How To Think Like A Creative Genius

If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started ‘being creative,’ well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.
— Austin Kleon
How To Think Like A Creative Genius

I've found myself back to exploring the minds of creative geniuses through a new relationship I’ve developed with learning. Building a business gave me a profound realization that learning can be damn right magical. I dove into creatives previously stuck in their cold dead form, black and white existences that haunt highschool textbooks. I didn't have the sense, guidance, or enthusiasm to pursue what interest me because I was conditioned to believe I only needed to know what was on the test.

Why was Dr Seuss telling me as a kid, "Why fit in when you were born to stand out?" All I heard at school was conform to the rules or be prepared to flip burgers or be a destitute loser like your Uncle Terry who sells salad spinners and wears tin-foil hats.

School sucks the fun out of a curious mind. I'd go as far as saying school is the anti-model for creativity and learning. It's a system designed to pump out lemmings who will walk off a cliff without a peep. It plays to the paralyzing fear we have of being different. It's bloody terrifying to follow Seuss's words and stand out.

School in large part creates a society of people who think alike (or don't think at all) and push through life with the conditioned rules, beliefs and boxes that everyone else lives in. Follow the yellow brick road and everyone gets what they want. Unless of course, it's a fulfilling life with purpose that you want. In that case, join a circus because that's what people do who don't play by the rules.

If a teacher told me I needed to know something because it was on the test, that was my clue it was some boring standardized shit not worth my attention. Who were they to tell me what's important? They couldn't even explain why it was important beyond the argument. Well, how else would we grade people and figure out what they know? You mean, sort people into categories and slap them with labels that fuck up their sense of self-worth for their entire lives? Yeah, definitely sounds like a system setting future generations up for creative success.

Memorization is not a sign of intelligence, nor is it an indicator of future success. Hell, I'll buy you a Lamborghini Countach if you can prove me wrong. I didn't want to know shit just for the sake of being that annoying guy at a party who can recite his sweet memorization skills – desperately hoping his ego is stroked with a comment that he should go on Jeopardy.

Think for a moment of the teachers who have had the most lasting and profound impact on you. Was it their ability to point out what you needed to memorize for the test? The ones that stand out have an ability to help you see yourself and the world more clearly. They don't tell you to see the world in a certain construct, they invite you to be a part of the bigger story of why we're even here in the first place.

Business and marketing legend Seth Godin is a damn good example of someone like this. There's life before Godin and there's the life after. It's like a snake leaving the skin of its former self behind. Impact speaks to the life-changing magic a teacher can etch into your core if they lead with empathy. Seeing you for who you are and who you're capable of becoming.

As the father of philosophy, Plato stands as an enduring archetype of the love of wisdom. It wasn't always that way. Plato was born into a distinguished and politically well-connected family. He had been pushed into believing a career in politics was his future, but he was turned off by the cutthroat struggle for power. As he proclaimed, "I was disgusted and drew back from the wickedness of the times."

Education was more or less non-existent in those times. Your life and future played out like a lottery dependent on the luck of your family blood. Thanks to the pursuit of knowledge by Plato's uncles and older brothers, he was exposed to the thinking of another of the world's greatest minds, Socrates. We know about Plato because of Socrates. Plato formulated the basis of the modern university and the idea of primary and secondary education in preparation for university. He'd be turning in his grave at the current state of the education system.

These philosophers pushed the process of the questing mind, critical and open. It's at the very core of their teachings. It was Socrates who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Michael J Gelb in his book Discover Your Genius dissected what these men viewed as an examined life. Socrates and Plato believed that happiness was to be found not through external achievement, material wealth, or status, but rather through living a life that nurtures one's soul.

The only thing that stands in the way of you tapping into your creative genius is you.

That sounds like an immense amount of power to wield in a single statement but it hints at the sheer magnitude of what two of the world's most brilliant thinkers were telling us. Live the examined life. I knew that in order for me to fully step into my potential and lead a happy, healthy, purpose-driven life and business, meant facing the truth about what stories I had adopted without fully examining.

Until we can clear away the smoke and mirrors and look honestly at ourselves, we have no starting point for change. Jim Loher speaks to the life-altering levels of disengagement this can lead to in his book The Power Of Full Engagement. "To perform optimally, we must learn to set aside negative feelings. But when avoiding painful truths becomes a way of life, we eventually suffer the consequences. The pressure of suppressing feelings will eventually be too great, and the toll will show up somewhere - in anxiety, depression or numbness, diminished performance on the job, a marriage that blows up, even physical illness."

It might help numb the pain at the moment, but what do you think that means for your ability to tap into your creative genius?

Everything you do requires energy. If you have a week to prep for a career-changing presentation and you spend 90% of your time creating backdrops and costumes for your cat's Instagram page, you lose that time (energy) forever. You know what you need to do. Avoiding fear will not somehow become enlightenment if you wait long enough. Call the fear out for what it is. Dressing your cat as famous Renaissance artists is not living an examined life. But examining the avoidance of working on the presentation is energy well spent.

Consider the following questions to help guide you in your examination:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how fully engaged are you in your work? What is standing in your way?

  • How closely does your everyday behaviour match your values and serve your mission? Where are the disconnects?

  • How fully are you embodying your values and vision for yourself at work? At home? In your community? Where are you falling short?

  • How consistent with your values is your emotional response in any given situation? Is it different at work than it is at home, and if so, how?

  • To what degree do you establish clear priorities and sustain attention to tasks? How consistent are those priorities with what you say is most important to you?

In a world where we can easily flood ourselves with information overload, let the words of Epictetus serve as a reminder. "That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should."

I put pen to paper every single day to serve as a reflection, reminder and tool to re-focus what I'm thinking. As Epictetus said, we fall into old patterns, old beliefs and drift into lanes with the least resistance when we become satisfied with learning alone. It's the daily practice and training that separates those who dream and those who do. As the best-selling author Sarah Ban Breathnach said, "The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.” Discipline is the bridge between dreams and accomplishment.

To some, this is far more than they're willing to ask of themselves. Our stories run like blood through our veins. We feel like it's who we are at our core and there's no changing. We're dealt the hand we have and there's no escaping the world we live in.

You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them. Expectations serve as opportunities to take what we observe and learn for future action on what gives you and your business momentum, mistakes and all.

Our stories limit us or they serve us. Life happens to us or for us. You follow a pre-determined path of convenience or blaze a path of your own making.

The choice is yours.

Recommended reading:

Patton Oswalt Reveals What Keeps Creative People From Creating . He witnessed failure personified in his early years of standup, and since has worked to nurture the positive voices in his head rather than feeding the negative.