A few years back, I decided to learn Salsa dancing. I’ve always enjoyed dancing and music, and after seeing a public Salsa performance, I thought “I want to see if I can do that”.
The heart of Salsa is a short sequence of moves called the Basic (“forward, replace, together, back, replace, together” if you’re interested). In the beginners class I went to, we spent much of our time drilling the basic. Later, I was surprised that I could see the basic pop up in performances by professional dancers too.
In this article I want to teach you how to dance the five basic steps of creativity. These steps will help take your personal creativity to the next level in life, and at work. I hope you put your spin on these steps and make them into your own creative moves.
These moves are not just creativity for creativity's sake, but part of the creative engine that will move you towards your work and life goals, and perhaps result in creating and living a unique and uncommon life for yourself. Whenever I refer to a "creative person" in this article, I'm talking about anyone who puts these steps into practice.
The basic steps are:
If the right music is playing, you’ll instinctively know how to dance (or at least try!). Of course, listening to music can be a great way to spur your creativity, but the type of music I’m talking about here is about understanding your desire.
Desire is a strong motivation to have or do something that we don’t have. Desire is one of greatest animating forces in life. When we have a desire, we’ll take action, learn and overcome obstacles to reach our goal. In other words, when we have a desire we have a problem (we don’t yet have what we want) and we’ll naturally be really creative in solving that problem.
When I coach people, the first step is to help them understand their overall life vision, or what Michael Gerber calls a primary aim. What exactly do you want your life to be like? This primary aim becomes the soundtrack of your life, and you’ll aim to jam along with the motifs of this soundtrack in all the problems you’re solving in work and life towards your primary aim.
What I mean by that is, to best sustain your ability to solve problems creatively, you’ll try to link all of the small creative projects/problems you work on into an overarching motivation for the kind of life you want to live.
My students/coachees have all sorts of reasons for wanting to be more creative, from cooking healthier meals, to getting a promotion at work, to wanting to save the world. Creativity in this sense, is a means to an end. Using cooking as an example, I ask them why they want to cook healthier meals. Perhaps it is to be a better parent to their kids, or to have the body they think will attract a mate, or perhaps they just want to spice up their life a bit.
Think of your life as a symphony or just a song, but finding your music means linking the problems you're trying to solve into your overall life goal, and keeping that song playing every day.
In dancing there is often a starting position – a “reset” or “grounded” position. It is a state of relaxed attention, where the dancer is poised for action.
The life that you are trying to “make” more creative, might currently look anything but grounded. If you’re like a lot of us, then you bounce continuously from task to task with your mind always racing on to the next thing.
To be more creative, you must first create gaps in your mental process. An easy way to do this is through simple meditation breathing, breathe in for three seconds, and out to a count of six seconds, then repeat. You don’t have to be sitting to do this: I do it on the bike, and walking sometimes. You must however concentrate fully on each breath in and out (if you can’t walk and breathe at the same time, best sit down).
Try this, at any moment when you’d normally pull out your smartphone, do some meditations breaths instead, and just notice the environment around you.
Next, let’s understand more about who it is that is doing the breathing. It’s best to do this next exercise in front of a mirror, with a notepad and pencil within reach. Quite simply you’ll look in the mirror and list out all of the communities and tribes you are part of, and the roles you play. This list should also include the hobbies you have.
For example, I’m part of the groups: Manx people (born on the Isle of Man), Australian Citizens, Residents of Dallas, Expats, Masters Degree holders, Music Lovers, Corporate Workers (former), Wine appreciators, Art Lovers, Parents of young kids, Documentary Watchers, and so on.
With so many roles already, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to add just one more – creative person! See yourself as a creative person. Know, and love yourself. If you like, you can act it out, look at yourself in the mirror and say “I am a creative person!”.
This last part might seem a little cheesy for some of you, but many of us scatter our effort by getting hung up on whether we are creative or not, rather than spending that time on activities that make us more creative (i.e. doing the work).
Who you are, your life experience and point of view are an endlessly mineable source of creative material. So, let's say that you like standup comedy and you’re in the corporate world. Perhaps an outlet of your creativity is to bring some appropriate humor or vivid storytelling to meetings and presentations (I think we’d all appreciate that!).
The old saw of "write what you know" is true for a reason, but it's not the whole picture. It's great place to start, for example Anne Lamott in her classic book about writing, Bird by Bird, says how she gets her adult writing students to describe their school lunches as an initial project. The next stage of this advice might be to use who you are, to make what you want to see in the world. If only "wrote what I knew" then you'd be seeing detailed articles and videos about strategy and operations (hands up who wants to look at those on their lunch break).
Instead, I'm bringing in other aspects of who I am to create content for you lovely folks in the corporate world (or at least on #LinkedIn), and beyond.
Many creative people that I know use regular routines to help maximize their creative output. Usually, this is to work first thing in the morning on creative work (ideally before looking at email), and then do process/admin tasks in the afternoon (if you’re interested in link between rituals and creativity, read Daily Rituals by Mason Currey).
Twyla Tharp, in The Creative Habit, says that “What you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read”.
In the early stages of your creative journey you might seek out a support network, or even some friendly competition that will help you lift your game. The truth is that how you work with others and who you work with will always be an important factor in the quality and quantity of your creative input, and in your growth.
I finally caved in, several years back, and began to go to a weekly writer's group for a while. Before that, the idea of a group seemed daunting, because of that perennial fear of embarrassment that stops us adults from being who we can be in life.
As it turned out, there were a couple of great writers there, but also plenty of others at different stages (Creativity is a continuum and producing virtually anything gets you on to that continuum). As a handful of weeks went by, writing became not some abstract thing, but something that I now did, and had a "portfolio" of evidence to support (well a few scraps of paper stuffed into a folder).
Like golf perhaps, writing (and creativity) is something you can do for fun, or you can decide to build your skills and experience in the hopes you can do it more and better for longer. Find the right social/professional group that supports your creative ambition.
If you’re a beginning Salsa dancer, you try to tune into the instructor and the music, but these compete with the voice in your head (the one saying either “I can do this" or "I can’t do this!” depending on what sort of person you are). If your mind is elsewhere then you’re likely to miss your cue, and be out of step with what is going on.
It is the same with creativity. Creative people pay attention differently, and you will too. They know that all of their daily experience might be relevant, and trigger a solution to a problem they’re working on, or become material for future creativity.
By keeping your central problem in mind (Step 1) and creating mental space (Step 2) you’re more likely to notice when a trigger or opportunity pops up in your day. Your dance partners (Step 3) in creativity might be a regular group of collaborators, or literally be anyone who crosses your path in an average day. Quality listening and open questions make the music for these many chance interactions.
You might choose to be more systematic to what you tune into, seeking out source materials relevant to what you’re trying to do. Reading quality words, for example, helps you to write quality words. Get used to asking “what is the message in this for me?” when you look at creative works. When bad things happen, think first "what can I learn from this?"
A somewhat whimsical example of the tenuous creative connections your mind can make. Having breakfast in a diner the other morning, as I was thinking about how to write this article, it came time to pay my bill, and I noticed that I’d been charged 50c for salsa (the sauce kind) that I had with my eggs (I'm in Texas after all). “Wow! Salsa!” my brain thought, why don’t you tell them a story about Salsa (the dancing kind).
The most important thing that you tune in to might be your own inner, intuitive voice. Making space in your thoughts allows your intuitive voice to speak AND following these steps allow you to remember to listen. Being serious about creativity, what Steven Pressfield calld "Turning Pro", means not leaving these valuable inspirations to change, but cultivating them by tuning in.
You can only learn to dance through movement, not only thinking about moving. Creative people tend to have a bias toward action. This doesn’t always mean simply acting on the first idea that comes into their heads, but rather the concept of exploring an idea through doing.
I was talking to my friend and collaborator, Jennifer Wester, the other day about failure. My point was that creative people seem to have crossed over an “invisible line”, where the meaning of failure and action take on a different, and much more productive, connotation.
Helpfully, she shared an anecdote from her former career as a professional figure skater. Failure, she said, was a necessary part of training her body’s muscle memory to understand what I’d call a "complete understanding" of the thing is. When you fail, your understanding of what you're trying to do moves from 2-D (two dimensional) to 3-D. You not only learn about that move, but the whole endeavor.
Anne Lamott in her book, talks about the necessity of what she calls “shitty” first drafts. Have your best go at articulating a complete idea, then let it rest, rather than getting lost in diminishing returns from changing and re-changing small components. Recognize that the first/rough cut is a thing for a reason.
This is why it is so important to “ship” a version 1.0 of a product than get stuck in trying to achieve perfection, and not release anything.
What you might think of as "creativity" or "inspiration" might also be termed "initiative" or "proactivity" (in Stephen Covey's sense of the word) or even "leadership", if you're talking about the original impulse to action.
Creativity is responding to a situation with action geared towards achieving an outcome.
I asked Jenn Wester if creativity is like a "plan, do, review" cycle, and we agreed that, at least at the beginning, it is "plan, do, plan, review". Once you've taken a step, first see the possibility of the next step from where you now are, rather than dive straight into a post-mortem of what you just did. Find the "next level" problem, and that will help keep you forward focused and motivated to take the next step.
Creativity and life are like a dance. Creativity can be an effective tool to build rhythm and harmony in your work and life, and allow you to not only chase down your goals, but enjoy the process of getting there, and what happens afterwards.
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