Cultivating Creativity: Get Out of Your Own Way



  • Research shows our minds need to be stimulated in new ways in order to stay sharp
  • Innovation often occurs when ideas from two separate realms are combined together
  • Considering multiple variables to a problem can help open up more resources and options

Whether you’re a filmmaker or a financial advisor, some part of your job likely requires creative thinking and problem solving. Maybe you’re not trying to produce the next great action comedy, but managing a team, wooing new clients or finding fresh resources within a dwindling budget often calls for an inspired idea.

The trouble is, a lot can get in the way of thinking creatively. Social convention, established best practices, a pressure to perform. Even past success. 

“Sometimes the barriers we face are from our past solutions,” says Gaylen Paulson, associate dean of Texas Executive Education and co-teacher of the class “Maximizing Mental Agility to Improve Creativity” (part of Texas Executive Education’s new Innovation Certificate). 

In other words, when we experience success with a particular approach, it’s in our nature to return to that well with each new challenge. But that is a stagnant strategy that overlooks how the problem may be different, and it might prevent a new, better idea from developing.

He adds that sometimes—in an attempt at efficiency—our brains actually get in the way of more advanced thinking.

“Our brain is really good at seeing patterns and organizing things into manageable chunks,” Paulson explained during a McCombs Knowledge To Go webinar on the subject last year. “It does it automatically. But sometimes that restricts our solutions.”

So how can we guide our brains toward more imaginative problem solving?

Paulson offers these tips on how to be a creative thinker:

  1. Be curious. Kids are natural explorers and questioners, but that tendency is often discouraged as we move into adulthood. (After all, the adage doesn’t warn that curiosity mildly injured the cat.) But research shows our minds need to be stimulated in new ways in order to stay sharp. Travel. Take a class. Ask questions. Otherwise you risk developing what is called “cognitive arthritis,” where thinking becomes rigid and it’s more difficult to change and learn new things.
  2. Search for the unusual and surprising. Ideas are about being new and different. Take inspiration from the unexpected. As Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
  3. Set optimistic goals and pursue them. Move beyond complacency. People with aspirations tend to achieve more. If you have mediocre aspirations or moderate hopes, you’ll get the job done, but you will miss out on other opportunities. Don’t settle for the “pretty good path.”
  4. Create an environment for yourself that works. This could be your physical environment or time of day. The point is, know yourself and what works for you. If clutter on your desk or multi-tasking knocks you off track, remove it from your workspace.
  5. Allow for time off-task when thoughts and ideas can ferment. Relax while accomplishing something. Garden, do a puzzle or mow the lawn. Patterned behavior keeps your brain working while focusing on something other than your problem. 
  6. Develop a specialty, but keep your eyes open. You need a certain amount of expertise in order to work in any field, but it’s easy for your thinking to become congested when you’re stuck in your own domain. Innovation often occurs when ideas from two separate realms are combined together. For example, the person who developed Pringles’ space-saving stacked chip was inspired by the idea of pressing tree leaves into uniform shapes in between book pages.
  7. Be complex. Creative people are characterized by paradox. When negotiating, if you’re battling over just one thing—money, for instance—you’re unlikely to reach a creative conclusion. But introducing multiple variables into the equation—ownership stake, timeline, office space—opens up more resources and options. It gives you more latitude. Additionally the creative process can feel contradictory at times. Think intensely about a problem, then don’t think about it at all. Be an expert, but explore something you know nothing about. Learn to be comfortable with that.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, you’re not alone in your trepidation.

“We crave certainty,” Paulson says. “Too much uncertainty when it’s not your choosing is cognitively effortful,” so we often slip back into routine to feel comfortable. But remaining the same isn’t a sustainable business model.

“If you do it the same way as you did it last week, somebody’s going to pass you up,” Paulson says. “Saying, ‘Hey, we did the same as last year,’ isn’t going to be anything to celebrate.”

If you struggle with change, Paulson suggests thinking about it in terms of what you could lose if you don’t. The fear of loss is a greater motivator than hope for gain.

And sometimes it’s simply a matter of acknowledging that creativity can be tough.

“Real creative problem-solving situations are actually quite likely to make you uncomfortable,” says professor of psychology Art Markman, author of the book “Smart Thinking” and Paulson’s creative thinking co-teacher. “And mental discomfort is usually a sign that we’re doing something incorrect. So what we have to realize in the context of creative problem solving is that the whole situation may make you uncomfortable, and that’s ok.”


Faculty in this Article

Art Markman

Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing University of Texas at Austin

After getting a B.S. in Cognitive Science from Brown University in 1988, Professor Art Markman went on to graduate school in the Psychology...

Art Markman teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

Gaylen Paulson

Associate Dean & Director, Texas Executive Education McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Paulson's research and teaching are focused on the strategic aspects of interacting with people, including negotiation, conflict management,...

Gaylen Paulson teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About The Author

Tracy Mueller

Writer/Editor, McCombs School of Business

Tracy is managing editor of the McCombs TODAY news site and McCombs alumni magazine. She is also the voice behind the @UTexasMcCombs Twitter account...

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