The Secret About Creative Thinking

Written by: Tim Hurson

To be creative you have to be able to think creatively. Creativity is a deliberate human activity. The word deliberate means fully considered, and that implies thought. That applies whether you are painting a picture, solving a family problem, inventing a new product, devising a marketing plan, conducting an orchestra, or conducting a sales meeting. All these things can be done un-creatively, but all of them usually produce better results when you take advantage of your ability to think creatively.

But there’s a dirty little secret about thinking, and particularly creative thinking:

Most people don’t know what they’re doing when they think. That may seem counter-intuitive, given that we think almost all our waking lives (and much of our sleeping ones), but it’s true. Here’s a thought experiment to show you what I mean.

If I were to say to you, “On the count of three, I want you to think. Ready? One. Two. Three. Now, think,” what would you actually start to do? What would it look like? What would it feel like? How would you even know you’re doing it? How would you describe it?

Chances are you couldn’t. And if I followed up by saying, “Now, think harder,” what would you do then? Would you furrow your brow? Would you try to think about more things in less time? How would you actually think harder?

Finally, if I said, “Now, think more creatively,” what would happen in your brain that was different from before? Again, most people wouldn’t have a clue.

We talk about thinking all the time:

  • “I think it’s time we moved to another subject.”
  • “What do you think about this idea?”
  • “Let’s think it through.”
  • •“I think I’ll skip dessert.”
  • “I can’t think with all this distraction.”
  • But what are we actually saying? What do we really know about thinking—especially deliberate thinking?

    Here’s the problem (you have it, I have it, we all have it): All of us have an unconscious assumption that we just naturally think as well as we can.

    Everyone thinks they think as well as they can.

    How about you? Don’t you assume that you think as well as you can? That your brainpower is more or less a given? That if you’re lucky, you have a good brain that can think pretty well, and that those who are less fortunate have brains that simply can’t?

    I have an acquaintance. She’s a snooty Creative Director at an ad agency. When I asked her if she thought people could learn to think more creatively, she said: “Either you have it, or you don’t.”

    But that’s nonsense.

    Let’s take another look at that statement, “Everyone thinks they think as well as they can.”

    Very few people would substitute any other human activity for the word “thinks”.

    Would anyone say, “Everyone golfs as well as they can?” or “Everyone cooks as well as they can?” or “Everyone plays the violin as well as they can?”

    Only the most naive person would hold such an opinion. Most of us know that with some training, some coaching, and lots of practice, almost anyone can develop their skills. No matter what their starting points, anyone can learn to play golf better, or cook better, or play the violin better.

    So why wouldn’t it be possible to learn to think better? We all know it would be pointless to prepare for a marathon by randomly flailing your arms and legs about in the hope you’d condition yourself to complete a 26 mile race, and yet when challenged to think more creatively, many people do the mental equivalent of flailing about in the hope they’ll magically become more creative.

    But thinking isn’t magic. Thinking is a skill. It’s not a gift given only to a select few (like my art director acquaintance). Sure, some people may be endowed with more potential than others, just as some people have genes for more strength or better teeth. But no matter what your starting point, you can learn to think better—with some training, some coaching, and some practice.

    So the real dirty little secret about thinking is:

    Everyone thinks they think as well as they can. But everyone can learn to think better.

    The truth is there are simple, straightforward ways you can develop your creative thinking skills and train yourself to think better.

    Many of the skills are obvious. You may even be tempted to say, “Is that all?” And the answer is partly yes, partly no. The skills are easy to define and understand. But habits are powerful things, and your habitual thinking patterns, most of which are not creative (sorry about that, but you are human, and we’re all in the same boat), will take perseverance and self-awareness to break.

    Think of it as a kind of bloodless brain surgery. You’ll have to start rewiring your brain to fire a little differently, but it won’t be painful. In fact, most people I’ve worked with find it fun.

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    Just so you don’t go away empty handed (empty minded?), here’s a tip you can start using right away to help you develop your creative thinking capacity: take notes. I warned you some of these would sound simple, but taking notes is one of the most powerful ways to develop your creative thinking abilities. Think about it. How many times have you had the world’s greatest idea and then forgotten it five minutes later? Haven’t you often wished you’d taken a moment to jot it down? And taking notes can do even more than just help you preserve those flashes of brilliance. The simple process of writing down thoughts and observations has an astonishingly powerful psychological effect. It takes advantage of the basic psychological principle that you get more of what you reinforce.

    By writing down your thoughts, you’re reinforcing having them. And by doing that, you’ll actually start generating more ideas.

    The more you write down your ideas, the more ideas you’ll have to write down.

    Don’t take my word for it. Test it out for yourself. Buy a small notebook, stick it in your pocket, and every time you see or think something you want to remember, note it down. In a very short time, you’ll discover you have far more ideas—and far better ideas—than ever before. It’s kind of like having a second brain.