Don’t wait for creativity to come to you — create it yourself.
Let’s travel back in time. Travel way, way back. Back to when our ancestors roamed the wilderness with nothing more than animal hide clothes and weapons made of wood and stone.
This, you see, may help us understand the true nature of creativity.
Early Homo sapiens had a bit of a problem. We were pretty weak compared to every animal around us. Our tiny canines and short fingernails were useless against a lion’s dagger-like fangs and claws. We had no venomous bite, no poisonous excretions, no horns or spines or anything inherently physical that helped us to take down prey.
In short, we were Batman in a world full of Wolverines: a regular person among killing machines. But, like Batman, we were smart and we turned our big brains toward tools. And, incidentally, towards creativity.
For most of human history, people believed creative inspiration came from the gods — quite literally divine inspiration — and this seemed to make sense. After all, many of history’s most creative thinkers didn’t hunker down and think themselves into a creative mental state, they experienced a sudden explosion of ideas seemingly out of nowhere and then scrambled to write them down in a flurry of parchment.
There are quite literally thousands of pages worth of poets, musicians, writers, philosophers, and thinkers all seeking to explain the feeling of inspiration when their “muse” comes to them, but no one describes it better than 18th-century existential philosopher and mega-moustache connoisseur, Friedrich Nietzsche:
“You listen,” he said, “you do not look for anything; you take, you do not ask who is there; a thought lights up in a flash, with necessity, without hesitation as to its form — I never had any choice. A delight whose incredible tension sometimes triggers a burst of tears, sometimes automatically hurries your pace and slows it down; a perfect state of being outside yourself… All of this is involuntary to the highest degree, but takes place as if in a storm of feelings of freedom, of unrestricted activity, of power, of divinity… This is my experience of inspiration.”
One of our first great inventions was the spear. It was fairly simple—just a long sharp wooden pole at first; then, later, a long wooden pole with a piece of sharp rock tied to the end. Still, there was room for improvement.
The humans of the day said, “This is pretty good, but a lot of these creatures we’re hunting are pretty dangerous and we’d prefer not to get too close to them. Let’s put our big brains together and come up with a solution.”
So they did. In some parts of the world, like North America, indigenous people created a tool called an atlatl, which uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in dart-throwing. In other parts of the world, humans combined the elastic tension of animal sinew with a curved wooden pole and created bows. Because projectiles from a bow flew farther than spears and had a greater chance of veering off course on their flight, humans realized they needed something to guide it. They added fletching.
Nietzche’s description is exactly what it feels like when creative inspiration strikes you. However, as beautiful as this sounds, it isn’t very helpful.
The philosopher paints us an arresting vision of what creative inspiration feels like, but he doesn’t tell us what creative inspiration actually is or, better still, how to harness it for our own purposes.
I’ve read plenty of commentary like this — fluffy prose with no true utility outside its elegant aestheticism — as well as people straight up screaming over the internet, “DO NOT WAIT FOR INSPIRATION! INSPIRE YOUR OWN CREATIVITY!” And while this is true, it still doesn’t tell you why or how.
In my mind, all advice should be practical, and if you can discover what something is, you can usually figure out why it is, and this will lead you to the all-important how.
What’s the true nature of creativity? Where does it come from? And how can we harness it on command?
To understand creative inspiration, the first step is to demystify it. Because if we keep romanticizing it and wrapping it in a mystical shroud of beyond-our-conscious-control, we’ll be forced to accept inspiration on a whim rather than on command.
It took a long time to upgrade our tools again, but the discovery of gunpowder finally did it. Gunpowder combined with a slim projectile created many opportunities for fun and war — for fun, fireworks. For war, the hwacha:
From then on, gunpowder led to innovation after innovation, completely remodelling the world in its wake, sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse.
Eventually, we turned away from gunpowder-propelled projectiles like cannonballs and toward missiles— long pointed projectiles propelled by fiery chemical reactions with a deadly payload in the tip.
If we look at one of humanity’s first inventions, the arrow, and place it side by side one of our more recent inventions, the missile, we can see clearly the true nature of creativity in action.
It’s no coincidence these two are structurally similar. We built on what we already knew, adapting and incorporating new components we discovered and eventually created something (seemingly) very different from the arrow.
At its core, when we strip creativity of its romantic aura and struck-by-lightning magical feeling, we find that creativity is the simple act of combining pre-existing individual components in new, previously uncombined ways. Inspiration may play a part in the motivation that leads to “intelligence having fun” as Albert Einstein said of creativity, but there is nothing magical, mystical, or otherwise outside your control about creativity.
So what does this mean for you as a creative individual? Like I said earlier, when you discover the What, you can also determine the Why and How. Now that we’ve determined what creativity really is, the Why and How easily follow.
Why does creativity function this way? Because humans cannot create any new thoughts without other thoughts preceding it. And these previous thoughts come from our five senses — sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.
Ancient Homo sapiens didn’t create the wood and rocks they used for the first spears any more than modern Homo sapiens created the individual components and ideas that go into missiles. We are constantly piggybacking off of old ideas, constantly adapting, improving, combining things and observing how they work together, and jotting down notes for the future generation to do the same. At this point in human history, each “new” component we incorporate is often a combination of many other previous combinations from the past.
Now you might say: “wait a minute, if all of our thoughts come from previous thoughts, and those come from our five senses, then how come I can imagine things I’ve never encountered before in real life, like unicorns?”
That’s a great question, but even this fits with the true nature of creativity. After all, what is a unicorn? It’s a horse with a horn on its head, often white and sometimes with a rainbow tail (seriously, where are all the black unicorns?).
You must have perceived these components individually before you’re able to imagine a unicorn. You’ve seen horses and horns. Separately. Now combine those two pre-existing thoughts together and you get an entirely new, non-existent creature, a unicorn. Even if no real creature naturally has a rainbow tail, you’ve seen what a tail looks like and you’ve seen what a rainbow looks like. Your mind then combines the two pre-existing thoughts into something new, overlaying the colour on top of the physical form of a tail: a rainbow tail.
So even with imaginary thoughts involving things you’ve never seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled, you’re still using your five senses and combining pre-existing thoughts to construct a new thought!
When Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” he unearthed the seed of truth about creativity, as well as intelligence. All intelligence builds on the intelligent discoveries that came before it, and all creativity builds on the creations of those that came before it.
If something seems completely new and original, it’s most likely because you can’t see the thousands and thousands of components that make up its current form.
As creatives, we are not just standing on the shoulders of giants, we are standing on the shoulders of collective humanity, large and small, dating back thousands and thousands of years.
Now that we’ve satisfied the Why, we can move on to the How. How do you command creativity to come to you when you’re squeezing your brain for fresh ideas like an empty tube of toothpaste?
First, recognize that creativity is an active process of combining components in new ways.It’s not passive. Therefore, you shouldn’t slouch around waiting for inspiration to strike from outside yourself. You may not believe the Norse god Odin will bless you with divine inspiration, but if you’re treating the source of your creativity as something that must come to you as opposed to you who must come to it, you might as well be waiting on Odin for all the good it’ll do you.
Once you break through the illusion of creativity that holds so many people back, the second step is to play around by combining things that already exist in new and interesting ways until you create something that hasn’t been created before.
You may not see the point in this at first. It may feel like shifting a Rubik’s cube into crazier and crazier combinations, all the while getting further away from the solution, but thankfully, unlike a Rubik’s cube, creativity has no fixed answer. It’s all trial and error, experimentation and reflection. You never know what will lead you where, so have fun with your combinations!
Third, if none of your current combinations give you the results you want, open yourself up to new information, new inputs, and then begin actively combining those in your brainstorming practice. Read! — read a lot and read widely, especially outside the genres you typically read. This will add some much-needed new spices to your dish of creativity.
Creativity is one of the most powerful tools human beings have at our disposal. We’ve wielded it from our time as hunter-gatherers struggling to survive on the plains of Africa all the way to developing new ways to fight cancer, explore outer space, and even creating strategies to become more creative. If we want to solve the world’s biggest problems or even our own personal ones, we need to learn to command creativity. And mastering it begins by killing the illusion that creativity is out of our control, that we must wait for it to come to us rather than us who must come to it.
By understanding that creativity is just combining pre-existing components in new never-before-combined ways, we can confidently begin to practice — play around, even — with our own innate powers of creativity to solve problems as small as writing a new fiction story or as large as stopping climate change.