How to be creative

I’m getting tired of teachers saying this

I don’t know if I’m creative enough for this.

— look, it’s simple. If you want to be creative in any medium:

1. Experience lots of examples. Critique as you go. Write your critiques down. Read other critiques.
2. Create your own works in the medium of choice.
3. Critique yourself. Toss out what doesn’t work. Your percent tossed may be high. This is normal.
4. Go back to 2 and repeat until you have a product.

That’s it. Mythology aside, even Mozart went through rough drafts.

To finish the quote —

I think it probably just takes practice, though.

For all my lessons that have worked beautifully, an equal number have failed. Fine, so you tried something creative and it didn’t work: get out there and try it again.

14 Responses

  1. People interested in this should definitely see the ken Robinson talks on

    He defines creativity as original thinking that has value. He definitely agrees with the idea that creative people aren’t afraid to fail. They give it a go.

  2. I don’t think creativity is that simple, and I think it does a disservice to both you and those that say, “I don’t know if I’m creative enough for this,” to say that it IS that simple.

    Your 4 steps for creativity may work for you, but maybe not for other people. Also, your step 2 is basically saying, “Create. Be creative,” which is like using the statement you’re trying to prove IN the proof. The only step in being creative is: Be Creative.

    Not that simple.

    Also, if creativity comes down to not being afraid to fail, well, that isn’t simple either. A lot of people have deep fears about rejection, etc., and to discount their fears and say, “It’s easy! Just do it!”, well, that isn’t really a fair way to approach it.

    • ‘course it isn’t easy. It’s hard every time. It’s going to hurt. Your fears are all true. You will mess up. You will be a failure. You will be rejected. There will be people that will hate what you do. (And yes, there’s likely a step 0 somewhere to help alleviate all that, but the main thing is just to accept that.)

      If your sense of critique is honed enough, amongst all the drivel you’ll know when you finally hit something good. Set aside and repeat. With enough practice, your percent might get higher.

      Step 2 might, in fact, be a completely derivative copy. That’s ok. Do it enough times and you’ll screw up the copy and make something original.

      That’s much different than what (inexperienced) people usually do when they point blank try to Be Creative.

      (And yes, I’m skimming vast swathes I could write about step 2, but the essential ingredient is to do _something_.)

  3. I’m paraphrasing, but I’m pretty sure Stephen King has written that if you want to be a writer, you must 1. read good writing 2. copy good writing 3. write. And Eric S. Raymond (I think? It might have been Neal Stephenson) wrote that if you want to learn to code, you must 1. read good code (understand how it works) 2. copy good code and 3. write code. When I was taking a bazillion math credits before my masters program for credentialing, I was noticing that learning how to write mathematical proofs followed a similar path. I think that you’re trying to make an analogous point Jason – if you want to get good at anything, including crafting creative lessons (or even ones that are not that creative but just different from what you’re used to), there’s a process, that is not easy. Nobody was born being good at it and you are no exception; you need to keep at it.

    • Kate that is a brilliant concise way of putting it!

      1. Read the good stuff
      2. Copy the good stuff
      3. Create the good stuff

      Of course, 3 is much more difficult than 1 and 2; however, 1 and 2 are a great means of having a shot at 3. Thank you for sharing how you learned to write proofs … a must share with the students next month!

  4. Speaking of Mozart, see the Ten-Year Rule, which many of you no doubt know about.

    As a summary, though: no matter your IQ or head start, it takes about 10 years of diligent work to become an expert on something. Mozart wrote one of his first pieces when he was 5, but (if I’m remembering my music undergrad well enough) he didn’t produce a serious work worthy of both popular and academic attention until he was about 14 or 15.

    King’s 3 steps harken back to our apprenticeship days, and notable writers such as B. Franklin (along with a lot of other notable folks in different fields) learned to do their “stuff” well by first absorbing good stuff and then simply copying good stuff. (Of course, Franklin was self-educated starting at I think 10 or so but copying was very much part of schooling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Don’t ask me for sources on that, though.)

    The three steps are good for kids too still, in my opinion.

    For teaching, these three steps become more difficult than music or blacksmithing or engineering or even just learning. Because the definition of “good” is more elusive.

    • I didn’t think we were talking about being an expert, per se. They’re related, but, rather that “being creative” requires more hard work than the way sometimes people think of it. Not being inspired out of the blue and magically making something awesome but the result of a certain amount of diligence and trial and error. Maybe tack on the ten years thing as an addendum, so you know when to expect to produce really killer work. What you do think Josh?

  5. While it may take 10 diligent years to become an expert, some people have talents that make it easier to be “good” (but perhaps not expert) in less time. For those that have such talents, some of the “read”, “copy” steps may be less necessary (but not un-necessary).

    I think it takes a fair measure of self-confidence to be willing to have some efforts fail – in “public” no less. And fear of failure does not seem to help the creative process (I have read of studies that have shown decreasing performance and creativity as the stakes grow higher).

    However, I also think the best teachers I have had were all very human. They were not perfect, and some classes were more successful than others. It was their genuine interest in and enthusiasm for both the subject material and their students, combined with a willingness to turn on a dime and try something else if something did not seem to be working, that made them good teachers.

    How did they develop that self-confidence and flexibility? Experience certainly was part of it : perhaps having “copied” enough activities in the past, they were comfortable with a range of alternative approaches. But I also think that personality and work environment play a large part too.

    If you receive a poor evaluation solely because some of the things you tried failed, then you are working in an environment that is not likely to successfully encourage creativity.

    If you try something new that fails, and your peers and administrators celebrate the fact that you tried something new, then happily sit down with you for a joint critique of the experience to try to understand why it failed, with the goal of figuring out what is worth trying again in a different way, then you have a healthier creative environment..

    Unfortunately, all too many walks of life seem to expect perfection in all things these days… something that is not easily accomplished by mere mortals. So, I think many teachers would benefit greatly from having a frank conversation with their supervisor about how willing the school is to have them try new things, on what scale, and how often… because I agree that a large number of initiatives will not succeed the first try.

    Will your employer let you try, try again? If not, you have a choice: find another employer, or toss major creativity out the window and find other sources of job satisfaction (perhaps by being creative in smaller ways).

    • If not, you have a choice: find another employer

      Not always an option.

      or toss major creativity out the window and find other sources of job satisfaction (perhaps by being creative in smaller ways)

      This is the safe route. Is keeping the job more important than being a reformer?

      Reflecting on other comments, I guess the ” just try something” is the route to go. A colleague that just retired who was a motivating history teacher who frequently “put his foot in it” had the philosophy that if your professional file is too squeaky clean, then you are not trying hard enough. Isn’t this where the balancing act comes in? Keeping the job versus having a positive affect on your students.

      I’ll echo Mark, Nice summary Kate:

      1. Read the good stuff
      2. Copy the good stuff
      3. Create the good stuff

  6. I didn’t think we were talking about being an expert, per se. They’re related, but, rather that “being creative” requires more hard work than the way sometimes people think of it. Not being inspired out of the blue and magically making something awesome but the result of a certain amount of diligence and trial and error.

    I see this point. And I understand that I moved past it too quickly. But to me it should be obvious that creativity has to have something to operate on in order to be creativity. That you have to have some experience in a domain in order to be considered “creative” should be obvious. Otherwise, it’s just called “weird.” When it’s not called “weird” is when everyone else catches up to the creator in experience. And that just proves the point.

    Then again, I understand that there is a misconception out there that construes creativity with “other-world-liness.”

    But that is really just real-world ignorance. It truly is.

  7. Let me just add: I’m not saying that anyone here doesn’t get it or is ignorant. No, no.

    What I’m saying is, I think, kind of what Jason’s saying: “do something.” (Clay Shirky is a good turn-to on this point.)

    Cut SOME kind of transveral through the parallel lines. And let’s TALK about it. In all of its wonderful specificity AND generality.

    When you have something, then you’ve got something to talk about.

  8. Glad you wrote about this. Awesome ideas in the comments, too!

    Creativity certainly begins as copy-ativity [wink].

    This is why great artists, musicians, writers, etc have influences.

    Influences are the people we like so much that we decide to copy them.

    At first we copy a lot. Then we might tweak a few things to see what happens. Eventually, we might tweak so much that we have developed our own style.

    Great discussion!

  9. Creativity can be taught, although the results may and will differ, like in any other endeavor. There are step-by-step methodologies developed specifically to this end. I would recommend several of Edward deBono’s books, Lateral Thinking and Six Thinking Hats in particular. I am very fond of Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, with the advice he gives there universaly applicable in other professions, see some quotes at

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