Inspiration is a finicky creature; always there when you don’t need it, but as soon as you do it cannot be found.
As someone who’s livelihood depends on being creative and tapping into my inspirational reservoirs very quickly when I need them, I’d like to share with you a few tricks to jump-starting your own creative engine so that you will be able to make greater use of it in the future.
1. Read about knitting
It doesn’t have to be knitting, but reading about a topic that you are completely unfamiliar with can really get the right side of your brain working. You will learn new vocabulary and skills and be introduced to a whole new subculture that you may not have even known existed, all of which helps your brain make new connections that didn’t exist before, rounding out your world view and increasing the chances that you will make some new, valuable, topical connection you can use with whatever it is you are currently doing.
2. Walk backwards in public
The trick here is to put your head in a different space than usual. It’s easy to get caught up in the mundane, hum-drum, habitual existence of every day life. This tends to limit your creativity because you are not taking in as much outside stimulus as you could be. A quick fix for this, especially if you need an idea immediately, is to do something wildly different than you normally would. Or even better, do something wildly different than ANYONE would. Some examples:
- stand on your desk and look at your office from a different perspective
try not to speak for the day and come up with other ways to communicate
- lay down for 10-15 seconds, wherever you happen to be (credit to Tim Ferriss for this one)
- invent a new handshake and use it with your coworkers
- walk from your car to your office, your office to lunch, etc. backward (be careful not to trip!)
This method is not for the weak-willed, because you will be doing something strange in public which could be embarrassing. Be tactful, too, and be sure to explain clearly to anyone who asks that you are working on a creativity-building exercise. They may still look at you strangely, but they will likely also be kind of impressed that you take your work so seriously.
3. Snap some photos
For one year, I carried a camera with my absolutely EVERYWHERE I would go. School, work, dates, even the bathroom (though I didn’t take it in the shower…I left it on the sink). The experiment was a really eye-opening experience because when you walk through life with a camera, you are constantly on the lookout for the perfect composition. You are gazing at the familiar through a completely different lens (pun intended), and all of a suddent the boring becomes exciting and the ugly becomes beautiful.
So try carrying a camera around for a few days, and determine that you will photograph anything that strikes your fancy. The best kind of camera to use with an exercise like this is a point-and-shoot model that is compact, fits in your pocket and turns on and off quickly. I highly recommend Canon’s Powershot SD1000, which is what I used during my experiment and still use today (I prefer the model with the black circle, though they also have an all-silver version if that is more your speed).
4. StumbleUpon something new
One of the better free online services out there is StumbleUpon, which will display a random web page with the click of a button. If you create an account with SU, you are able to go through and tell it all about your interests, which it will use to customize content. I suggest that you add a handful of random non-interests in addition to your legitimate ones so as to expose yourself to information outside of your normal realm of expertise.
Once you’re in, click that Stumble! button over and over for some nice, juicy external stimuli. Delicious.
5. Go to the library
I mean the physical library. The one that’s kept in a building, not a server. Something that is unfortunately lacking in our online lifestyle’s is an easy way to be exposed to ideas other than our own. We get our RSS feeds from websites we like, emails from people we know, visit websites that we’ve heard about from one of the latter, and basically keep ourselves in a bubble of non-existential-conflict and mind-candy.
At the library, however, you can walk by shelves upon shelves of unfiltered, semi-organized reading materials (and at most libraries, viewing and listening materials as well) that may or may not be what you’re used to. Eureka! Snag something at random and read the first couple pages. If it doesn’t grip you, move down a few rows and do the same. You’ll find some really great ideas this way that you definitely would not have been exposed to otherwise.
6. Write a haiku
Really, it doesn’t have to be a haiku…just some kind of creative writing. Poetry is a nice first choice, however, because it is a lot more subjective and less girdled by grammatical rules than short fiction or an epic fantasy novel. Write a poem about anything. Write it about your stapler. Or your shoes. Write a poem to your significant other or the weather or an imaginary pet. It doesn’t really matter what you write it about, so long as you are able to really let loose and go crazy with it, rather than overthinking and overplanning. It can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to (though generally it’s a bit more fun to try). Try handwriting it, too, as that seems to get a person more engrossed than typing (and it exercises a possibly-neglected skill set).
7. Call an old friend
Now, I don’t mean call someone who is older than you (though that may be the case in certain circumstances). What I really mean is to call someone up from your past that you haven’t spoken to in a while. Still have your best friend from college’s number? I wonder what she’s up to! Let’s find out! Have a name and number in your phone that you can’t place? Give them a call and relive that random weekend 3 years ago where you met the guy with the whatever at the place. This serves a double-purpose of stirring up nostolgia, as well as helping you get closure, rekindle an old friendship, and/or just being an interesting thing to do. I mean, really, why don’t people do this more often?
8. Play Exquisite Corpse
Exquisite Corpse is a drawing game derivative of an old Surrealist parlor game called Consequences. The rules are simple: one person draws something on a piece of paper, then hands that paper to the other person. That second person then adds to the drawing before handing it back to the original person. Repeat ad infinitum. Fun ensues.
There are a lot of variations on this game; some include time-limits, each person using a different color pencil, etc, but the overall idea is the same and very valuable in boosting your creativity. You yourself are able to create something of your own, but then are forced to adapt and change it based on the actions of an outside influence. It’s a perfect microcosm for life, and you’ll probably end up with something kind of cool/strange looking to hang on your wall.
9. Listen to some new tunes
It is incredibly easy to find new music right now, if you go to the right websites. I myself am constantly shuttling between Last.FM and Pandora, two sites with the same purpose: to create a dynamic radio station for you based on artists you like. They are both remarkly good, though if you keep either one searching for songs related to Amanda Palmer for days at a time (guilty), you’ll likely end up hearing a lot of repeats. The trick is to start with someone whose music you like but don’t listen to all the time, and then when you hear something great from a musician you don’t know, enter their name instead. This creates kind of a constantly growing tree of interconnected musicians for you to choose from.
For example, I started out typing in CSS (Cansei de Ser Sexy) which led me to Santogold which led me to New Young Pony Club which led me to The Sounds and on and on and on. Play it loud and try to get into whatever comes on. Music has been shown to effect mood and a person’s perception of the world. Use this fact to get new insight and ideas!
This tip may not seem as immediate and easy as the others, but you might be surprised by how quickly you can set up a trip, get packed and be out the door. Try this: go to JetBlue, CheapFlights, TravelZoo or whatever discount plane ticket service you prefer and look for their last-minute deals (they all have them, though you may have to click around to find the right section). Find something that’s leaving TODAY, coerce a friend or loved-one to take the trip with you and go. Alternatively, if you have something pressing come up in the near future, schedule the trip for the upcoming weekend.
The trick here is to keep yourself from building up a trip as a monumental occassion that you have to plan months in advance for. Hell, if you aren’t able to fly somewhere because of financial or time constraints, hop in the car and drive a half-hour to someplace you haven’t been. Or ride your bike. Or walk. Whatever you have to do, get yourself into a novel environment posthaste. This will force you to take a look at the world from a different perspective (that of someone who is new to an area, rather than someone for which there are no surprises). It can also be a nice mini-vacation that you can use to clear your head and relax some of your tension, which is never good to have when you’re trying to be inspired.
What do you do to become inspired? Let me know by commenting below!
Update: April 22, 2016
Well holy hell, reading this post was a stiff shot of nostalgia.
I mention StumbleUpon and a camera, both of which are hopelessly outdated. But I laughed out loud at how many links to MySpace are on this page. MySpace! (I know, as I type this, that all of the networks I use today will be just as hilariously outmoded if I revisit this post again in seven years — so thanks in advance for being gentle in mocking present-day me, Colin-from-the-future).
There’s something almost Buzzfeed-ish about this post, the way it’s written. I was clearly trying out a writing style that I felt was bloggish, and as a result a lot of it comes across uncomfortably sugary and offputtingly inviting (maybe I’m just having a visceral reaction to the ‘leave a comment below’ line, which reminds me of how happy I am that comment sections on blogs aren’t really a thing anymore).
I no longer recommend that camera. When I don’t use the camera on my phone, I use this guy. I do still recommend taking a photo a day, though. And really, the other tidbits of advice are still relevant, as well. I goodnaturedly mock myself because this is such an old post and it feels so embryonic compared to how I write today, but looking back at my older posts (and books, for that matter), I’m happy the advice isn’t terrible.
There are, of course, many options for streaming music today. I tend to use Spotify, but I think it’s largely down to personal preference at this point, as they’re all largely the same and provide recommendation algorithms that are quite solid.
Oh, and these days I use other tools for travel, which are listed here.