How to be more creative

Creativity is, for me, right at the heart of our growth as humans. In this post, I’ll share some ideas for connecting with your own creativity and bringing the power of a new perspective to problem solving.

Right away, we run into a problem. “Creativity” is a problematic word. Given my background (formal training and first career as a professional musician/composer), creativity means, to me, creating something new. Maybe it’s a significant variation on something that has been created before, or maybe it’s something the world has never seen before. This is certainly one aspect of creativity.

When I did my MBA, I connected with the business-centric perspective on creativity. I have to admit, I was disappointed at first. I saw nothing in all the books, writing, thinking, and coursework on creativity that really connected with my experience as a composer of music. (Which was, basically, you sit down with pencil and paper and make something.)

However, over time I began to understand what I did as a musician in a different light; I began to understand how to apply the same tools I applied in a creative context to other kinds of problem solving, and that certain ways of thinking were intuitive to me, because of many years of musical training, that were foreign to many other people.

Ironically, once I understood the problem better, I saw there was no huge divide: the same tools that allow someone to create something can

  • Just get started. You can even play games with this. If you’re stuck, “bargain” with yourself that you’ll “just spend 5 minutes on this…” and then do so. Over and over. This is a little trick that will help engage some of these other tips.
  • Understand what’s already been done. You really can’t be creative without a pretty good understanding of what other people have done before you. In the arts, this drives to vocabulary, technique, and style. In other types of problem solving, previous solutions and attempts to similar problems can spark new solutions, but only if we know about them! Spend a lot of time becoming a deep expert on your subject matter. You can’t “hack” this.
  • Steal from others. That’s not advice you’ll hear often, but it’s good advice. First, you can’t be someone else and you can’t replicate someone else’s work exactly. If you find the perfect solution that works, then your job is done and you’ve just saved time. What’s far more likely is that, in trying to steal someone’s solution, you’ll find connections and motivations to create your own.
  • Create a ritual. I’ve told the story before that one of my composition rituals was to sharpen three #3 pencils and start writing. When the last pencil died, I was done for the session. Find a place and a time that you will return to do your work. A ritual can be as simple as closing your eyes and taking two deep breaths before you begin, or it can be much more complicated. Over time, you’ll create cues that tell your brain it’s time to slip into another way of thinking.
  • Be alone. I know this flies in the face of the current fad of collaborative working, but true creativity, deep creativity, is a solitary experience. It won’t happen brainstorming in front of a peer group. Other people absolutely have something valuable to offer, but they belong in a later part of the process. As part of this, get rid of outside distractions. You can’t do deep work if you’re checking Facebook every 3 minutes…
  • Vomit ideas on the page. Now that’s a colorful statement isn’t it? When I was composing actively, I’d carry a notebook and write down ideas as they came to me. You can do the same, with whatever problem you are trying to solve. Just write down ideas with no critical perspective at all. Become a free conduit for ideas. Know that the vast majority of these ideas will be terrible; maybe they are all terrible! But the time for evaluating them comes later. Right now, just get ideas out of your head. The process of writing them down already creates something where nothing existed before. This is part of the process of creativity. (I suppose I could have called this bullet “brainstorm”, but I bet you’ll remember “vomit” longer…)
  • Ask the cards. Ok, now this is going to get weird. What you want to do is to incorporate something completely out of left field. You can draw a card from a deck like this. Open a book to a random page and read a few words. If you know something about a school of numerology, roll a die and take associations from the numbers. Take a random line from a poem. Turn on the TV and take the first phrase you hear. Take whatever random input you are using, and then try very hard to relate it to your problem or to incorporate it into whatever you are working on—pretend that it is a message full of insight and wisdom, and then figure out how to apply it to your problem.
  • Sleep on it. You’re not being lazy; sleep can supercharge your creativity. You can sleep overnight, you can nap, or you can take a tiny “micronap”. Salvador Dali was a big fan of this: he’d fall asleep in a chair, holding a key over a plate. As he fell asleep he would drop the key, wake up, and return to work. That little dip into the half sleep state was a wellspring of creativity for him. If you think that’s crazy, Thomas Edison, Einstein, and Beethoven, among others, used a similar process!
  • Get a change of scenery. Change your perspective by going for a walk or talking a friend. Many creative geniuses developed less-than-optimal relationships with certain substances; this was often to facilitate a shift into another mode of thinking and problem solving. If you’re trying to solve a business problem, a short walk might be better than a bottle of Absinthe (which can lead to you arguing with the door of a donut shop at 2 AM because the shop is closed… or so I am told…)
  • Throw it all out. If you have the luxury of time, a good working process is to create a first draft, throw it out, and start over. Not very efficient, and certainly not appropriate for all tasks. But it is one nearly-magical process to get the best out of your creative self.
  • Manipulate the idea. This will mean different things depending on what you’re doing. You might try to see an argument from another side. You might try to create bad solutions. You might try to solve a similar problem. You might imagine conditions were different. You might take some small part of the problem (or solution) and twist it, expand it, transform it into something different.
  • Take risks

There’s a time for editing and refining, but that work can often interfere with the first sparks of the creative process. Take these ideas and see if they can help transform your approach to problem solving.


Adam Grimes has over two decades of experience in the industry as a trader, analyst and system developer. The author of a best-selling trading book, he has traded for his own account, for a top prop firm, and spent several years at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He focuses on the intersection of quantitative analysis and discretionary trading, and has a talent for teaching and helping traders find their own way in the market.