The Surprising Truth about Creativity

Posted on in On Our Radar by Nick Seneca Jankel


You, me, and everyone around us has creativity written into our DNA. It is a large part of what makes us human. Creativity is a unique characteristic of living things. No matter how powerful a computer, it cannot be creative. It can look as if it’s being creative, yet every outcome is predictable, driven by a set of algorithms (equations that generate solutions based on predetermined rules). However, even the youngest child can have breakthroughs — ideas and transformation that simply could not be predicted solely by the past.

We’re not just talking about creativity in terms of art, design, and the creative industries. We are talking about all those everyday acts of creativity that drive a life less ordinary: the new way to respond to our lover so we avoid a fight, a fresh approach to being a leader that inspires the workforce to embrace a new future, a way to play with our kids so that they feel safer. Creativity, at all levels, is a fundamental driver of growth, learning, and therefore, thriving. This is what my work in Breakthrough Biodynamics is focused on: how to have and maintain breakthroughs in any area of our lives so we can flourish no matter what.

The ruling explanation for creativity is combining two or more previously unconnected ideas into something new. But something way more fundamental has to happen first. In a landmark study in the last couple of years, rappers were put into MRI scanners while performing either scripted or improvised lyrics. With the former, areas of the brain associated with control lit up. But when the MCs were freestyling, the areas of control were less active. Similar results have been found with jazz musicians when they improvise. We are more creative when we stop being conventionally smart and let go.

I spent years thinking that my job as a breakthrough coach and innovate expert was to help people “have” new ideas. Now I realize that it is really about giving people permission to let go of the old long enough to have a breakthrough. It’s always what we are prepared to give up that counts. There is never a blank canvas to create with. Old beliefs and habits have been progressively burnished into our nervous system through a lifetime of conditioning. When faced with an issue or conflict, we fall back on the familiar to deal with it. Until we are ready to let go of these beliefs and habits, we simply cannot have a breakthrough. It is a literal impossibility. No matter how much effort we expend, the creativity that keeps us able to adapt and thrive cannot be unleashed.

Very few people understand this secret. However, the ones that do are celebrated for their genius. Picasso broke through because he let go of the old way of representing truth in art. Einstein let go of Newton’s laws to usher in relativity. Steve Jobs let go of assumptions about what the personal computer could look and feel like as a tool for individual creativity. Gandhi let go the conventions of how to create a revolution. Famously innovative figures like these, that we so like to revere, were often laughed at, ignored, and criticized for years precisely because they broke the rules and didn’t take “no, we don’t do it like that around here” for an answer.

There is a catch. Often our most stubborn beliefs and habits — the hardest ones to let go of — are there for a reason: to protect us from pain. Emotions lock in habits and assumptions that seem to be able to defend us against danger and uncertainty. The primary obstacle to our creativity is fear and stress. Fear shuts down our nervous system, leading us into tunnel vision and tunnel memory. The habits and assumptions that sabotage our potential can rarely be relinquished by simple cognitive choice. To unleash our full creativity, we must also switch on to our nature as a loved and loving part of the one universe.

If we want to live a life where we are free to create whatever is most appropriate, most fitting, in the moment, we must also heal the wounds that keep us small, defended, and diminished. Until we do, our brain and body will be geared toward the safety of predictability over the excitement of creativity. The organizations we work and study in are also designed to reduce originality and promote stability and efficiency. It is why so many fail to spot massive opportunities for innovation even though they have more consultants, MBAs on staff, investment capital, and resources than switched-on enterprises that break through.

If we don’t surrender our past and embrace a creative future, our quality of life soon suffers. The patterns we use to survive life will often create more problems than they solve because the old ways of acting, thinking, and feeling are no longer fit for purpose. What worked in the 1980s to rent movies to customers may not work so well in a digital age. What worked brilliantly when we started our career as an in tern at a multinational may not work so well in a Silicon Valley start-up. What worked well as a five-year-old to keep our parents happy may not work so well on a lover or spouse.

If we want constant creative breakthroughs, Breakthrough Biodynamics teaches us that we have to engage in the process of letting go be fore we get to the rush of breakthrough. That means surfacing and questioning our assumptions. Spotting and breaking through our habits. And, above all, consciously releasing our fears and anxieties so we become liberated to create! This is a way of life, not a title at work. Ultimately, we can either be right about everything and try to keep things as they are. Or we can be consistently creative and embrace the enlivening opportunities available in a world of constant flux. But we can never do both.

If you choose the road less traveled of constantly being aware of, and then surrendering, the old, you allow breakthroughs to come through you. As soon as you let go, things begin to flow. You become “entangled” with the thing you are creating. This is true of all of us when we switch on to engage in openhearted, open-minded creativity. We become the subject, object, and verb all at once. We are not merely the dancer; we are the dance and the dancing too. We are not just the scientist; we are the science as well. We are not just the lover; we are the loving and the love making too. Ideas are not simply “ours.” They come through us. We co-create them with the universe we are part of. All we have to do is allow out what is seeking to emerge from within. The more we work at clearing out the past, the more breakthroughs we can have to enlighten and empower our future.

Nick Seneca Jankel is the author of Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity & Thrive with the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough and the creator of Breakthrough Biodynamics, a pioneering science-inspired, wisdom-wired approach to leading transformation in individuals, organizations, and society.

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