It can be scary to think of yourself as a creative. After all, not all of us are artists. But creativity is not a talent; instead, it is a skill of mental flexibility and adaptability – an ability to see beyond what is in front of us, to think of new and innovative solutions to the biggest and smallest problems within our environment.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies the ability to find inventive and original ways to problem solve as one of the key competencies in career readiness.
“It isn’t necessarily like, ‘I see colors, I can write songs!’” jokes Angela Laird, cognitive neuroscientist, medical physicist and professor in the Department of Physics. “The best scientists are those who have a good sense of creativity.”
And for students, it can make all the difference when it comes to success in and out of the classroom, which is why these five tips will help you make the most of your ideas and unlock your creative potential.
- Read, research and then read some more
Exposing yourself to new information is often the best way to find inspiration.
Laird recommends students seize any opportunity to participate in undergraduate research and volunteer in labs, whether or not they are interested in academic research careers.
“There is an act to engaging in research that’s all about the unknown,” she says. “Participating in research at the undergraduate level can often awaken your creative spirit and improve your problem-solving skills.”
As a writer, Andrew Strycharski, assistant professor of English, says reading the works of fellow writers helps him contextualize his own ideas to further develop them, and “lets me know what kinds of things interest other folks.”
And this goes for any kind of creative activity: music, writing, computer programming; people are inspired by other examples of what they are trying to do, so become an expert at what you do.
- Think beyond convention
Finding new ways to approach situations is never easy. So a good way to practice this is by doing things you’ve never done before.
Mandayam Thirunarayanan, associate professor of teaching and learning at the College of Arts, Sciences and Education, says that simple things like rearranging one’s living space and taking on new hobbies and challenges such as puzzles can train our minds to make creative thinking a habit instead of a struggle.
He also shared a quote from his native country of India that has helped him embrace the unknown as part of his journey as a student, professional and as a person. It roughly translates to:
“What people learn is equal to a handful of sand, and what you don’t is the rest of the hand.”
“Learn something new every day. Don’t be satisfied with what you already know. And don’t think that is all you’re going to need for the rest of your life – never stop learning,” he adds.
- Make room for creativity
Writing is often one of the best ways to express oneself, whether or not it is shared with others. Activities like journaling and blogging can help you find your voice and make sense of your thoughts.
“It’s important to know how to translate an idea from your head to paper and so that’s a good hobby that will actively enhance your professional skill set,” says Laird.
Regularly scheduling a time to practice creativity in your own space can also be extremely beneficial. “You don’t necessarily have to be producing stuff with the idea in mind that you’re going to share it with others,” says Strycharski.
Fear of failure can often stop many from taking creative risks, so this approach of experimenting for the sake of creativity is a safe way to explore that side of yourself.
“Figuring out ways and places where you can experiment and try and not worry about making mistakes or being judged for this or that, and just allowing yourself to perform,” says Strycharski, is key to developing one’s ideas.
- Find mentorship and a community of creatives
Opening yourself up to the feedback of either a mentor or a community can often steer you in the right direction when working on a project. So, don’t be afraid to talk to your professors.
“Face-to-face discussions make the work you are doing a less scary because you come to realize that the professor is a human being who cares about the work you’re doing,” Strycharski says. “And as experts in their field, they know how to take those basic ideas and help you shape them and take advantage of your own creative potential.”
And mentors can take forms other than just that of professors. Speaking to fellow students and joining communities within your discipline where you can exchange ideas and be heard will also help you along your journey.
“The challenge with creativity is always a question of not being afraid to make mistakes,” Strycharski says.
- Be confident of your abilities
Strycharski was in the third grade when he won the third-place prize of a statewide poetry competition that his whole class was asked to submit to.
“It was that sort of reinforcement early on in my life that really sparked the drive, the desire and the interest in me.”
Looking back, he says the poem was terrible, but that lift in confidence made all the difference in how he saw his writing, saying that “just the idea of knowing that you can do something is a big boost to pursuing it.”
“As I look back at it now I realize that I didn’t necessarily have any kind of special talent as far as writing goes — what I had was confidence that I could write and that really inspired me,” he says.
And all of these tips will help you as you graduate and enter the workforce. Companies value those who are adaptable and open to new concepts.
“Employers want to hire people who can solve problems,” adds Laird. “Employers find that attractive to know that they are hiring someone that has interests beyond just coursework.”
So, the next time you feel creatively stuck, just remember to look somewhere new, take a different route to work, chat with a mentor or your peers, and just open yourself to some fresh and new ideas.