Did you know Thomas Edison was an avid nap taker?
He'd doze in a chair with ball bearings in his hands, extending his arms over the armrests so that they rested above two pie plates on the floor. As he drifted off to sleep, he'd drop the ball bearings and they'd clank on the plates to awaken him from his brief slumber.
Edison would then immediately take notes on any interesting ideas that had crossed his mind during the dream-like state.
As one of the most prolific inventors of all time, Edison was a master at unleashing his inner creativity. But according to research psychologists, creativity isn’t just the currency of inventors, artists, musicians, poets and other so-called “creative types.”
So how can we unlock our inner creativity and apply it to both our business challenges and our personal growth? Could asking ourselves a series of thoughtful questions bring more inspired thought and creative problem solving to everyday life?
Question 1: What's my motivation?
To test how external motivators like money and fame affect creativity, Brandeis University researchers studied professional artists who did both commissioned work (in which pay was specified upfront) and self-initiated pieces (in which it was uncertain if the art would ever be sold). With a panel of experts evaluating each artist’s body of work without any knowledge of the sales history, researchers concluded that for most artists their self-initiated pieces were much more creative than their commissioned work.
In subsequent studies of other creative endeavors, the researchers confirmed that creativity thrives when individuals are motivated primarily by internal factors—like interest, enjoyment and personal challenge—rather than by external inducements or pressure.
So are your latest projects truly satisfying on a personal level or are you doing them merely to get earn more pay, receive recognition, or appear outwardly successful? Are you spending your time on truly fulfilling projects that foster an atmosphere of personal creativity?
Question 2: Do I have creative triggers?
Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that many people experience a heightened creative state when taking a hot shower or bath, laying comfortably in bed, or heading out for a long drive or a quiet walk. Because we seem more open to unconscious insights when we aren’t thinking about anything in particular, any occasion when you can just relax and daydream can be fertile ground for creativity.
Are there specific settings and times that heighten your creativity? Are you creating favorable conditions to tap into your inventiveness?
Question 3: Am I recording my inspiration?
Creative impulses can come quickly and disappear just as fast. If you don’t pay attention to these ideas and immediately record them for future reflection—even waiting a minute or two may be too long—you might lose them forever.
According to researchers, those who are consistently creative usually have some type of system to record flashes of inspiration when they strike—whether it’s summarizing them in a quick e-mail or voicemail, immediately talking them over with a close friend, or writing them down in a handy notebook. Edison accumulated 3,500 such notebooks over the course of his lifetime.
Equally important, creative individuals are able to suspend judgment at the moment of idea creation and focus energies on accurately capturing all of the thoughts racing through their minds—even if those thoughts don’t seem valuable at the time. Edison’s notebooks, for instance, contain not only inventive gems, but also a free flow of calligraphy, poetry and device sketches that ranged from the merely impractical to the truly absurd.
Are you writing down your flashes of inspiration even if they have nothing to do with your current project or proposal—or are you dismissing them as nonsense?
Question 4: Am I incubating my ideas?
Have you ever faced a difficult issue, but after spending some time away from the problem suddenly found that the solution appeared unexpectedly? Creativity researchers call this break from conscious thought the “incubation” stage—the often-crucial period when you digest all of the data you have gathered and allow your ideas time to morph and recombine in novel and unpredictable ways.
For you to take advantage of this incubation period, you will need to begin work on a project early enough to avoid immediate deadline pressure. Starting that client proposal the night before it is due probably won’t cut it.
Many of Edison’s most profound inventions only occurred after he had let the ideas simmer for a while in the back of his mind. Even for the man credited with ushering in the modern electrical age, it still took some time and reflection before he could truly see the light.
You might not be trying to invent electricity, but you can still use these questions to hack your way to maximum creativity on your next business project. What unexpected insights will you uncover—and how will you use them to change the world in your own way?
About Ben Kaplan
Ben Kaplan is a best-selling author, popular speaker, and CEO of PR Hacker — the world's fastest growing viral marketing firm. He has been featured on more than 5,000 TV and radio shows including appearances on Oprah, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, NPR, and the BBC.