How do I become more creative, especially in technical work?
July 20, 2015 6:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm entering what is probably my last year of college, and as I look towards my career plans, I'm worried that I'm not creative enough to do what I want to do. How do I fix this? Special snowflake details follow.

Background: With graduation looming, I've been thinking a lot about what I want out of a career. Having studied computer science and statistics, I came to the conclusion that being a "data scientist" (which roughly means, to me, "wrangling interesting things out of data") would be a good fit in terms of what I enjoy and my skillset. I'll be applying to grad school in the fall, since I think I need more experience, and a lot of job listings in the field claim to require a Master's or PhD. (If I can get a job along these lines, though, I may not end up going to grad school.)

But... I feel like I'm only good at working on other people's ideas, or doing things that are pretty straightforward -- like things with a bunch of tutorials available online. After looking at all the wonderful and creative work that people have done, it feels like I don't have a creative bone in my body. I don't really have any original ideas, and I'm not exactly clever or good at "thinking out of the box". (Aside: I'm Chinese-American, and it doesn't help that the "nerdy Asian robot" stereotype not only irritates me, but also hits rather close to home. Ugh.)

This is concerning, because I do want to work on innovative projects or come up with good ideas for approaching, say, a new data set. It sounds like you really need creativity to make progress at the cutting edge. For example, while investigating into whether one should pursue a PhD or not, I found that many mentioned creativity and initiative as being very important for researchers. When I browse startup job postings, a lot of them say they're looking for "entrepreneurial" people, which makes me rather reluctant to apply.

So how can I start improving my creativity? I would especially appreciate advice for technical fields or puzzle-like problems, but I'm certainly open to learning to be creative in general. (It would be even cooler if there were some rigorous research backing it, but anecdotes are totally fine too.)
posted by sqrtofpi to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think a big part of creativity is a motivating problem. At a job or graduate school, you'll have lots and lots of time to consider one problem and come up with a novel solution. It helps a lot if you are really interested in the problem. IMHO, I wouldn't expect you to have already put in the time to have created a novel masterpiece. Finding a job or grad project you love will help you a ton to be creative!
posted by Kalmya at 6:45 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Honestly, the biggest creativity bursts for me happen in collaboration. Find someone who can take your ideas and make them better, and whose ideas you can improve. Read Group Genius - it talks about collaboration being the spark of a ton of great ideas. So find people who inspire you, or who push you to be better, and who aren't afraid to tell you when your ideas suck.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:23 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

For me, creativity comes from limitations. Chef gives me some ingredients and says "we need to get rid of these," I best be creative in how I use them. Perhaps explore how you can limit your options in order to find the most creative way to use them?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:17 PM on July 20, 2015

Re: jobs, just apply for them even if you don't feel "creative" or "entrepreneurial". Also look for data-oriented jobs outside of West Coast tech culture -- there's lots of stuff in the boring corporate world. Sure, you don't get to slime your boss as a prank, but they pay real money and the work is equally or more interesting.

Re: actually coming up with creative ideas, it's a little tougher. Ultimately you want to hit on something that gives you a spark of motivation, where you just need to solve the problem.

I think the thing to do is just to play around in your chosen field -- find a dataset and use it to answer questions, even if they are trivial or unoriginal. Replicate other people's work. Get your hands dirty, with something real in front of you.

Eventually in playing around you'll hit on a question that makes you feel a sense of excitement or urgency, and I think you'll naturally find yourself coming up with creative ways of answering it. That spark of motivation -- actually caring about the answer -- is key.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:43 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you want to be creative, you have to create things.

But there's a weird mystique around what "creating things" entails. If you can take a data set, figure out what kind of tutorial might be relevant, google for that type of tutorial, try some stuff, and record what happened, you are both being creative and demonstrating initiative. If you can figure out why your data set gives you different results from what the tutorial led you to expect, that's some advanced level problem-solving, right there.

If you can't think of any questions you might ask about any data set, you might try looking for data you specifically care about more intensely. Most of the data science I know is stuff that I picked up while trying to write about women in science.
posted by yarntheory at 8:45 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

First, I'd give yourself some more credit for your abilities. I'm a very creative person with a lot of emotional intelligence. I love my job and path in life but really wish I had your technical talents and abilities! The grass is always greener, eh?

Right now I'd guess that you're spending most of your time with classmates who share the same interests and skill sets: interacting more with "lay people" (those with other backgrounds) could help you see new problems to be solved (creativity!) as well as show appreciation for your unique, awesome set of skills. (Well-deserved!) For example, if you like animals, you could work with a shelter to help maximize their services. You could start out with the data or volunteer doing the most basic tasks: you'd surely notice some problems that could be helped using your skills as well as hear what other workers and volunteers mention. What are your interests and hobbies outside of your studies? Are there any organizations you'd like to become involved with? What about causes?

Second, it sounds like teamwork could be another solution here. If you could find people with similar visions but different talents -- like intriguing business ideas but not the technical know-how -- and then you can work together to make that goal a reality.

Third, how about first shadowing people in careers that seem interesting and then finding a mentor? They could help you narrow your studies as well as get a job when you're done.

Fourth, have you considered taking a year off between undergrad and graduate school? You could first get into a graduate program and defer a year if you'd like the security?

Finally, something to consider: some people work to live and others live to work, and either one is fine. Some people truly love their jobs but most people love what their job enables them to do once they go home. It's great if you can have the former but the latter is fine, too!
posted by smorgasbord at 9:18 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Creativity is a learnable skill. Check out Creative Confidence, a book from one of the founders of IDEO, a consultancy famous for its creativity. The central premise is that we are all creative, and that with practice, you can unleash that.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:45 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Agreed that creativity is a skill that can be learned and improved. Back in the 50's and 60's there arose a sort of management hysteria around encouraging creativity among employees. There is still some good literature that was published during that time.

Beyond the literal meaning of creativity as creating stuff, when people talk about creativity they're often talking about divergent thinking. "Thinking outside the box." Divergent thinking and associative thinking are things that most people do a lot as children, but the outlets for this kind of thinking become fewer as we get older and the demands of school become more concentrated around logic and "correctness."

Even though most neuroscientists don't like the oversimplification of "left-brain/right-brain" theories, there is great usefulness in a modal theory of thinking. We have modes, and these modes typically can't work simultaneously. In fact, the logical mode is inhibitory of the creative mode, so if you want the creative mode to be able to do its job, you have to suspend or stop the logical mode from criticizing every nascent weird thought. Different people have different ways of suspending this self-criticism.

Most guides to increasing creative thinking are based on this theory of modal thought. More specifically, the advice is not to increase your creative thinking, but to decrease the type of logical, critical thought that inhibits the creativity that's already there. You have to figure out ways of giving yourself the permission and mental space to use divergent thinking. This is often a challenge for folks in highly technical fields, where the logic/reason mode is used ~100% of the time.

Look into the following resources:

Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono
The Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Method

posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:12 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

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