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3 Actions To Improve Your Creative Thinking

I recently was listening to an audio program by Earl Nightingale. He was making the point that the opposite of bravery is not cowardice; the opposite of bravery is conformity. It was one of those simple statements that struck a nerve especially when thinking about creative thinking. Conformity In my

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
6 min read
creative thinking

I recently was listening to an audio program by Earl Nightingale. He was making the point that the opposite of bravery is not cowardice; the opposite of bravery is conformity. It was one of those simple statements that struck a nerve especially when thinking about creative thinking.


In my mind, conformity is doing everything the same way that everybody else does it is. Being like everybody else.  Thinking the same way everybody else does.  It truly does take bravery to step out from the crowd and do something different from everyone else.

At the same time, conformity is comfortable. You know what to expect. We all fall into our own form of conformity every day. You conform to the norms of an office.  You conform to the norm of the family. It’s predictable. It’s less stressful. The risk is that it becomes too comfortable and we don’t want to leave our comfortable conforming life.

However, the world out there is changing. It’s not conforming.

It’s dangerous to ignore the changing world around us and not to adapt. When it comes to innovation, our hope that things stay the same is not preparing us for the emergence of the creative economy.

Emerging Creative Economy

What constitutes success in the future is not the same thing that defined success in the past.  In the past, we were successful by getting a job, doing the tasks that our boss gave us to do, doing those well, getting our performance review, getting your two, three percent pay increase, and then wake up every morning and repeating it every day for the next 30 years of our career.

In the creative economy, the definition of success is changing.

The definition of success in the creative economy is your ability to create ideas that create value for the organizations you are a part of.  The days of just being a cog in the wheel and doing what other people tell you to do is not where value will be created. Value and success will come to those that create ideas to solve problems or create new opportunities for their organizations.

This creative economy is coming much faster than any of us predicted and there are no guaranteed winners in the global market. The ability for any economy to succeed is going to be based on its citizens embracing this creative economy and learning how to take a natural ability that we all have and use creative thinking to solve problems and identify new opportunities.

Economic Leadership

Doesn’t the US have a lead? No.

What’s shocking is that only 25% of the citizens from the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan believe that they’re living up to their creative potential[i]. That translates into 75% who do not believe they’re creative.  The vast majority haven’t woken up and discovered that they are naturally creative.

We Are Born Creative

We are born creative. Prove it you say.

If you have little kids or you’ve been around little kids, they are the best example of being highly creative.  How many different ways can a three or four year old take a toilet paper roll and turn it into some creative toy?  They have no limit to their imagination.  Why?  Because they don’t care what you think about them.

That isn’t the case as we get older. Go into the public school system, starting with kindergarten, and going all the way up through the 12th grade and ask the class to stand up and show them something that they’ve created. This can be in form of a piece of artwork, a song they’ve created, a dance – anything.  You go into a kindergarten class and every kid wants to show you what they’ve created. You get swarmed.  Now you go to first grade, second grade, third grade, up to 12th grade.  When you get to 12th grade, what happens?  You might get one kid and he’s the weird kid nobody wants to eat lunch with. Why is this? It’s the result of us figuratively beating the creativity out of them through the process of conformity.

Why do we tend to fall in and conform?  We lack the confidence to stand alone.

Creative Confidence

The challenge we have with this emerging creative economy is we lack creative confidence.  People are used to conforming.  It takes courage to step out and no longer be part of that group labeled as normal and expose our ideas and creativity that we all naturally have.

We all have those ideas but as soon as it enters our mind, we start the negative talk.

Oh, this is a stupid idea. Oh, somebody else has thought about it before. Oh, if I tell it to anybody they’ll think I’m crazy or stupid.

Stopping the negative talk is step one to being successful in this emerging creative economy.  Have the confidence to step out.

Human ingenuity and creative thinking are the tools we use to solve our biggest problems and our biggest opportunities.  Think about the creative thinking that created the polio vaccine, put the man on the moon, saved the Apollo 13 astronauts and that invented the microprocessor.

The impact from creative thinking in our lives is immeasurable.

3 Actions To Improve Your Creative Thinking

Want to improve your creative thinking skills? Here are three actions I take in my creative thinking.

  1. Deliberate Thinking.  There are a lot of things that distract us.  Deliberate thinking is setting that all aside and having quiet time to just think.  Let the subconscious be inspired. Let that problem that’s rolling around in your head find its own solution through everything that you’ve learned and accumulated over your years of experience.  We don’t spend enough time just doing deliberate thinking.  What do I do when you set aside time for deliberate thinking? I use that time to exercise my creative muscle by doing these ‘9 Daily Exercises To Keep My Creative Muscle In Shape
  2. Asking Better Questions. Questions have immense power.  If I ask you a question, you cannot stop yourself from answering it.  So if I ask you the question; What did you have for breakfast?  The image of what you had for breakfast immediately enters your mind.  Properly constructing questions can cause you to look at problems and opportunities in a unique and different way, and that is the key to breakthrough innovation.  Innovators don’t just see problems; they see problems that others don’t see.  So how do you challenge yourself to see problems and opportunities that others don’t see?  By asking good questions and avoiding the bad ones.
  3. Go Beyond The Obvious. When answering questions, most people stop at the first answer.  So here’s a question, what is half of thirteen? Everybody yells out six and a half.  If we were in the U.S. educational system which is based on being tested, you would get an A.  From an innovation perspective, you’re not an A, because that’s the first and obvious answer.  The answer could be six or seven depending on rounding.  If I wrote it out as XIII and you split it vertically, it’s XI (11) and II (2). If I write the word out THIRTEEN, it’s T-H-I-R split T-E-E-N.  There’s one college professor who uses this exercise from my book in her college classes and she sends me the results.  The highest she’s ever gotten is 57 variations to question of “what is half of 13?”.  Most individuals are good for about six answers to the question.  But if you did it as a group activity, you’d come up with more because someone’s answer to “what’s half of 13” could be a spark for you to come up with a different variation to the answer.  Innovation is a team sport.  The myth of a lone inventor is a myth.  The lone inventor may be the inspiration. Even Thomas Edison had hundreds of people in his lab.  We all may think Elon Musk is extremely brilliant, but even Elon has an amazing team working for him.

Executing The Idea

After you’ve come up with the ideas, you have to do something.  A mantra that I repeat with teams and in the workshops I teach:

Ideas without execution are a hobby; and real innovators are NOT in the hobby business.

Competitive advantage doesn’t come from creating the idea.  Competitive advantage comes from executing the idea. Doing something with that idea is where you win. Not in writing your ideas in your notebook.

Why Creative Thinking?

So why am I such a strong believer in this message of creative thinking?

My mission is to help people be successful.  When I go back and look at my career and that of other people who have been highly successful in their career, the underlying catalyst that led to that success was this  ability to think creatively. This ability to solve a problem or find an opportunity that others didn’t see. We are full of examples including: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison.  It was their ability to think creatively that allowed them to achieve their success.

Success, however you define success, is based on your ability to use creative thinking and to be an active participant in the creative economy.

It’s not a gift that only a few are blessed with.  Everybody has it. Sometimes we have to dust it off because we haven’t used it in a while.

My one dream is that you find the creative courage and be brave.  Remember, bravery is not the opposite of cowardice; bravery is the opposite of conformity.

Note: The post is an edited transcript from a live speech I gave at the Colorado Maker Hub event held in July 2016. Below is the audio file from that speech.

[i]State of Create Study: Global benchmark study on attitudes and beliefs about creativity, school and home”, Adobe April 2012

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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