The proof that we’re all creative: losing your keys

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question is from Crysel [44 votes]:

What is the real motivation for creativity?

For most of history people did not use the word creativity very much. They just invented and discovered things in the course of their lives without applying special labels to them. But something strange happened to in modern times. We developed a romance around the notion of creativity. Most people today think of it as an extra layer of cognitive powers, that only special people have. This is untrue and there’s an easy way to prove it.

Imagine you are getting ready to work. You stop at your door to do your pre-airlock check for your phone, your wallet and your keys. You realize your keys aren’t in your pocket. Oh no! And at this moment an important sequence of cognitive events takes place.

  1. Your brain instinctively tells you to look by the door in the place where you usually put your keys when you come home. So you go and look, perhaps at the basket on the shelf right by the door where they usually go. And they are not there!
  2. Now your brain thinks a bit more. Maybe they fell? So you check on the floor and behind the basket. Not there!
  3. And here is where the magic starts: your brain starts getting increasingly creative. You look under the basket. You look in the hallway outside. You look in clothes you haven’t worn in days, or weeks. Then you check the basket again (perhaps the keys magically reappeared since the last time you looked?).
  4. You consider increasingly unusual explanations for where your keys are. Maybe you left them at the restaurant last night (which is unlikely since you got into your apartment)? Or someone broke into your place and stole them! (which also doesn’t make sense as if they broke in they don’t need your keys). And on and on your brain will go inventing and trying out solutions.

The lesson here is that when suitably motivated your brain will be creative all on its own. During step 3 above you did not have to engage in a brainstorming exercise or put on a magic hat of ideation. Your mind will, when motivated and presented with a hard problem, generate inventive, unusual and unorthodox ideas. This helps explain why our species has survived despite not being very strong or very fast. We are good at solving problems and when we are motivated can persist in trying to solve even very hard ones.

Now some people hear this and say that looking in strange places for keys isn’t really creative because most of those ideas are failures. But that’s just it. Creative work is very much like looking for keys. You have to do the work to explore many alternatives, many of them unsuccessful, until you arrive at a worthy idea. Even the most brilliant writers and artists write first drafts and draw early sketches that they eventually throw away. They learn much from those “failed” ideas and those lessons help make their second, third and final drafts better than the last. Working with ideas is never an efficient process. It’s messy and uncertain no matter how talented you are.

All this means that when we don’t feel creative often all that’s missing is a strong enough motivator. Sometimes we have demotivators in our own minds, like fear of being judged by others or fear of failure and it’s only by becoming more self-aware that our natural creativity can be free to surface. Other times we’re in cultures or teams that penalize creative thinking. But even in the best situations remember that creativity is a kind of work. You have to burn extra calories. And most of the time we, and our brains, prefer to be efficient and do the least amount of work necessary. But when we are suitably motivated, perhaps out of fear (losing your keys) or passion (solving a problem you care about deeply), our brains have most of the tools we need already built in.


9 Responses to “The proof that we’re all creative: losing your keys”

  1. Lisa

    The sarcasm in the question:”Imagine you are an ordinary person of average intelligence (some of you will have to do more imagining here than others).” was totally unnecessary in posing your question as putting on aires as being smarter somehow is rudely condescending. Getting to your question, there’s nothing creative about looking for your keys. I lose mine all the time. Sometimes I leave them in the inner door all night. Sometimes I put them in my pocket and it shifts so I can’t feel them then touch inside the entire pocket, sometimes I go upstairs do something and leave my keys on the bed. I’ve never put them in the fridge or freezer yet. My keys are attached to a giant safety pin that I hook onto myself or just put in a purse that I check first. Process of elimination not creativity to find them. Creativity is soley for art and writing. Bad memory is responsible for misplaced keys and it’s frustrating. Retrace steps and you find them once you realize frustration won’t help and I don’t do stress or frustration.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Any process of elimination still requires some thinking to decide which to try. Sure, checking the basket for keys isn’t creative, but as each obvious place to check is eliminated the only possibilities have to be increasingly creative ones!

    2. Scott Berkun

      And the sarcasm was a joke – I still think it’s funny in a way but I took it out.

  2. GetzelR

    Interesting read.
    It got a bit muddled for me and took me some time to distill. Here’s what I got:

    There is no distinct motivation for creativity because it’s not an end but a means. What *introduces* creativity, i.e, less obvious approaches, is actually the failure of the obvious approach – provided the motivation isn’t sapped/overwhelmed by the failure.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Lovely. That works. Again, your writing is more concise than my own :)

      The curious thing is why most folks think of creativity as an end – as a special lens or mindset. In ordinary life ordinary people are creative all the time, they’re often just too humble to realize they’re engaging the same cognitive skills as “creative” peope do.

      1. GetzelR

        That is the curious thing.

        It’s worth noting that although we are all more or less creative, some are more and some are less. Some minds are better (trained?) at detecting less-obvious connections, diagnosing failure etc.

        When we inevitably fail at something, we assume (and in some cases know) that someone else with those advantages would succeed. We are not creative *enough.*

        If our attempts never graduate beyond what we would classify as obvious or unimaginative it follows that we’d start to believe there is something missing or dormant.

        Also, we have entire industries full of people romanticizing their creativity as magic, so there’s that.

  3. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott,
    I guess creativity is linked to humour which makes me think of your first comment, which leads to my own funniness: The average person self-reports being an above average driver, the below-averagely intelligent are less inclined to self-report, and no one, ever, admits to having no sense of humour.

    My favorite humour from this piece was “…stop at your door to do your pre-airlock check…” because the first thing I noticed when I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Canada was that every building and store had an airlock!

    Oh, and unlike the coast, all the windows were double paned, to maintain air pressure if a little meteorite struck the first pane.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I still think there’s a joke in there somewhere. If you missed it, here’s what Lisa was referring to. Paragraph 3 used to say:

      “Imagine you are an ordinary person of average intelligence (some of you will have to do more imagining here than others)”

      I can see how it’s insulting to anyone who thinks they won’t need much imagination here… but if they already think that about themselves I didn’t see why they’d mind me pointing that out.

      Humor is subjective and people tend to think creativity is as well, but only certain forms of it. In this post I’m talking more about problem solving – the ability to find a solution to a problem – which is a kind of creativity, easier to evaluate than, say, what makes a good song or a poem, where the problem to solve is more subjective.

      I mean, is a Phillips screw creative? Offhand most people would say NO. They’re commonplace. But I think it’s incredibly creative – on the day before Phillip invented it there was a problem to solve and it took a lot of ingenuity for him to arrive at the solution that he did.

      That’s part of the (romantic) problem with the word creativity – we tend to assign so much subjective and extreme meaning to it that is out of bounds with the reaility of making things.

  4. Sean Crawford

    You write of “fears” and “demotivates.”

    Something society doesn’t talk about, probably because it is hard to measure and research, and so embarrassing too, is how fears, as I put it, “squish down my brain” so that my creative problem solving is noticeably-to-me impaired.

    I remember visiting a worksite, and a colleague was having trouble coming up with things to try. Then I came up with so many ideas (only a few) that the person on shift felt dismay, less adequate, and said so. I hastened to add, “But it’s not my shift! So my brain is light and carefree and able to think.”

    In the novel Starship Troopers a colonel hastens to tell a young lieutenant that the platoon sargeant is a good resource in combat because his brain is not as burdened by responsibility.


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