Tapping Your Creativity

Jul 15, 1992

The ability to think creatively is critical for anyone working in an architecture, consulting engineering, or environmental consulting firm— not just the design staff. The business side of the professions is just as demanding as the technical side of the profession, and today, more than ever, it takes creative thinking to stay ahead in a dynamic environment. Young children are almost constantly in a creative state. Gradually, their brains become fully developed and by puberty they start to think like adults. Most experts on creativity agree that adults are most creative when highly relaxed. Unfortunately, the demands of professional and family life don’t provide most of us with much time for relaxation. Instead, we tend to rush from one crisis to the next, one meeting to the next, one opportunity to the next. Unless we force ourselves to let up, we don’t have much time off to do nothing. Although I’m a firm believer in the value of hard work— if you work hard enough you can overcome just about any obstacle— I’m also starting to believe in the benefits of a radical change in routine occasionally to get the creative juices flowing again. Thomas Edison had a technique that he used to tap into his creativity. He would sit in an arm chair, arms dangled over the sides of the chair, holding a ball bearing in each hand, with tin pie pans on the floor directly under his hands. Then he would close his eyes and start to drift off to sleep. When he was just about to fall asleep, his hands would relax and he would drop one of the ball bearings, instantly waking him up. He would then write down whatever he was thinking about at that precise moment. I used to work with a fellow who wrote proposals for a major west coast engineering firm who would lay down on the floor of his cubicle and take a nap when he wasn’t feeling creative. More and more firms are finding it aids their business planning process to get away from the office and plan recreational activities, even “recreational drinking” times in the evening. I’ve seen it work on a number of occasions— particularly where there are significant age and background differences of principals— to go out and do juvenile things like drink beer and play pinball together. That activity alone can break down barriers to understanding the “other guy’s” point of view. Some people find they are most creative when driving— especially those with long commutes. I’ve had several people who drive 45 minutes or more to work each day tell me that they keep a pocket cassette recorder in the car with them to record the thoughts they come up with while driving. Other people, including a couple of the best CEOs I know of in this business, make it a part of their regular routine to exercise for a couple hours each day. One does his workouts in the middle of the day, instead of eating a big lunch. Another plays ice hockey in a men’s league. Another plays basketball several times a week. These people find that the exercise process clears their mind and the relaxed state that results afterward is helpful to their creative powers. Although I confess that I’m not an exerciser, I find that reading— particularly novels, instead of “how to” business books— is beneficial, and helps me to look at the world through another set of eyes. It’s only when you can see things through the eyes of another that you can be more creative in your problem-solving. It’s hard to be creative when your ideas are constantly being scrutinized and evaluated by others— it’s always easy to find fault with another’s thinking, certainly easier than it is to come up with an original idea. The moral (if there is one): principals of firms that want to grow beyond their current boundaries need to nurture creativity in others by being less critical. They need to change routines for themselves and their staffs every once in a while. They need to constantly seek ways to look at the world through the eyes of others— including staff, clients and the public at large. And finally, they need to support the individual needs that particular people may have for a non-standard routine. Originally published 7/15/1992

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