationship with creativity you need to think in terms of habits because creativity happens now and there's no point being a creative genius if, when now comes your habitual response is uncreative.

Your Daily Practice should be built to reinforce good habits and that means understanding the triggers of your creative response.

Perfect fit

Your Daily Practice has to fit into your life. We can all imagine how spending our Sunday mornings at a watercolours class and cycling to work a different route every day while listening to Bach would pump our creative juices, but is that a realistic option for you?

A Daily Practice that sticks is a Daily Practice based on what you already do. If you like to watch movies, why not consider watching ones that involve stories about creative people? If you like to cook, could you try tossing out the recipe book once a week and improvising with the leftovers?

And a Daily Practice needs to be grounded in your reality and what creativity is to you in your life. This will make anything you choose more meaningful and so more likely to stick.

Finally, remember the Minimum Viable Change (MVC). This the golden rule of life change and it goes like this:

The MVC is a change no larger than it needs to be to produce a meaningful difference. Any smaller, and you won't create momentum, any larger and you increase your chances of failure and frustration.

When building your Daily Practice, keep it realistic, keep it grounded, and keep to the MVC.

Keeping it fresh and fun

Finally, don't get boring. Regularly reviewing your Daily Practice, looking at what's working and what isn't, reassessing your relationship with creativity, should mean changing things up, adding in new games, trying out new routines and adding new wrinkles to what you're already doing.

Some ways to do this are simple, like changing locations or timing. Some ways require more work, like finding a new way to make what you do tricker (adding in extra constraints can be a great way to start here). Also, including friends and family in your Daily Practice can be a wonderful way to keep things fresh. It also keeps things fun.

Fun matters. It isn't self indulgent to want to be happy, despite what so many seem to believe. Creativity is, in part, about having a sense of control over your own future, designing the life you want. So why design a future where you're bored?

Learn to notice when something brings you joy and when something piques your interest. Then make it part of your Daily Practice.


Here we have only scratched the surface of what it means to have a strong relationship with creativity. But that's fine, because this isn't a one-pass solution, fixing everything with some magic trick. This is a journey and you've just started out. We like to say that the Hard Not Complicated method offers instant change, gradually. And that's really the only way to do it.

You can apply what you've read here over and over again and each time you'll see something new. And don't feel the need to stick slavishly to these words. We don't claim to know how to solve your problems better than you do. All we offer is a way to think about them and a nudge to get started.

If you take only one thing away with you, let it be this: being creative is all about having a strong relationship with creativity. Having a strong relationship with creativity starts with exploring how you respond to creative situations and then gradually working on changing those responses through focused practice.

Now stop reading and get practicing.

Get in touch

If you'd like to learn more, have a chat or hire Sabre Tooth Panda to help you and those you work with to get creative, then go to the contact page and say hello.