Posted by: Liz Massey | March 7, 2010

6 Habits to Build Creative Greatness

Photo courtesy SXC.

When we see a great work of art, listen to a moving piece of music, or hear about a creative team that resolved one of the knottiest problems of its industry, we rarely assume that the creation came about randomly. However, when we think about how we might live a more creative life (especially if money might be involved down the road), how often do we assume that “good luck” or “raw talent” are the only tickets to success?

Creative productivity isn’t simply an equation of talent plus luck. Sure, those two factors are helpful, but cautionary tales of lucky prodigies who lose their place in their field to less talented but more diligent colleagues are abundant. One of the foundations of developing and maintaining creative momentum is creating a safety net of positive habits that can sustain your creativity through good times and bad.

Plenty of people have written about how to develop creative habits; Twyla Tharp has dedicated an entire (very good) book about it. In today’s post, I’ve researched and identified a half-dozen habits, applicable to any creative discipline, which can facilitate regular, life-enhancing creative activity.

1. Begin.

This is the master habit. Get into the habit of acting on creative impulses, not endlessly rolling them around in your head. My partner and I were talking recently about our relationship to positive habits as musicians, and though she trained to play at a much more professional level than I did, we both agreed that the hardest thing was to get one’s instrument out of the case.

The Creative Something blog exhorts readers to “just do it,” and explains why.

“Have a creative idea for something? Make it a reality right now. Don’t wait. The more you get into the habit of jumping on your creative thoughts, the more you will discover how great your ideas really are. Too often people put off their creative ideas, only to find out that someone else has gone ahead and done it and that it was a great idea. I’ve said it before and I can’t emphasize it enough: don’t worry about the risks right off the bat, jump into your ideas. Your creativity is strongest when it first hits, so take advantage of that fact.”

2. Shape your life to support your creative activity.

So often, creative people treat their art or their realm of inventiveness as a nice add-on to life—not something close to the center of their existence. This is a mistake, and an easy path to spending a lot of time being frustrated about not having time or energy to pursue one’s creative notions.

Julia Cameron calls the process of ordering one’s life around creative activity “building the grid.” It involves adapting a set of sleep, dietary, exercise and time-management habits that help spaces open up in which one can embed creative activity. It also involves changing one’s mindset to the orientation that creativity and mundane-world productivity are not mutually exclusive, but rather, interwoven.

The Daily Mind blog has a post about “5 Habits That Cultivate Greatness,” and many of them are applicable to the grid-building that’s being discussed here. The author says this about one of their top habits, that of eating a “clean” diet.

“Food is our fuel. You would never put unrefined oil in your car. You would never put sea water or some other foreign liquid in your car either. So why do it to your body? Why spend meal after meal stuffing yourself with sugars, saturated fats and overly processed food filled with preservatives and chemicals? It just doesn’t make sense. I put it to you that if you start eating good food you will start living a better life.”

Designer, inventor, teacher, facilitator, sailor and entrepreneur Matt Taylor, writing on his website about the 22 Habits of Creative People, explains the necessity of balancing creative work with healthy recreational activities.

“When lightning strikes, you have to be there to catch it….

“Energy has to be managed, focused brought to bear at appropriate times, the mind left free to wander at others. Some individuals realize this and develop conventions and ritual to keep their creative energy high. … Recreation is as important to creativity as ‘work’ is; in fact, there is no real distinction between the two.”

3. Document your ideas.

Once you’ve begun and reshaped your life to make an opening for creativity, keeping track of your ideas and projects is essential to reflecting on them later, as they feed new efforts.

Tina Su, writing on her stimulating Think Simple Now blog, identifies this practice as one of the 7 habits of highly innovative people. She elaborates on the importance of keeping a notebook or other system for documenting creative output:

“Many innovators and creative people keep a journal to jot down ideas and thoughts. Some keep a sketch book, scrap book, post-it notes, loose paper. They all have a method to capture their thoughts, to think on paper, to drop their inhibitions and start the creative process. Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous notebook was purchased by Bill Gates for $30.8 million dollars.”

Being able to review one’s creative work can facilitate another one of the habits that Su identifies as crucial, that of seeing and recombining patterns.

“Ideas come from other ideas. Did you know that Edison wasn’t the first one who came up with the invention of the light bulb? He was the first to build a workable carbon filament inside a glass bulb, that made light bulbs last longer. You can increase your exposure to new ideas, look for patterns and see how you can combine ideas to improve upon existing solutions.”

4. Experiment, iterate, expect failure.

Getting in the habit of seeing all projects, even so-called finished ones, as work-in-progress aids in turning off the “judge” in our subconscious who won’t let us make art or invent—or do anything, really—unless there’s 100 percent assurance that it will be perfect. Every sentence, brushstroke, musical phrase, or “take” of a video program is an experiment. It is not the finished product.

Last year, I did a three-part series on embracing creative failure, and the first post concerned how to get comfortable with getting it half-right most of the time. In that post, I quoted Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin, the authors of “Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work,” explaining why the common wisdom about careful planning being a prerequisite for workplace success is frequently wrong:

“For one thing, you can’t always know your destination in advance. Whether you’re-designing a new product, running a business in volatile conditions, operating a process that might encounter unforeseen inputs, or just trying to figure out what to do with your life, the journey usually involves exploration, adjustment, and improvisation. Situations in which you don’t or can’t know the results in advance are common and consequential.”

Su, in the habits-of-innovators post mentioned above, also notes that a failure-tolerant attitude can facilitate creative greatness:

“I believe that part of the reason why we create self-imposed inhibition is due to our fear of failure. Expect that some ideas will fail in the process of learning. Build prototypes often, test them out on people, gather feedback, and make incremental changes. Rather than treating the mistakes as failures, think of them as experiments. … Instead of punishing yourself for the failures, accept them, then take your newfound knowledge and put it towards finding the best solution. Live up to your goal of producing the best result, but understand you might hit roadblocks along the way.”

5. Solicit feedback, but be careful how you utilize it.

Appropriate feedback is essential to mastering a creative discipline, but the key word is “appropriate.” Receiving toxic feedback,  input that discourages, misleads or damages, is worse than going it alone. Pairing the habit of seeking input about one’s work with a healthy skepticism about the person giving the feedback can limit any damage that another person’s opinion might do to you.

Matt Taylor advises creative people to “use feedback with skepticism, craft and deliberation.”

“Creativity requires the ability to hold to a course against almost total evidence to the contrary and knowing when to change tactics while always evolving the idea/goal.

“The trail to new knowledge often leads through realms of dubious veracity. In this case ‘too much’ knowledge (or knowledge improperly applied) can be a liability. ‘Everyone’ knows this is a false path. Yet, the history of invention is strewn with examples where assumptions that turned out to be wrong led to new and wonderful discoveries and useful results.

“Bringing a new idea into tangible existence requires the ability to know the right voices to listen to at each major phase of actualization. Designing the right feedback loops and using the resulting feedback correctly is but one a requirement for proper stewardship of the burgeoning innovation.”

6. Learn to enjoy the discipline of practice and challenge.

Artists and innovators vary widely in their attitude toward regular practice sessions. Some adapt readily to a regimen meant to build their expertise, others prefer to focus on “big” goals that capture their imagination and let the foundation for making these big goals happen take care of itself.

It’s not necessary to give yourself a personality transplant to master your creative discipline; what is needed is to form a habit that ensures you do what it takes to progress in your work.

For the practice-friendly, The Daily Mind author notes that eventually, practice may not make perfect, but it does make fluent – and successful.

“Recently there was a study done where a group of scientists took a bunch of talented kids, a bunch of average kids and a bunch of below average kids and measured/followed their path to success. Some of the kids played sport, some of them did music, others were artists. The study was attempting to show that only the talented children would achieve anything above average in life. They suspected that the other two groups of children would fail and thus live a life of mediocrity.

“They were wrong. What the study showed was that success had nothing to do with potential or talent, it was all about practice. The kids who achieved the most all spent over 10,000 hours practicing their skill. It didn’t matter whether they started out as talented, average or below average – anyone who practiced for more than 10,000 hours achieved some level of expertise and greatness.”

For those less energized by the thought of practice exercises, one can build mastery by orienting one’s creative energies around what I call a “worthy project.”  Worthy projects are creative challenges that fill your heart with joy. It might be something as grand as writing a symphony, or something as humble as playing a short musical program for your family at the next holiday celebration. You will probably end up rehearsing the same sorts of skills that the practice-oriented folks do to achieve your goal, but it may be that having the challenge as your overarching goal provides a more compelling motivation than just mastering a particular fundamental for its own sake.

(Which isn’t to say that practice-oriented folks shouldn’t pursue worthy projects—just that their project list might look a little different than the practice-averse peoples’.)

The author of Creative Something exhorts readers to set themselves a weekly challenge, as a way of keeping their creativity perpetually sharp.

“Creativity drives us as human beings to solve problems. If we take a break from solving problems our creativity will become dull over time. Creating a new challenge to creatively solve every week is the perfect way to keep your creativity sharp. Come up with a problem … and then think up a creative way to solve that problem. Keep your creativity sharp and it will be strong when you really need it.”

The questions to you …

What are your top creativity-enhancing habits?

Which of the 6 habits on this list do you think are indispensable for all creative people? Which ones might be, in your opinion, discipline specific?


  1. Thanks for your insight. All creatives should read this. I have shared this with my Twitter followers. @TweetRightBrain

  2. […] Worth Thinking About Somebody’s thoughts about this stuff. […]

  3. […] 6 Habits to Build Creative Greatness […]

  4. […] Build a new habit – As I mentioned at the beginning, it can pay to use the traditional social focus on resolutions in January to start a new habit to boost your creativity. Here’s my list from last March listing the 6 I consider most important. […]

  5. […] Act on your creative impulses – it’s the master habit of successful artists and innovators! No one but you can bring to life your creative ideas and […]

  6. […] Begin – A few years ago, I named this action as one of six master creative habits, and it’s one of the most important, because without it, no creation is possible. I quoted the […]

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