The first time I uploaded a photo to Flickr, I was terrified. It wasn’t just a random photo. It was a photo I was proud of — a photo I had an urge to share with the world (which was practically my zero followers on my newly created account). But I hesitated. I hesitated because sharing something I had created meant being vulnerable. It meant being ready to take the heat, or even worse, being ignored. I had a passion for photography, I wanted to create, and I didn’t want to risk losing that fire because of random feedback from people I didn’t know.
The first time I wrote an article, I had similar thoughts. What if I got it wrong? What if everyone says these are nonsense? Once I sent my words out to the world, I would never be able to take them back. Was I that sure of my ideas and insights?
When we think about courage in the context of creativity, we typically think about what it takes to share our creations with the world. We think about the outcomes of the creative process and, more importantly, about the courage to face how they will be received. Courage, we tend to believe, is needed after the creative work has already been done. But there is another type of courage affecting the creative process. It is the courage to create the setup that enables creativity and innovation. Most of us need this kind of courage to create remarkable things, to begin with, whether we are sharing them with the world or not.
Leading a creative life requires the courage to visit other worlds, imagine a new reality, and play.
Visit Other Worlds
We often hear (or say) that to be creative, we have to step out of our comfort zone, which means we should try new things to challenge ourselves. True, without challenges, there could be no progress, and anybody whoever achieved something meaningful has done so by challenging their limits. At the same time, you can certainly challenge yourself within your natural domain by taking it up a notch now and then: addressing more complex problems, trying techniques and tools you are not accustomed to, etc. Doing all that is important, but leading a creative life means more. You don’t just have to step out of your comfort zone — you have to leave your Home Base occasionally.
Our Home Base is where we really, deeply come from. It is where we naturally operate. We can repeatedly step out of our comfort zone without leaving our Home Base, but by doing so, we miss numerous creative opportunities.
Your professional domain, for example, is a typical Home Base. If you are a Data Scientist, numbers, trends, and statistical tools, are all well within your Home Base. You feel comfortable in this realm because that is what you wish to do — the playground where you aim to play. If you are an urban photographer, the streets and your camera are your Home Base. And if you are a poet, observing people, reflecting and introspecting, and eventually capturing scenes and emotions using words, all define the scope of what you naturally do. Are all these necessarily comfortable and easy? Certainly not. You can face real challenges even when deeply immersed in these worlds. But, each of these worlds captures the essence of what you do. They define the core of your creation and where you play most of the time.
Your Home Base is where you feel you belong.
Each of us has a Home Base for a good reason. This is how we improve and become professionals. If we don’t spend most of your time operating within it, we will not be able to progress. But this does not mean we have to keep our doors locked and confine ourself exclusively to our Home Base.
Fusions fuel creativity. Anything ever created is a fusion of two or more ideas that existed previously. The most impactful fusions are those triggered by stepping out of our Home Base and visiting other worlds. When we do that, we discover new possibilities and opportunities that are just not available within our Home Base.
Visiting other worlds does not mean doing something we are not comfortable doing. It is an act of exploration, just like visiting a foreign country as a tourist. Usually, we will just pass by, but occasionally, we spend some time getting to know the places, the people, and the culture. Experiencing things outside our Home Base opens our minds and senses and enables us to absorb different raw materials than the ones we are used to working with. Creative breakthroughs will occur when we take these discoveries back to our Home Base and fuse them with the challenges, solutions, tools, and materials we are familiar with.
Engineers often use biomimicry to create innovative designs. From the invention of Velcro® to the Bullet Train, humans utilize nature’s ingenuity and blend it into our artificial creations. None of that could have happened without people like George de Mistral and Eiji Nakatsu leaving their Home Base to visit other worlds. When they observed nature, sometimes with the intent to solve a concrete problem and sometimes just to be inspired, they opened their minds to opportunities unimaginable in the realm of their Home Base. They then took what they saw back to the engineering world and fused their discoveries and insights with their core knowledge and skills.
Velcro, the Bullet Train, and other inventions and designs inspired by nature didn’t become possible because their inventors stepped out of their comfort zone, but because they took some time off visiting adjacent universes. And they came back with precious raw material to fuel their ideas. The core of their work was done back in their Home Base — you cannot design a train without using engineering tools and knowledge. But the kernel of the innovative idea — the spark that ignited this work — was lit while being on an expedition to an entirely different domain.
Visiting other worlds often requires courage. In your Home Base, you are the professional. You master the tools and techniques. You know what you aim to achieve and, typically, how to achieve it. To visit other worlds, be open, and absorb what they could offer you, you must shed all that and be prepared to observe everything as children do. It is a wonderful, fulfilling experience once you are already immersed in it. But when you spend most of your days in your Home Base, making the first move is not trivial.
When you overcome the tendency to stay in your Home Base and you reach other worlds, it always pays off.
Imagine a New Reality
Progress is almost always gradual. It is mostly evolutionary and not revolutionary. Even the most innovative ideas are often the result of a long series of baby steps, pitfalls, detours, and occasionally even a need to take a step back and try again.
At the same time, many innovations we admire, even when they are essentially incremental changes, would not have been possible without a grander vision. A vivid image of an entirely different reality is a valuable lighthouse to guide our way and help us define the next incremental step we need to take.
Redefine Meat™ is a food-tech company with an ambitious mission: to create a world where everybody can enjoy the culinary experience of meat without impact on the environment and animals in particular. Redefine Meat™ is gradually progressing toward realizing this vision by printing plant-based meat that captures real meat’s taste, texture, and cooking and eating experience. While the company already has a portfolio of products and many satisfied customers, its vision is phrased not in terms of market share or profit, but rather as a picture of a brand-new world — a reality most of us couldn’t have imagined until recently (and many people still can’t). And yet, it is this vivid image of a radically different reality that helps the people working in the company (and maybe also its customers) take one step at a time toward realizing it. From a global perspective, each step Redefine Meat™ does might look like a tiny fraction of the potential they imagine. But it is this envisioned reality that allows constant progress in that direction.
Imagining a new reality, let alone sharing it with people, requires courage. Communicating only what you are about to do next is much safer. The chances of failing to achieve your declared goal are smaller, and it is easy for people to understand precisely what needs to be done. If you aim to change only 1% of reality, you have a good chance to succeed. When you aim for a new reality, on the other hand, you take a greater risk. First, people might just not get it or be too skeptical. You risk being thought of as living in a fantasy or setting unrealistic goals. And above all, you might fall into the trap of never being satisfied with what you manage to achieve if it falls short of the vision you have sketched.
Overcoming these fears and taking a leap into an imaginary future has the power of connecting people to your vision and inspire them. Having a vision is essential, but turning it into a vivid picture of the world you wish to create can be the secret fuel that drives your creativity.
Play. For Real.
If you have read anything about creativity in recent years, you know that embracing failure is an essential part of the creative mindset. Creativity involves taking risks and walking on uncertain paths. If you stick to the familiar and the safe, you will walk the paths others have taken before you, which means you will not be creating anything new. When you take a new course, you can either succeed or fail because experimentation is at the basis of creativity. Embracing failure doesn’t mean we merely need to be prepared to fail. It means we should learn from our failures and use them as growth opportunities.
But embracing failure is only the first step toward a more profound change of mindset that can truly unleash our creativity. Leading a creative life mandates that we play. All the time. For real.
In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray defined five characteristics of Play. One of them is to value means over ends. Play, in that sense, can be associated with any activity we do (and not just what we typically refer to as playing), as long as we enjoy the activity itself — the process — regardless of its outcome. Embracing failure implies your goal is to succeed, and failure is just a necessary step toward success. When you value the means over the ends, the focus is on the road, not the destination. When we focus on the result, says Gray, we are no longer playing.
Play has a crucial role in leading a creative life. When we free ourselves from focusing on the results, we are naturally more open to exploration, experimentation, and discovery. We don’t look for the shortest or easiest path because we enjoy the road more than arriving. And this, in turn, enables us to find things we didn’t expect, to be surprised, and collect experiences and raw material that will help us in our creative ventures.
The more we play, even in the most serious of tasks, the more creative we can be.
Leonardo da Vinci may be the most famous person to value the means over the ends. Although he is one of the most famous (if not the most famous) artists in human history, only a few artworks are attributed to him. This is partly because Da Vinci was more than just an artist. But more important, he seemed to have loved the exploration and experimentation more than the results. It is no coincidence that one of the things Da Vinci is famous for is The Codex Atlanticus — Leonardo’s collection of notebooks, full of sketches and texts, documenting his relentless explorations, numerous discoveries, and ingenious insights. This was the core of his being and one of the most impressive works he has created. Yet, it was not meant to be published, but only to serve as Leonardo’s personal notebook.
Instead of thinking about his next masterpiece, Leonardo da Vinci simply preferred to try new things.
In our goal- and achievement-driven world, enjoying the journey more than the destination requires courage. It is hard to imagine someone like Leonardo da Vinci making a name for himself today. Most organizations, and most people for that matter, are focused on results. Even embracing failure is not that common, and playfulness is associated with leisure and not the serious work we are paid to do.
Being courageous and going against the grain in that respect is a creativity enabler. It is more than just a leap of faith. We have to truly and deeply let go of the notion that results are the things that matter. We should enjoy what we do. It is like painting with water on a Buddha Board, where the painting fades away minutes after you draw it, whether it is a meaningless doodle or a masterpiece. It is the experience of painting that matters and affects you most.
In reality, we won’t be able to ignore results entirely. Ultimately, we have to balance pursuing goals with enjoying the journey. If we cannot genuinely let go for a significant part of the time, many growth opportunities will pass right by us. Each such opportunity can be the spark of a creative idea. Making room to notice them requires us to be in a state of Play and enjoy ourselves. For real.
Creativity is a natural human trait. We are born creative, and we are programmed to lead a creative life. Without the capacity to explore different worlds, imagine new realities, and enjoy what we do regardless of the result, the human species could not have evolved and created the world we know today.
As we grow up, these three core capabilities become harder to exercise. The reason is not an inner change, but mostly the expectations of people and organizations around us. We are encouraged to stay in our Home Base, accept reality or consider only incremental changes, and separate play from serious, goal-oriented work. To lead a creative life, we must go against the stream and constantly challenge these tendencies.
Once we get the courage to reject these external demands, we are on track to leading a more creative life. And the more we do that, the more natural it becomes. Soon, we won’t be able to imagine our lives any other way.