Why you aren’t creative anymore

Being creative

Face it – you aren’t as creative as you want to be. In fact, you aren’t even as creative as you used to be. But why? I recently spoke at a training event about exactly this topic. I thought I’d share an extract since it’s a challenge faced not only by my organization – a communications firm – but across the board from designers to lawyers, students to architects.

Let me start with a question – do you feel your life is busy – you’ve always got something on, jumping from one activity to the next? Yes – me too, we all are.

Second, do you think you’d have better ideas, if you just had a bit more time to think things through? Yes – with you on that.

Lastly – and be honest – are you as creative as you’d like to be? Hmm.

Well this is a problem. It’s a problem for you since we all get satisfaction from the great ideas we have. And it’s a problem for the agency, since one of the main things clients look for is creativity. And it’s a problem for the client, because they need those creative campaigns. And it’s getting worse.

I’d argue that your creativity is getting worse, because you aren’t listening to it. You’ve filled your time with other noise which crowds out your time for reflection. Ideas speak softly. And you need to learn to tune into your intuition. You need to feed your brain lots of different information and experiences to come up with unexpected answers. And we’ll talk about how in a few moments.

First let’s go back to the 1960s – and the birth of the theory of the left brain and right brain.

In the late sixties a man named Roger Sperry, who had the scary sounding job of psycho-biologist, developed the theory of the right and left brain. Or more precisely the right and left hemispheres of the brain. He did this through a series of experiments in which he cut the corpus collosum which connects the two hemispheres and was able to isolate the capabilities of each. What he found was that the right and left hemispheres appear to have different functions.

The Left Brain is the seat of language and logic. It’s analytical and processes information in series. It starts by understanding the pieces and builds up a picture of the whole. It recognizes patterns and trends. It recalls facts, and thinks in terms of words. It’ll remember the words of a song for instance.

The Right Brain by contrast is visual, intuitive and processes information simultaneously. It’s about context and emotion and desire. It builds a picture of the whole then understands the composite parts. It’s the seat of imagination and some would say creativity. It’s about the arts, motor skills, rhythm, non-verbal communication, daydreaming. It’ll remember the tune of a song.

The theory goes that people are predominantly left-brained or right-brained, and our good friend Roger Sperry went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work in 1981. To this day, this concept is still firmly entrenched in our culture.

It’s important to note that neither one is better than the other. Just as it’s not better to be left-handed or right-handed. However the right side of the brain does control the left side of the body and vice versa. This is why left-handed people are sometimes considered to be more creative.

A lot of Sperry’s work was based on monkeys and epileptic patients. Unfortunately for Sperry, people aren’t monkeys and most of us aren’t epileptic so much of his work has been contested subsequently. We now think that the two brain hemispheres are much more interconnected than Sperry believed.

The metaphor of the Left and Right Brain however is useful to us as we think about creativity. Life in the Western world is increasingly data-oriented and logical. Business itself is very left-brained – we talk about financials, and processes and systems. News is very left-brained – we’re talking about stock markets, interest rates, opinion polls, Zika virus epidemics, numbers of Syrian refugees, and the weather – the whole El Nino story is data-centric.

Where does the Right Brain fit into this picture? What has happened to the role of intuition, emotion, context, empathy? If we as individuals and our society become too left-brained, what is the impact on the arts? On people as people, rather than statistics? I would argue that the reason we are struggling with creativity, is that we’re crowding out the right-brained parts of our lives as we try to become more productive with our time. Who has time for daydreaming? For meditating? For simply enjoying our own company – something which terrifies some of us as we fiddle with our phones. And in that world, intuition and free-thinking are drowned out.

You need to slow down to become more creative.

The Ancient Greeks had two words for time. Chronos is the common concept of ticking time. He is the father of time – distributing the hours and minutes we each struggle to manage each day.

But they had another word for time – Kairos. And Kairos is different – it is the qualitative passage of time, which we only experience when we are in the moment. Some people call this Flow – when you are so involved in a process that you don’t notice the passage of time. It’s when you do your best work. You have probably experienced this occasionally. It’s wonderful, selfless, productive, enjoyable.

The truth is we can only experience life in the present – in the now. And too many of us are worrying about the future – what might happen, or fretting over the past – what has happened – to really enjoy and be in the present. We’re sitting in a meeting but reading our emails. We’re with our families but thinking about work. We’re talking to someone but thinking of the next question rather than listening to their answer. We’re more concerned with the Instagram of the moment, than the moment itself – on the replica, not the reality. And in doing that, we’re closing ourselves off to Kairos, to real life experiences – the smells, the sounds, the emotions – which are the source of creativity and satisfaction.

There are various techniques to improve mindfulness – to experience Kairos. I won’t go into them now but they include meditation and journaling for instance.

So in summary, while physiologically the concepts of the logical Left Brain and the emotional Right Brain may not be accurate, it is a useful lens through which to look at our society, our work and our lives. We live in an increasingly left-brained, scientific and linear society. We’re rewarded for being rational and fed a diet of data by the news. There’s so much news, we struggle to take in all the information. We’ve conflated success with busyness and become overscheduled. And within that, the chaotic, emotional, holistic, intuitive, non-verbal, visual voice of the Right Brain has been drowned out. And that’s a problem – because we are not robots. We are impulsive, emotional, irrational, brilliant people who need beauty and art and experiences and feelings to thrive. And unless we slow down and listen to that side of us, to be mindful – we won’t reach our creative potential.

Even Einstein, one of our best scientific minds saw this dynamic and is quoted as saying: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society which honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”

Don’t forget the gift you were given.