3 Ways to Tap into Your Creative Mindset


We know how important creativity is for self-expression, personal fulfillment, and bringing joy and fun into your life. But there’s an even broader value: honing your creative abilities prepares you to take on any challenge in life or work. The world is changing too quickly to train for every situation you may face–you need ways to keep learning and responding creatively to challenges that none of us can predict. This is why having a strong creative process helps you quickly learn about an unfamiliar situation, test a few early ideas, get feedback and guidance, and ultimately proceed with more confidence.

Where I work at the Stanford d.school, we teach a broad set of creative skills that come from the world of design, and train thousands of people each year how to think and work this way. Our students have designed treatments and resources to help children born with clubfoot avert a lifetime of stigma and disability, launched flourishing creative hubs in the heart of countries undergoing political repression, found new ways to unite journalists and technologists, started businesses that created jobs and economic value, and brought humanity and efficiency to the heart of government bureaucracy. They’ve tackled the esoteric (redesigning how lawyers conduct research), the environmental (solar lighting to give more than a hundred million people around the world an affordable alternative to carbon-polluting kerosene lamps), and the economic (storytelling and media services that help locally owned businesses thrive across the United States).

What do all of these have in common? Uncertainty and ambiguity. There is no one right solution; no singular approach that will fix everything. Our students are often new to these issues when they first start their projects. And that’s good! Their core competency at that stage is to learn fast. They use their newfound skills in design to rapidly learn about the stakeholders and context, come up with rough ideas, translate those into models that can be tested, and revise their concepts until they come up with a viable solution.

Using this approach, you can develop the ability to adapt, to be resilient, and to be creative and generative even when you are uncertain. I’ve come to believe this kind of creative learning is the critical skill for our always-in-flux modern era.

I wrote the book Creative Acts for Curious People to share more of the practices that we use and teach at the d.school. Here are three ways to begin to tap into your creative abilities:

1.) Talk to strangers. Seriously! You will come up with far more creative ideas if you broaden the range of people you interact with, and if you seek to understand things from the point of view of someone else. The next time you start to solve a problem, step back and think about three people you might talk to who might help you take a radically new perspective.

2.) Come up with more ideas than you think you need. We often fall in love with the first idea that pops into our heads. But is it the best idea? You have no way of knowing unless you compare it to other options. Challenge yourself to come up with a large number of ideas before you settle on just one. Set a numerical target (like 100) to keep yourself going. The first 40 to 50 will be really conventional and obvious; the stuff that’s right on the surface of your mind. The next 25 or so will be more interesting and unusual. And the final batch might be pretty far out there. But often in those wild ideas will be the glimmer of something fantastic. Push yourself in that final stretch and don’t censor those ideas for being “impractical.” You can still learn something important and adapt a wild idea later on.

3.) Get physical. Build your ideas—even the abstract ones—into a tangible format. One favorite material? LEGOs. Here’s one approach if you’re trying to come up with creative ideas for what to do on your family vacation. Have everyone grab a pile of LEGOs, and then ask each person to build a representation of the feeling you want on vacation together. You’ll be amazed at what comes out! You might not even have had the words to express what you were aiming for, but the process of using physical materials to share an emotion will help you understand what everyone cares about and generate new ideas in an unexpected way.

Developing your design abilities is a new way to think about learning, and this approach can grow with you for the rest of your life. At this moment in history it’s vital: So many people, communities, and organizations need more human, more ingenious approaches to address the needs that face us and our rapidly changing contexts. You may not always know exactly what to do, but you’ll know how to figure it out. That’s how creativity can help—even on the occasions when your world turns upside down.

The philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” Let’s be learners. Let’s be designers. Let’s inherit the future and apply our creativity to shape it for the better.


Parts of this original article for The Sunday Paper were adapted from the new book, Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways by Sarah Stein Greenberg and the Stanford d.school, copyright © 2021. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


Sarah Stein Greenberg is the executive director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (the “d.school”). For over a decade, Greenberg has helped lead the d.school, an interdisciplinary institute at Stanford that nurtures creative thinkers and doers and helps spread the methods of design. She is the author of Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways.In the classroom Sarah likes to teach at the intersection of design and social impact. She has taught the d.school’s foundational class Design Thinking Bootcamp, an experimental course called Design Thinking for Public Policy Innovators, and the long-running, high impact Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, whose students have gone on to design products and services that have helped over 100 million people worldwide. Sarah likes to tinker with old educational formats and adapt them to today’s learners; one of those experiments launched the d.school’s short-format Pop-Up / Pop-Out course series.

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