This is the twelfth article following The Irony of Quitting My Job to Take a Sabbatical, the first in a series on what I learned and what I’d recommend from quitting my job to take a six-month sabbatical (without another job in sight). Previously, I shared the process of how I came to realize the real purpose of a sabbatical. Here I share 10 ways to foster creative ideas from what I learned in my sabbatical and post-sabbatical days.
“Creative activity is a type of learning process where the teacher and the pupil are located in the same individual.”
— Arthur Koestler
The creative ideas didn’t come initially.
While my sabbatical was meant to be open-ended and exploratory, I was secretly hoping that some revolutionary idea would shine down one day in all its glory and clarity. Eureka—I’d know the answer to what was next for me. It’d have made a great story, but unsurprisingly that didn’t actually happen.
What ended up happening was a series of insights—small and murky at first, then bigger and more vibrant later. One small idea led to another, combined with another and then another to form a skeleton of what could be possible.
These small inklings didn’t come when called; and when they came, it was when I resigned to letting go of expectations and relaxed, finally providing the avenue they needed to come out.
During the second week while I was in Prague, I’d exhausted my restless energy and experienced the real purpose of a sabbatical. It was then when the creative ideas started coming. They flowed hesitantly at first and then quickened the pace.
The ideas came randomly, as I got some groceries at the farmer’s market or when wandering the crooked, cobblestoned streets. They aged as I sipped a glass of Malbec at a café and did some people watching over the course of several hours. After letting the ideas marinate inside my head for about a week, I confided in my sister—a kindred soul and dreamer in many a ways—while we were at a wine bar during one of my last nights in Prague.
The reality is, we’re all creative.
Even those of us who don’t believe we are. We’re simply creative in different ways, and at our best if we foster creativity in our daily lives.
In reflecting upon what I learned during my sabbatical and post-sabbatical days, I’m sharing what worked for me—10 ways to foster creative ideas.
1) Trying new things
When you try new things, the novelty and challenge of learning stimulates the growth of new brain cells. This was first proved by researcher Michael Kaplan in the 1970’s, and has been recently developed further by researchers like Sandrine Thuret.
In trying out Crossfit, learning how to garden and various other new things, I cultivated a friendly environment for new neurons. You change your routine up when you learn something new—encouraging the growth of new brain cells. With growth, there’s more possibility for new connections and ideas later down the road.
Not only that, learning new skills and stretching past what you previously thought was possible for yourself adds to your confidence and willingness to stretch in other areas. My one-month trial of Crossfit ended up being an excellent confidence and courage booster for this reason.
2) Switching up your environment
Similar to learning new things, changing up your environment is another great way to encourage new ideas. The change in environment doesn’t need to be far or expensive. Going to a new coffee shop, exploring a park you’ve never been to before, and going to a new exhibit in your local museum are ways to switch it up. Traveling is an excellent option. A relatively inexpensive trip to another city will do the trick, but the more unfamiliar and different the location is from what you know, the better.
A new environment opens you up to different ideas and ways of thinking. Traveling never ceases to broaden my horizons, and for me, the two months of travel during my sabbatical were beneficial to the flow of new ideas.
3) Not forcing it
The ideas didn’t start coming until I let go of the expectation and pressure around coming up with the revolutionary idea during my sabbatical. When you try to force creativity or new ideas, the internal stress will sabotage your efforts.
There is a whimsical art to creativity. New ideas require more flexibility than structure, although there is a need to reserve boundaries and space for them. When creativity strikes, it will come seemingly effortlessly in a spark, as if it were there all along but you just couldn’t see it yet.
4) Letting go of the fear of inefficiency
As I shared in my previous article, when I was preoccupied with productivity and efficiency in my early sabbatical days, there were no new ideas.
Joseph Chilton Pearce once said, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” I couldn’t agree more with him on this point. We must lose the fear of being inefficient, wrong or unproductive, because many creative ideas will rub against common sense. Creativity generally has a bit of uncommon mixed in.
5) Reserving time to do not much of anything
Many great ideas come when you’re least expecting it, which is why many people get their best insights in the shower, on the toilet, driving home, cleaning or mowing the lawn—assuming that you’re not distracted by radio or smartphone. During these times of low stimulation and autopilot motions, your mind is free to wander in a semi-meditative state. It’s becoming rare for people to have these moments in their day with constant access to smartphones, tablets and the like.
A relaxed state of mind is essential to creativity. When hurrying from one thing to another, when stressed, when you’re on a mission, there is little room or time for creativity. When I relaxed and stopped having an agenda during my stay in Prague, that’s when the ideas starting flowing.
6) Quieting the inner critic
Another essential part to creativity was in quieting the inner critic—the voice that says an idea is stupid, silly or unrealistic. My efforts in the early sabbatical days to reduce the volume of the critical voice were helpful in fostering a more nurturing space for creativity.
Getting into a relaxed frame of mind as shared above also resulted in less interference from the inner critic. While relaxed, I was more open-minded and able to more fully consider ideas that normally would be ruled out.
7) Learning from other creatives
It’s helpful to learn from other people who are applying their creativity in an innovative way. Even if they’re in a different industry or area than what you’d like to play in, there is still incredible value from looking at how other creatives approach problems. Observing different methods, thought processes, actions, tools and solutions will get more ideas churning in your head.
Being able to interact with a growth-oriented community (whether virtually or in-person) to learn and share ideas is incredibly valuable, but there are so many resources out there as well. In the past year and a half, I’ve perused through books, blogs and podcasts from smart and nonconformist thinkers. Depending on what problem you’d like to creatively solve, you may receive a bunch of new ideas from a few simple Google searches.
8) Reading widely
Much of creativity comes from connecting disparate ideas in a new way. Many artists know that nothing is original; what matters is how you remix it and present it to the world. This is where your unique perspective, experience and skillsets come into play. With enough time and dedicated work, what you’ll be able to see and connect together will be different from others.
Nowadays, I read more widely—delving into sociology, biographies, and post-modern fiction. I find I get new ideas all the time, drawing parallels or observations from seemingly unrelated concepts.
9) Dreaming with others
Similarly to learning from other creatives, there is great power in brainstorming with others to generate new ideas. The key is in picking people who will encourage more ideas, brainstorm with you and help you in your process. If you have such people in your life, they’re invaluable sounding boards and support.
They’ll help you in verbalizing an idea more clearly or seeing things from another point of view. Perhaps they’ll challenge you or suggest another point that makes the idea even stronger. When building or expanding upon an idea, the end product is generally stronger when two or more minds are put together.
But ultimately, the initial ideas and most important insights come down to one person…
10) Being by yourself
For many people, the solitary experience is when those truly impacting insights come up. This was certainly true for me as I spent the last two weeks in Prague primarily by myself. The ample, solitary time is when those uncommon connections and insights are made from trying new things, reading widely and learning from others.
When planning out your sabbatical, I’d highly recommend spending at least a portion of the time by yourself. If the idea makes you slightly uncomfortable or anxious, that may be a clear sign there’s something to uncover.
These 10 ways have worked for me in fostering more creative ideas. Each one of us is creative in our own way. What works for you in generating creative ideas?
There is yet another factor, one that will disrupt and demand your attention unless you give it the care it deserves. I’ll share my personal experience and learnings from this in my next article.