How to cultivate creativity as an adult, according to an expert

"Inspired" author Matt Richtel on why we're all creators, and the difference between little and big-C creativity

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 25, 2022 4:34PM (EDT)

One lit light bulb among many unlit lightbulbs (Getty Images/Rulles)
One lit light bulb among many unlit lightbulbs (Getty Images/Rulles)

Creativity is an essential element of the human condition. Yet unlike other elements of our humanity, there's a perception that creativity seems to leave us as we age. Children, wrapped up in their imaginary play worlds and projects, are notoriously unhindered in their creativity. But adults are far less adept at conjuring the fantastical and bizarre imagination that their childhood selves had easy access to. Many adults long for those playful youthful days, when conjuring up a grand scene, on paper or on the playground, was as natural as breathing. 

To write his new book on creativity, author Matt Richtel turned to a diverse group of individuals who exemplify the essence of the word — director Judd Apatow, entrepreneur Mike Lee, musician Rhiannon Giddens, Nobel prize laureate Dr. James Allison. He listened to their stories about what sparks them and how they've attained their achievements. And the good news is, you and I don't have to be like any of them. 

Indeed, if your creativity is something that you fear you have lost, know that it is undoubtedly still in there, inside all of us, even if it takes other forms. It's in the silly songs we make up for our children and the secret ingredient in our chili. In "Inspired: Understanding Creativity: A Journey Through Art, Science, and the Soul," the Pulitzer-winning author unpacks the myths and mysteries of the creative process, and shows the research that proves why it's not just the "Big C" geniuses who can tap into it.

Salon talked to Richtel via Zoom recently those "Big C" and "Little C" moments we all have, and why he believes "Creativity and optimism can go hand in hand." He also had some advice for those of us who wish to rekindle that youthful creative spirit. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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One of the first myths that you dispel is that creativity equals intelligence — that if you're creative, you're smart, and if you're smart, you're creative.

I love that because it makes me feel I've got a shot. It's also heartening because there's a mythology that Hollywood propagates and writers propagate about the creative genius. It has been reinforced by so many different sources and angles and narratives. It's just fundamentally not true.

One of the biggest principles that sticks with me from the reporting is that the best, most revered creators — if you look at their work — they succeeded because of quantity, not quality.

I wonder why as writers and creators, we reinforce that narrative. I don't know what it is that we want to be true about that. Maybe we like to think that creativity is the province of a lucky few and we're trying to somehow guard it or put ourselves inside of a special country club of the innovative. In reality, it's much more democratic than that.

You say, "Perfectionism is public enemy number one." I think that's a big part of it. If we believe creativity means genius, then being just good is for losers. But as you've said, having an outside the box thought in your day is creative.

One of the biggest principles that sticks with me from the reporting is that the best, most revered creators — if you look at their work — they succeeded because of quantity, not quality. There's that story of Einstein that I heard. He says, "I've got a unified field theory." His colleague says, "That's a really good theory, Albert. But under that theory, the universe can't exist."

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People spit out ideas and spit out ideas and spit out ideas. What's interesting to me about the process, as someone who has a trillion ideas, is that when you give in to that part of yourself, they all feel great in the moment. They all feel they have the power to thrive. They all for an instant, at least and sometimes longer, feel they should thrive in the world. I want to ask you, when you're in the grip of that, how do you describe it?

The challenge for any of us who care about what we're doing or who want to feel creative is accepting, "I don't know, maybe this is the dumbest idea. But maybe then the next one will be a little better. Or maybe there's something good in this. It'll be okay. I don't have to be a genius."

I want to just touch on that, the power of that feeling you have, where, "This is the one idea. This idea must live."

I can explain it in a perspective through a lens of evolutionary biology. That feeling is an overpowering feeling. It's like standing in church and hearing the voice. You're just going to dance and say, "Please, I have it. I hear it."

There's a reason for that. You're going up against the status quo. You're creating something from whole cloth. It's not easy to create against what's already there. You have to break what's already there. That takes immense energy.

My understanding of the spirit that overtakes is that it's actually a core piece of evolutionary biology pushing us through the brick wall of the status quo. When I come up with an idea for a song or a book, I'm essentially saying, "I'm going to take this blank piece of paper and will something onto it." If you didn't believe in that moment, you're much better off staying on the couch.

We certainly live in a society, in a culture, in a country, that rewards and encourages sitting on the couch.

We reward for good reason. We reward participating in a rule system. We reward it for a couple of reasons. One, it's less resource intensive in the moment. It's less resource intensive for the individual. It's less resource and intensive for someone selling us an idea or a product who's already come up with the thing that produces a stream of revenue.

I'm not trying to reduce everything to economics, but you can make a pretty good case that it is a major force in the conversation of creation and destruction. Let's just take the simple example of Elon Musk. I want to be very clear, these are not partisan discussions, they are not judgment discussions. So let's think of Elon Musk. Battery powered car, probably a name that will transcend the era. Not very easy to do. There are GM plants that had to be retrofitted. There are, in a distant way, fossil fuel workers who need another job. There are gas stations that are in trouble, not all tied to Musk per se, but there's a huge economic infrastructure that has been disrupted, if not even on its way to destruction. And so there's a reason why we like the couch. It's a safer place. 

The way we raise children makes a lot of sense in that we are often creating rules that keep them from dying or hurting themselves. "Don't run on the street. Don't pick your nose and eat it. Don't eat that off the floor." Go down the list. We are imbued for good reason with "no" and with rule. The thing about creativity is, creativity is fundamentally an act of permission to look at the world in ways that are less ruled, less rigid.

You're going against a very fundamental way in which we are taught to see the world. That's among the reasons why creativity can so elude us, because it goes against a fundamental way we're taught from the very beginning.

And we need rules, we need structure. But then there's this idea that it's very binary, and either you're the person who sits in rows in a Pink Floyd song or you are a genius who is creative. That's why, when you talk about levels of creativity, it's so important. Explain to me what a "Little C" creativity means for the average person who doesn't feel like an artist in their day.

If you walk in the kitchen and start to throw a meal together, you've created a Little C [creativity]. It's actually a reasonable metaphor for how the mind works. You're taking ingredients and mixing them in an interesting way.

I don't know about you, but I've got an occasional friend who's come up with a recipe and you say, "I have got to have that." And you've moved, you've added something to the world. You've certainly added something to your table. Those moments occur all the time. Those moments may lend themselves to something larger. I don't think that we should conflate the idea of world changing with satisfying.

"On the grandest sense, creativity generally happens at a population scale. The more people you have in close congregation, the more creativity gets developed."

In fact, I'm going to go even much further than that, because what you learn as you have some success as a creator, you win a prize, you get named a certain something, you get a radio song, none of those things matter as much as the excitement you had doing it. I've talked to some people who've done amazing Big C's. They don't really dwell on or think about where they sit in the Pantheon of the world. They just want to move on to the next creative project. So don't confuse wealth, fame and creative satisfaction, not the same thing.

You also talk about collaborative creativity and what that looks like when we come together to create. What is the magic there, because that feels like it can go so many different ways?

On the grandest sense, creativity generally happens at a population scale. The more people you have in close congregation, the more creativity gets developed because you have collaboration, you have competition, you have cooperation, you have ideas being honed and shared.

Jerusalem was an industry town and the industry was religion. Florence, Rome, Harlem, Silicon Valley, go down the list. I just want to point out that the population level data shows, more people, more creativity. How that plays out among individual groups is really interesting and requires an even bigger commitment to vulnerability. You have to trust that you're not going to be smacked to the ground.

I really liked what Judd Apatow had to say about the writer's room as a proxy for what happens inside our brains. There you are in a comedy writer room, which to me has to be one of the most exposed group efforts in the world, because the vulnerability involved in those places knows almost no boundary. The subjects know almost no boundary. And they need to know no boundary because your probing the areas of discomfort in our world.

Everyone's shouting out ideas. What's funny to them. What's uncomfortable to them. That is a collective unconscious or subconscious, just throwing stuff out. Imagine that is the subconscious part of your brain generating ideas. Then there's the analytical part of your brain that is batting them down saying, "What have you done? Go back!" That is the other writers saying, "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard."

That's a really extreme version of a collaborative model, where there's a group of people trained to go deep and let it go and to criticize the heck out of each other. Apatow says that when it goes well and it's tacitly supportive within that environment, if not overtly supportive, the ideas are incredible. But if people really feel that the judgment is too harsh, where they can't get the words out in the first place, then you've essentially wrecked the creative process.

David Milch tells me this story before his dementia really kicked in. I asked him what creativity's like. He tells me about drinking when he was 16 years old or 12 or 14. He drank with a guy. He said, "At first we drank because we were uncomfortable. Then at some point we drank and just sat there and drank and said whatever we wanted."

He said that it was a true friendship. He said what happened then is, he started to say whatever came to mind without thinking about judgment. He said, that's creativity. When you say something without thinking about it or thinking about whatever impact it might have. You were just letting it out.

Creativity is something that we all have. It is not the province of the elite. It's just a question of recognizing it and respecting it in ourselves, and being able to have that space of collaboration with each other. What has changed for you now in the way that you approach your own work after having done this book, do you feel differently about your own process?

First of all, I just want to reinforce what you said. Creativity is not the province of a few. I will go so far as to say everyone has it. I think it is as essential to the human condition as any other trait.

"I mentioned in the book the phrase, 'Necessity is the mother of intervention.' I came even closer to recognizing that it's authenticity that is the grandparent of invention, and not necessity that drives the whole thing."

What's changed for me in some ways is very little. But it is a reminder to me about how to choose the ideas that most inspire me and not the ones that are the most likely to make money or that inspire an agent or a publisher, or that sound good to someone else.

The reason for that is because I ultimately realized that almost all of our creations for many of us are just for us and our era. Or maybe endure a tiny bit, but who are we kidding? No matter how "successful," they're not world changing ideas for the most part. That is okay. That reinforces the idea that it should be for us. The incredible thing about creativity is, it's one of those activities where you can have personal satisfaction and you just might change the world.

I mentioned in the book the phrase, "Necessity is the mother of intervention." I came even closer to recognizing that it's authenticity that is the grandparent of invention, and not necessity that drives the whole thing. The idea that hits us first is much more visceral than, "I'm going to solve this problem." In fact, if you are thinking that way, sometimes you solve an entirely different problem than the one you set out to fix. It is akin to a genetic mutation when you come up with an idea. It's a series of fragments collecting together in your brain, creating that sense of euphoria, and prompting you to go forth.

If I could share anything with anyone, I would want them to feel optimism. I do think that optimism and creativity often go hand in hand, but also that the status quo or ruminating on the status quo can often lead to a type of pessimism. Creativity and optimism can go hand in hand and should. And I would love if people could feel that, because I think it's appropriate to feel. There's a lot of wonderfulness inside of us, and this is a way to get at it. You're allowed to feel good about that.

More on the creative process: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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