If you don’t consider yourself creative, it’s because you’re thinking about creativity in the wrong way. Creativity is not an all-or-nothing characteristic, quality or skill. It’s not something you’ve got and others don’t, or vice versa. We’re all inherently creative: We synthesize information, make connections, and make choices in life that reflect a personal style and point of view.
The problem is that many of us share common misconceptions of what creativity is and how it manifests. However, when we start to explore the different levels of creativity we’re able to gain a better understanding.
For that, I find it helpful to refer to a framework from Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers that I first discovered in their book, Convivial Toolbox. By recognizing the opportunities in your daily life to practice creativity—no matter how small—you may find that you’re more comfortable and capable of taking bigger creative leaps in your professional life. The more creative energy you have overall, the more balanced you will feel in generating, collaborating and in enjoying the creativity of others.
The first and most basic level of creativity is doing. The motivation is task-oriented and, often times, it’s something you have to complete. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not creative work.
Being creative at the doing level primarily involves a shift in mindset. You need to believe that choosing a restaurant for dinner, organizing your closet, or [insert other mundane daily tasks here] can be a creative activity.
For example, I try to wear my New York City uniform of black shoes, jeans and a black shirt daily because it eliminates the need for any decision making while getting dressed. However, I could turn my outfit into a creative act, and many people do. I could try wearing non-black yoga pants (I have friends who would pay big money to see this!) or subscribe to a clothing subscription service to spice up my selection of options. And just like that, my boring closet could become a Clueless-level creative dream.
Practicing shifting your mindset this way when completing seemingly mindless tasks can prime you for making larger mindset changes when the stakes are much higher—like on a challenging strategy problem or when facing uncertainty.
The second level of creativity is adapting. At this level, you have a desire to adapt the process and outcomes of any task, activity, or project to better reflect your preferences and personality. The effort here can range from low to high. It doesn’t, for instance, take much effort for my partner to add fresh peppers on top of frozen pizza, but I’ve spent years modifying my bicycle to better fit my body (more upright handlebars) and style preferences (complementary colored pedals). Both are examples of adapting.
What makes adapting different from doing is that you have a desire to make something your own and you’d prefer to do it yourself. Over time, using an “off the shelf” method no longer works—doing tasks evolve into adapting tasks. The website IKEA Hackers is home to some of my favorite adaptation examples.
So, how is experimenting with adapting things you encounter in your everyday life relevant to your creativity at work? Adaptations are often unmet needs that don’t yet have a solution, and when you’re aware of them in your personal life, you’re better equipped to solve for them in the business world. Check out how customers engage with your product or service and keep an eye out for hacks, shortcuts and personalizations. These could be problems to solve or opportunities to amplify.
Making is the third level of creativity. Making involves using your mind and body to build something that previously didn’t exist. People generally get started at the making level by following a recipe, pattern, or some type of instruction guide. Blue Apron and assembling IKEA furniture are examples of making.
If you find yourself without enough making in your everyday life, you could look into taking a class or inviting a friend over for dinner in exchange for a lesson on something they’re particularly skilled at making. Making could eventually lead to mastery, but even if you stay at the rookie level forever, getting your hands physically engaged in creative acts will inspire you in deeper ways than by just adapting or doing.
The benefits gained from making-level activities build creative confidence and generate a desire to make more things. When you’re comfortable making during evenings and weekends, you’re more likely to then also want to make things at work. Whether it’s building prototypes of ideas or leading hands-on, team building activities, infusing more tangible making into your company culture is not just more fun, but also helps foster collaboration, adds energy, and can get other teams curious about what you’re up to.
The fourth and most advanced level of creativity is creating. The root motivation for creating is innovation and self expression. Creating requires experience and comfort with whatever tools or materials are being used as there is no longer a pattern to follow, guidebook to reference, or path ahead. It’s all new and different. Artists are the most obvious creators, but chefs, technologists and entrepreneurs also belong in that group.
A combination of knowledge and passion are required in order to enter the creating level of creativity. Sometimes this means mastery of a tool or material, but it can also be knowing the right questions to unlock this level of creativity.
Because creating is associated with curiosity, a pathway to this level of creativity is asking “what if?” And without the pressures we often face at work—budget, deadlines, perhaps legal concerns—our personal life allows us the freedom to create for the sake of pure enjoyment. It doesn’t just have to be in the art category. We can walk into Whole Foods without a list (gasp!), wander around to see what looks good, and ask “what if?” to combine fresh ingredients and make a dish from scratch. What if a new format of dinner party were created to enjoy that meal? What if the guest list were made up of a sibling, a boss, a child, your Uber driver, and your ex? You’d be creating a new type of conversation and dinner experience.
At work, creating can take the form of any new invention or innovation. Try asking “what if?” more often and making interesting connections and combinations. What if people already on the road came and picked me up? Uber! What if we slept in a stranger’s guest bedroom instead of booking a hotel? Airbnb!
A bonus of personally experiencing the creating level even just once, is that you’ll be more appreciative of the creations that others bring to life. You’ll have some empathy for the process and enjoyment and can celebrate along with them.
Whether your next steps are adapting your late-night frozen pizza or enrolling in a class to try your hand at making something, start exercising those inherent creative muscles. Finding opportunities to be more creative at all four levels in your personal life will ultimately result in you becoming much more creative at work—something we can all benefit from.
Erin Joan Lamberty is a Design Thinking Facilitator at the Design Gym.