How to Build a Creative Mindset

Kevin Lee
Creative Habits
Last Updated: 
August 9, 2020

You’ll see me use the word “creative” and variations of it in ongoing posts. I use it loosely and frequently, because I want to normalize the term. 

Creativity can be learned

It’s a habit that can be built just like any other habit. Like other habits, the first step you must take is to remove the negative stories you tell yourself in order to change your identity.

Think back to your childhood. Did you ever enjoy doing something that later got beaten out of you by life?

When I was a child, I really enjoyed science. I would go to the library and borrow a bunch of kid-friendly science books that I’d read through in my free time. As an only child with a vivid imagination, I kept my mind busy with attempts at replicating science projects at home. 

Growing up, my family had no money to buy any of the materials in the book’s projects, so I used leftover objects from around the house to create my own versions of baking soda volcanoes and mini-Rube Goldberg machines. They were terribly un-sophisticated, but my imagination usually filled in the rest and I loved every second of it. 

After middle school, my family did what most Asian immigrant parents do for their children. They picked up their life and followed their immigrant friends to a different city that had better high schools so I would have a chance at a better education. 

Since I was a transfer, my public high school didn’t accept most of my middle school credits and they wouldn’t let me test for them. I was so excited to start high school in biology like the rest of my peers. Instead, I was placed 2 years behind, in a remedial physical science class where my teacher would push 2 sponges together and talk about tectonic plates. I ended up over-indexing on other subjects like math and supplementing with summer business / econ classes at the local community college. 

Despite recommendations from my teachers who were familiar with the University of California admissions system, I didn’t even take the “mandatory” senior physics course that all my peers took. One teacher told me I would be a guaranteed college reject if I refused to take physics, but I was so insecure about science at that point that I ignored the advice.

While most of my class went on the annual roller coaster trip to Great America to “study roller coaster physics,” I was one of the few students left behind on campus. 

Truth be told, I had a terrible attitude and a fixed mindset back then. I was embarrassed to be so far behind. Instead of pushing myself to work harder and catch up, I told myself “I’m not good at science.” I let the negative thoughts overpower my curiosity and I gave up.

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending here. I can’t bring in the plot twist where I’m now an award winning scientist. I recollect that story because in my early adult life, I found myself telling myself the same negative thought, “I’m not creative.” 

I took a finance job straight out of college thinking that might be all I was good at. I couldn’t consider anything else because I mentally checked out of any role that might require a more creative mindset, a mindset I believed I didn’t have.

"I'm not creative"

If you’re reading this, you may have found yourself remembering all the times in life that you told yourself, “I’m not creative.” 

Somewhere along the way, the traditional schooling system embedded within us that creativity was a mindset reserved for artistic subjects. So much pressure has been placed onto this loaded term.

When you were younger, you might have been tasked with creating an art project from scratch. Your teacher probably said, “Don’t think too much about it. Just get creative!” 

And for the first time ever, there weren’t chapters to read, or tests to study for. There wasn’t a linear textbook that stacked foundation on foundation so that you could problem solve using frameworks and mental models. You were just expected to “be creative,” with no training and no constraints. 

That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone at a young age. Teachers don’t throw a textbook in front of a primary schooler on the playground and say, “Solve the quadratic equation! Get creative!”

Most traditional schools don’t teach “creativity” and our current education system sure as hell does not build the creative habits that help you generate creative output. 

There’s a lovely quote I found on Twitter: “I hated English in high school. But if they called it Thinking, then I wouldn't be as terrible of a writer as I am today.”

Here’s a modern definition of creativity: 

Creativity is the process of making new connections between ideas or recognizing relationships between concepts. Creativity doesn’t mean creating something new from scratch, but rather taking what already exists and combining pieces in a way that hasn’t been done previously. By combining existing pieces together, you form original ideas.

Rene Redzepi, the culinary genius behind Noma, says: "Creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in. When past and present merge, something new happens."

Whether you believe it or not, you have been creative your entire life. 

I’m not a fan of participation trophies for the sake of positive reinforcement, but I believe that most people underestimate how many original ideas they generate every single day. You may not think your ideas are original, but nothing in life is original. All “original” ideas are just built on what came before.

There is a writer named Jonathan Lethem who says that when people call something original, 90% of the time, they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved. 

Scientifically proven with statistical significance? Probably not. Directionally accurate? I’d think so.

Building a creative mindset starts with changing your identity 

If you want to build a creative habit, don’t start with an outcomes based approach by saying, “I want to generate more creative output.”

You can ignore everything else I’ve written in this issue, but if there’s one thing I want you to take away, it’s this: 

Start with an identity approach and tell yourself, “I am creative.” 

By accepting and owning this identity, you will develop pride over time, which will help motivate you to follow the creative habits associated with it.

If you thought that might be the least bit insightful, surprise, it’s not an original concept. I think about identity change frequently because I read about it from a book I often gift to friends called Atomic Habits by James Clear. I’ve taken what he’s written which I’m sure he previously interpreted from dozens other sources, added my own twist on creativity, and am now incepting this message deep into your brain so you understand how important this is.

“I am creative.”

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