Plant a Garden, Draw a Picture -- and Grow Your Business

You may have heard that creativity is one of the traits most sought-after by executive recruiters today. You may have also heard the repeated predictions by politicians that the future of our economy depends on the innovation of our business leaders.

If you're like many entrepreneurs, however, you may not believe that these calls to creative action involve seemingly frivolous activities such as writing poetry and planting a garden. But consider this: Taking time to pound out a new tune on a piano, depict your feelings in paint on a canvas, create a fictional character for a novel or even arrange plants in a garden can actually improve your ability to generate new business ideas.

It's true. Increasing your involvement in a variety of creative activities not only will add richness to your life but can help you hone the creative thinking skills that may make the difference between success or stagnation in your business.

Let me connect the dots:

  1. Creative thinking skills are necessary for success in your business and other aspects of your life (most business schools now offer courses in creativity, and many Fortune 500 companies have hired creativity consultants or Chief Innovation Officers).
  2. Recent studies indicate that you can improve your creative thinking skills (and actually change the neural pathways associated with creative thinking) through learning and practice.
  3. Creative thinking skills are to a large extent transferable: Training and practice in one creative area will carry over into other areas.
  4. By engaging in activities that involve the practice of creative thinking, you can hone skills that can be applied to your business (hence the value of devising fictional characters and gardening).

Creative thinking skills are a vital resource for meeting the challenges and dangers, as well as the opportunities, of the accelerated-change climate of the 21st century. The information/technology explosion, along with cyber-communication and globalization, is transforming not only the way we do business, but the way we interface with other people, and the way we meet potential mates and raise our children. There are no longer any road maps or rule books for success in any of these areas; we have to forge new pathways. Regardless of your business mission, it is crucial that you develop your creative capacities. Your ability to think creatively is the direct pathway on which you will discover new business opportunities and make your mark in the marketplace.

So what exactly are these transferable creative thinking skills? In my new book, Your Creative Brain, I describe seven brain states, each of which is related to a specific thinking ability or skill that can be learned:

  • Connect -- the ability to generate solutions or ideas by combining existing information
  • Reason -- the ability to logically elaborate on a creative idea and implement it
  • Envision -- the ability to create a mental image of something that does not yet exist
  • Absorb -- the ability to take in new information and ideas without being judgmental
  • Transform -- the ability to transform negative energy (e.g., anxiety) into productive work
  • Evaluate -- the ability to judge the quality and feasibility of creative ideas
  • Stream -- the ability to allow words or actions to "flow" without much conscious input

While each of these skills has implications for business, I'd like to focus on four "creativity" abilities important to your success as an entrepreneur: the ability to scan the environment and absorb information that others do not see; the ability to connect information from the environment with information stored in memory to formulate original ideas; the ability to evaluate the potential usefulness of creative ideas; and the ability to switch between the brain states associated with these skills when appropriate.

The first skill (absorb) is your ability to see what others are not seeing (or at least to see it before others do). By actively learning to notice new aspects of your environment (from small details to large trends), you will have access to information that can be used to identify new business opportunities. Remember that what you actually notice (that is, the information that enters your conscious awareness) is only the tip of the iceberg of information your brain is taking in about your environment. By learning the absorb skill, you will turn down the volume on the mental filters that keep information out of conscious awareness. You will become more aware of both details and patterns in the world around you that may lead to opportunity recognition. Walking through a nursery to find new plants for a garden is one way to begin to develop this skill, as is drawing or painting a still life from objects in your environment. These activities will help you "see" new aspects of familiar objects, while also noting the relationship of object to object and parts of an object to the whole.

The second creative thinking skill (connect) is the ability to generate novel ideas by making unusual mental connections. The essence of creativity is the ability to combine bits of information (from both the outside environment and your inner store of memories and knowledge) in novel and original ways to form new ideas. By training yourself to look for connections among seemingly unrelated objects and concepts, you will come up with a multitude of unique ideas. Once you train your mind to think along these lines, much of the combinatory work will happen behind the scenes, so to speak, in the research-and-development parts of the brain below conscious awareness. Then, when you are in a receptive absorb state, these ideas can more easily feed forward to conscious recognition in an "aha!" moment.

This is the essence of divergent thinking (the ability to generate multiple solutions to a single, ill-defined problem). Creative writing, poetry and journaling can stimulate divergent thinking, as can composing music. One simple exercise to help develop this skill is to think of unusual uses for ordinary household objects. (How many ways, for instance, could you use an empty soup can?) Developing this type of thinking skill will help you generate business solutions when you recognize potential opportunities.

The third skill (evaluate) is the ability to judge the value of the novel ideas that you generate using the connect skill. By learning to set standards (for instance, usefulness to customers and potential profitability) against which to measure your creative ideas, you can efficiently determine which ideas are worth elaborating and implementing. Again, setting standards and measuring new ideas against them is inherent in creative activities such as music composition, creative writing and drawing. The ability to impersonally evaluate your ideas and work at each stage of a project is built into creative work and is also a good business practice. However, remember that an idea should only be evaluated after it has been thoroughly and nonjudgmentally explored (and absorbed) for possible applications.

The final creative skill is the ability to flexibly move among the different thinking modes of absorbing information, generating ideas and impersonally evaluating ideas. This cognitive flexibility is crucial to both the creative process and to business-building. The entrepreneur must be able to move expertly from opportunity recognition (absorb) to solution generation (connect) to idea feasibility (evaluation) to the day-to-day aspects of running a business. Creative activities such as painting, poetry and short story writing, music composition and gardening involve all of these thinking abilities and provide practice for each different thinking mode, as well as for moving flexibly among the modes.

Creative activities, then, are not frivolous -- they are excellent skill-builders and can serve you well in your business. As a bonus, creative activities have been shown to reduce stress (a major cause of immune system dysfunction and heart disease) and even ward off dementia in seniors. So get out your paints, your fountain pen or your rusty high school clarinet; take music lessons, learn a new language or join a writers' group. Creativity in all forms breeds creativity . . . and creativity is a major factor in entrepreneurial success.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is a Harvard psychologist and the author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity and Innovation in Your Life, published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.