Creativity is NOT a skill. It is a MOOD.

Here’s a picture of me being creative I guess. Photo: Angela Gervasi

Here’s a picture of me being creative I guess. Photo: Angela Gervasi

Quick note: this is a reworking of a blog post from last year. You may have already read the earlier version, but it's better now :)

Alright.

It’s time to end the number one reason people don’t make creative contributions to their life and to their world:

“I’m just not a creative person.”

Wrong.

We need to dispel the idea that creativity is a skill.

Creativity is not a skill. It is a mood.

Much like positivity and negativity, optimism and pessimism, happy and sad: creative is a mood.

We all have the capacity to be creative. Yes, some are better at naturally being in a creative mood. But, just as pessimists have the ability to become optimists, “non-creatives” can certainly become “creatives.”

And even those who already do consider themselves creative can become even more creative. It’s all about knowing exactly how to put yourself in the creative mood.

Here’s how.

This theory first came to me in the place that taught me how to be creative: The shower.

Hear me out.

If you’ve lived with me in the past, or know somebody who has, you may know that I’m famous for taking extraordinarily long showers. We’re talking up to 45 minutes. Depleting the house’s supply of hot water, making all my roommates late for something, and just straight up being a bad influence on the environment was a daily habit.

For the longest time, I had been completely and totally unapologetic about this quirk. I’ve always told my roommates, “If I’m in there and you need the bathroom, just tell me, and I’ll get out!” To this, they would reply, “why can’t you just take shorter showers?!” They had a point. But I didn’t care.

Back in college, when I lived with 9 other people in one house, I even developed a knock-on-the-door code to let me know their level of urgency if I was in the shower and they needed the bathroom:

 

1 knock: “Hey, just letting you know I’m waiting to get in there.”
2 knocks: “Yo, actually I’m running late please hurry a bit”
3 knocks: “I really need the toilet and am actually concerned that I might not make it”
4 knocks:  “DUDE GTFO I'M GONNA MISS AN EXAM”
5+ knocks:  "MAYDAY, EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY"

This worked beautifully! Any time I was in the shower and I heard a knock, I would promptly wrap it up and move along.

But why the heck did I go so far as inventing morse code just so that I can stay in the shower for so long?! For a long time, I didn’t really know. I just said, "I’m an adult, eff off."

But one day, while taking a shower, I had a realization: I come up with great ideas while I’m in the shower.

Many of my biggest life conundrums have been solved in the shower. From business decisions, to musical writer’s block, to interpersonal conflicts. In that time period where I’m performing the monotonous task of bathing, my brain is just way better at coming up with cool stuff.

I think more creatively while I am zoned out in the shower. And I bet you do too.

There’s even an entire subreddit dedicated to the realizations people have while taking a shower.

When I first realized that most of my best thinking is done while naked and soaking wet, I was frustrated. How inconvenient!

The shower generally is not a place to implement creative ideas (PG ideas, anyway), and by the time I’m dried off, dressed, and in my working environment, the excitement about the idea - and sometimes the entire idea itself - has disappeared.

I decided to find a way to achieve this level of creativity in a way that doesn’t greatly inconvenience those who live with me, that doesn’t waste so much water, and that allows me to actually capture and implement these thoughts.

So, I started researching. It turns out, this is a known scientific phenomenon. As Mentalfloss explains:

Research shows you’re more likely to have a creative epiphany when you’re doing something monotonous, like fishing, exercising, or showering. Since these routines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.

This kind of daydreaming relaxes the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behavior. It also switches on the rest of your brain’s “default mode network” (DMN) clearing the pathways that connect different regions of your noggin. With your cortex loosened up and your DMN switched on, you can make new, creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.
— Mentalfloss

This makes sense!

In the shower, my Default Mode Network is switched on, and I’m able to think more creatively.

I’m put in a creative MOOD.

Come to mention it, my greatest inspirations have come to me in this state! And even better: it wasn’t while wasting water in the shower.

  • My best college a cappella arrangement, Blue Ridge Mountains, was entirely mapped out in my head by listening to the original song - on repeat - for an entire two-hour, pleasantly caffeinated train ride.

  • My whole plan for how to simplify my life to take the leap into entrepreneurship came to me in the squat rack at City Fitness.

  • The inspiration for my podcast Philly Who? came to me while walking to work in Center City.

All this time, my biggest creative and inspirational breakthroughs came to me in the Default Mode Network. Not when I had decided to sit down and “be creative,” but when I was performing a monotonous task and my mind was free to wander.

So, how can I ensure that I enter DMN more often outside of the shower and increase my overall creative output?

It turns out, there are three ingredients to making it happen:

 

1: let your mind wander

This is best explained by revered British comedian John Cleese:

 
 

For the those unable to watch, basically he’s saying that you need to create a creative space where you cannot be interrupted, and enter that space for a time-boxed period.

Whether you tell your assistant to hold all calls for the next hour, or you go sit in the local park for 30 minutes without a phone or book, you’ll have that “tortoise shell.”

It’s important to note that there’s more to ‘creating an oasis’ than simply shutting out other people. If you’re listening to music, you should listen to music that you know very well and can “zone out” to while listening, rather than new-to-you music whose lyrics or melodies pique your interest. Wordpress founder Matt Mullenweg will even listen to one single song on repeat for an hour or more

If you go for a stroll, do it in a super familiar park where you’ve seen the scene a million times.

Think about that moment you have when you’re driving or walking somewhere, you snap out of a haze, and think: “WOAH, how did I get here?!” (Please pay attention while driving.)

It’s all about finding that daydream sweet spot right between boredom and engagement.

When you work really hard to focus on having a creative thought, it’s just not likely to strike. ( Jimmy Neutron was lying.)

That “brain blast” moment will happen when you finally let your mind loose.

THIS IS IMPORTANT THOUGH: you need to be okay with the fact that sometimes you simply won’t come up with something. Set up your block of time to let your mind wander, and set an end to that block of time. If time runs out and you haven’t had a stroke of genius, it’s okay. You’ve won today, come back tomorrow.

The creation is NOT the goal. The ENVIRONMENT is the goal.

By creating this environment, you’ll start to have more creative ideas. And, you’ll probably start having them more often, even when you’re not in your oasis. So, you must always be ready to capture them.


2: always Be Ready to capture ideas

This is one of the major things I’ve done wrong for so long. It's broken into two converse points:

  • When you sit down and think really hard to generate something creative, you can’t.

  • When you actually do get a novel idea, it's at a random time and place. you’re not prepared to capture and build upon the idea. so, it drifts away.

Sooo many times have I sat down in front of my midi instruments and said to myself, “self, make a song!”

Then, after 3 painstaking, pressure-laden, self-esteem-lowering hours of fruitlessly trying to come up with something, I give up, dejected and discouraged.

6 years later, I still don’t have a SoundCloud with original music. Mind you, I have had plenty of ideas for original songs at totally random times and places. Those ideas just never came when I was prepared for them. So, they were lost.

To explain why you can’t just flip a switch to come up with creative ideas, Wired spoke to Dr. John Kounios, a Drexel psychologist studying creativity and distraction: 

When you are working on a problem, your brain tends to fixate on one or a few different strategies. These are like ruts that your mental wheels get stuck in. ‘If you take a break; however, those thought patterns no longer dominate your thinking,’ he said. The problem gets removed from the mental ruts and mingles with other ideas you’re carrying in your head. Eventually, it finds one—or several—that click together and rise up like Voltron into a solution.
— Wired

The key to this, though, is that you must be ready to capture creativity whenever it may strike. This can certainly be achieved via notes or voice memos in your phone, if you’re able to organize them well.

For me, this is achieved by carrying a notebook around in my backpack, which is almost always with me. But, admittedly, a pocket notebook would likely be more effective. And yes, I’m considering ordering this waterproof shower notepad.

 
Archimede_bain.jpg

The O.G. Eureka! Moment was IN THE SHOWER

I’m not the only one who has fallen into the futile "ok brain, come up with something now!" mindset. In fact, Archimedes had the O.G. eureka moment.

He spent days trying to figure out how to test whether King Hieron II got ripped off by a smith who allegedly slipped silver into his gold crown.

Guess where he finally came up with the ultimate test? THE SHOWER. Ok, the bath - same thing. He figured out that you could compare the volume of the crown with a block of gold that weighed the same by dipping it in water, since silver is less dense than gold, and the difference in volume would mean different levels of water displacement. Eureka!

Btw, where can I get one of those dope bath hats? Maybe you have to be totally ripped to get one...

Now, the secret sauce to creativity!


3: A Dash of Dopamine

dopamine.jpg

This, for me, is the crux. If “aha!” moments are a brain-chemical explosion, dopamine is the catalyst.

That’s why these insights never come to me while I’m doing the dishes, while I’m on long drives, or while I’m otherwise doing super boring monotonous tasks. I hate that stuff! That’s what podcasts are for.

No, there must be a little bit of dopamine flowing around my brain to really unlock the sweet spot of inspiration.

The warmth of the shower.
The caffeine buzz on the morning train ride.
The endorphins released while working out.
The enjoyment of spending time with my pup.
These have all been the spark that set off my best ideas.

Here’s an article with a deep dive into the brain science around what I’m talking about. It’s boring and releases no dopamine so I won’t blame you for skipping it.

But really, it just makes sense. If you’re bugging out over a work deadline or worrying too much about “adulting,” creativity is just not gonna happen. Do something simple that you enjoy and makes you happy. The ideas will flow.

For a couple other scientific examples of noticable “Aha!” precursors, here’s a 5 minute video from Dr. Kouinos himself. It's surprising to me that right before an idea strikes, you go blind… definitely going to need to look out for that…

For more, check out Dr. K's book about these aha moments. I haven’t read it yet, but it is now officially on my list.

So, no more excuses. you can be creative. it’s not an innate skill, it’s a mood.

Despite the simple 3-step solution I’ve outlined above, these are fundamental habits that take time to develop. Try blocking time this week to do something simple and let your mind wander.

Rather than worrying about being “productive,” give yourself 2 hours to not be productive. I bet they’re the most productive 2 hours you’ll have all month.

Let me know what sort of “creative oasis” you make for yourself - I’m always looking for new ones!

For now, I need to go knock on the bathroom door twice. Sorry, Viren.