Suggestions on how to boost our creativity abound. Be playful, we’re told. Turn off our TVs, shut off our phones, unplug from the internet. Step outside. Travel. Keep an idea journal. Rise before the sun. Listen to Mozart. Drink coffee; stay away from caffeine. Break out of your comfort zone; create a soothing space. The list is seemingly endless, occasionally contradictory, and often burdensome, creating unnecessary complications that distract us from the beautiful, expansive feelings we’re desperate to find.
In the 1950s, esteemed adman Alex Osborn came up with a revolutionary idea on “doubling” one’s creative output. The word he coined? Brainstorming. He brought the notion to light in Your Creative Power, a surprise bestseller that was originally published in 1948. In his book, Osborn—a partner at B.B.D.O., one of the oldest and most innovative advertising agencies in America—promotes the concept of getting together in a group to come up with the most amount of ideas within a preset time frame. “When a group works together,” he wrote, “the members should engage in a ‘brainstorm,’ which means ‘using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” He advocated what we know is true about creativity today: Release yourself from your inhibitions. Silence your inner critic. Avoid negative feedback. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” he wrote. “Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers.”
Brainstorming became a Gospel for many. IDEO—the company famous for creating the first Apple mouse—adopted the idea; several other corporations followed. An academic institute in Buffalo, New York was founded on the idea. Business consultants rely on the method today.
The idea indicates that locating our creative genius is just a matter of surrounding ourselves with bright, witty, nonjudgmental friends who are more than willing to share their novel ideas—and nurture ours. For many, it seemed that Osborn had uncovered a hidden answer to an age-old dilemma.
A series of tests aimed at verifying the validity of brainstorming were performed at Yale. Participants left to think and produce alone emerged with significantly more solutions than those who were placed in a group setting. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, points out that, “‘Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.’”
As someone who has worked on both ends of the spectrum—at large corporations that relied heavily on Osborn’s techniques, and at home, where my only company was my cat—I know that I, for one, have a far easier time generating creative ideas when I’m alone.
When we’re alone and engaged in a quiet activity, whether it’s reading, writing, drawing, stargazing, or biking, our breathing deepens, and, in the absence of the distractions found in most group settings, we reach a level of what’s deemed “light relaxation,” which stimulates alpha and theta waves in our brains. In Awakening the Mind: Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves, meditation leader Anna Wise reports that beta and theta waves invite “calmness, lucidity, and increased concentration and creativity.” Beta waves, on the other hand, which dominate our brains when we’re surrounded by others and in an agitated, reactive mode, “produce foggy, distractable, inattentive and superficial feelings, much like what those who suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder are said to possess.”
How, then, can we manipulate the electrical activity in our brains to reach a state of calm that’s conducive to creativity? How can we quiet the mind so that it can make new, innovative noise?
The answer is simple: Meditation.
Some might roll their eyes. Some might deem meditation frivolous, new-agey, boring, or a waste of time when they’re already pressed for time. But those “monotonous” twenty minutes of peace and stillness have innumerable advantages that will buy you not only more hours in the end but also enhanced creativity. With its emphasis on mindful breathing, meditation trains our minds to stay focused, improves our patience, and triggers alpha and theta waves. There’s more to the adage “just sleep on it” than we think: During sleep, our alpha waves are actuated, and we’re able to access our unconscious to find solutions. Those electrical currents, which we can activate when we’re awake through meditation, lead to clarity, insight—and innovation.
Mark McGuinness, a professional coach and the founder of 99u.com, writes, “If you depend on your creativity for your living, then your most valuable piece of equipment is not your computer, smart-phone, camera, or any other hi-tech gadget. In a modern company 70 to 80 percent of what people do is now done by way of their intellects. The critical means of production is small, gray, and weighs around 1.3 kilograms. It is the human brain.” To maintain this “precious resource,” he spends twenty minutes a day meditating. “It makes all the difference for the rest of the day. And I’m convinced it makes me a better writer.”
Martial arts, yoga, and Qigong are helpful too, and through consistent practice produce results that are similar to meditation: Through both static and flowing poses, they guide the mind towards tranquility, and heighten one’s focus. Consider meditation the highway—it’ll get you to your destination faster—while these other practices are provincial roads that will take you to the same place but require more time.
We meditate to find, to recover, to come back to something of ourselves we once dimly and unknowingly had and have lost without knowing what it was or where or when we lost it.
You might find a jolt of creative energy in a crowded Starbucks, a brainstorming session with your colleagues, or a phone conversation with a clever friend, but you needn’t look any further than within. Close your eyes. Breathe. Repeat. When you open your eyes, you’ll see that your muse has been there all along, just waiting for the right brainwave to come to shore.
Transcend, Transform, Thrive.