Creativity flows from a mind that is flexible, adaptable, and responsive to context, situation, and circumstance. Creative work is about exploration and discovery, which demands constant improvement, overcoming boundaries and limitations, and consistently working on the outer edges of one’s ability. An inflexible, distracted, or contrary mind impairs creative potential. The creative sustains flow without depleting mental reserves. This is the art of mental agility.
The goal of traditional mental training programs is the cultivation of mental health. They address problems such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. A creative agility practice focuses on the cultivation of creative potential while promoting wellbeing. In other words, creative work is also a source of mental health. Although contrary to the stereotype of the suffering artist, creativity thrives when body and mind flow together in a state of wellbeing.
Advice about how to become “more creative” is abundant. In the end, we develop creative agility by engaging in creative work. The standard advice for cultivating your creative potential includes glaringly obvious generalizations including get enough sleep, eat whole foods, breath properly, get enough exercise, go for long walks, read a lot, keep a journal, allow time for ideas to incubate, constantly gather and collect interesting content, maintain a consistent schedule, engage in periods of deep work, reduce and remove distractions, connect with interesting people, learn something new especially if it is outside your comfort zone, travel a lot and experience as many different cultural setting as you can, and find work that aligns with your creative passion.
Generalizations blind us to context. It is self-evident that the context of an individual life is utterly unique. The situations, circumstances, uncertainties, and events that coalesce into a person’s life course are distinctive. No other person shares your life experiences with you. Your creativity and the nature of your creative work is unique. A generalization might be helpful in pointing out a direction to explore, but they are superficial. A creative practice, deep creativity, and creative work are context dependent. They are sensitive to your situations and circumstances. They are connected to your life course. And they demand depth of engagement.
Creatives need practices that serve their context. Focusing on the creative process, not the outcome or products of creativity, matters most. An ideal way forward is trial and error. You learn and therefore cultivate creativity by doing, failing, and trying again. Success is about failing well. You experiment with diverse ways of working. You consciously alter your habitual processes and pay close attention to the results. You approach a project from an unexplored perspective. You rejuvenate routines that no longer serve. You embrace unfamiliar ideas and knowledge to stimulate novelty and new possibility. You monitor modes of work that are liberating and constricting. Moreover, you are a self-directed learner who recognizes that it is the quality of engagement and flow that drives creative potential.
High-performing athletes know that process is the only locus of control. The outcome is always out of their control. When winning (the outcome) distracts an athlete, their attention is misplaced, and their performance suffers. When they stay focused on optimal routines (process), their performance potential expands. It is important to keep the superficial mind out of the way. High performance is about intuition, felt sense, embodiment, and self-awareness. High-performing athletes enter a state of flow when they compete – so do creatives.
Deep creativity is dependent on achieving a flow state (complete absorption in process), not focusing on products (fretting about the outcome). It is quality of engagement, not the thing being produced, that is essential. A flow state is not something mysterious or difficult to attain. It is simply a state of embodiment in which body, mind, and spirit become immersed in the work at hand. The distinction between the person and the work become inseparable. This is why, inside a state of flow, time seems to disappear.
When I am engaged in creative work, for example, in writing this article, my mind enters a state of relaxed concentration and engages in the creative work of transforming the invisible world of thought to written language so that my ideas become visible. I do not look at my notes or scan other resources at this point. They are distractions that break the flow of my work. The notes that I add at the end of these articles are hindsight; that is, I go over what I wrote to determine what influences (other people’s work) seem to stand out and then acknowledge them. No one’s ideas are unique. My creative work always connects to other people’s work.
The purpose of a creative agility practice is to improve quality of engagement in creative work. In a crucial sense, it is a practice focused on strengthening self-directed learning. My creative agility practice is simple and easy to work with. It consists of a sequence of five minutes of breathwork, five minutes of relaxation, and 10 minutes of self-directed visualization. The next three articles explore the basics of how this works.
- Generalizations can be helpful because they point out potential avenues for exploration and discovery. In this sense, they set the stage for an adventure. It can be helpful to have an awareness of what the general traits or characteristics of a creative are. In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire offer ten personality traits of a creative person. However, these traits all exist in a unique context originating in the situations, circumstances, and experiences of an individual life. Understanding these unique dynamics can enhance self-awareness and therefore creativity.
- The article, Rollo May, the Courage to Create, and How to Become More Creative, provides a summary of eight key ideas about creativity. One idea that stood out for me is that rigid societies fear genuine creativity. In my experience, this is true. As long a creativity remains on the fringes and does little to upset the status quo, it is accepted. However, as soon as long-held assumptions or existing structures of power and influence are challenged, creative work is marginalized. Deep creative work never remains on the fringes. And this advice for living a fulfilling life: “But if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.”