At some point, creativity got conflated with a few different adjacent concepts. One which I speak about often, is artistry. I promise: you can be creative even if you can’t “draw a straight line” or “even make a stick figure.” Do you cook to feed yourself? Put together outfits each day? Write emails that people read all the way through? Congratulations, you’ve got what it takes!
But another concept got oddly conflated with creativity at some point: tech savvy. That is to say, the popular creatives of our time- Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, so many others- displayed their creativity in the form of technological creations, so we all assumed that those skills were essential to unlocking our own creativity. Thus, I’m dedicating this post to a second promise: you don’t need tech smarts to incubate your ideas. I get asked often “what tools do you use to get work done?” Honestly? Mostly, these. You can do it with a few of thees tools listed below, or with all of them…or even just your favorite one. Read on to find out more about my four favorite creativity tools that don’t require an outlet, charger, password protection…they just need you to unlock their power!
I give notebooks as gifts to friends with fair regularity. The catch? As I told one friend as I gave him his at a going away party, I don’t give them to people who don’t have the potential to put anything stellar in them. And sure enough, these talented people who let me hang out with them continue to show me what they do with these blank pages…and it’s amazing.
Notebooks excel over the open Word document or Google Drive page for a few reasons. One, they don’t need power. If you find yourself wanting to record an idea on the fly or in a place where power isn’t at a premium (think airplanes, the woods, meetings, etc), a notebook will make the move look contemplative where doing the same on a phone or computer can look unfocused or inattentive. I don’t make the rules, or even agree with them all the time- that’s just the mentality we’re working with right now.
An added benefit to a new creative of using notebooks over a seemingly electronic equivalent? They make your progress easy to spot and even easier to track. I think of about my younger days, when my mind and I had a brief dalliance with the idea of being a fashion designer. The earliest pages of my binders of outfits were crudely drawn; the end ones probably were too, if I’m honest. But one thing I got from keeping them in a dedicated space like that, was the ability to see my work evolve. My sensibilities changed, my drawing improved, and I had a tangible record of how my skills had grown. I don’t draw outfits anymore – I work from home, I scarcely assemble them day to day! – but I find I feel similarly rewarded as I look at my joke notebook now. Premises have gotten stronger, material has shifted with feedback…despite what my inner voice sometimes tells me, I am getting better.
For the budding creative, often mired in a feeling of “is this any good?”, having your own record to look back on can provide a reassuring artifact that yes, you have put in the work; yes, you’re growing; and yes (or sometimes no!), this is worth your time. You can do this digitally, but I find there’s something immensely rewarding about being able to flip through pages and see this evolution take place.
I tell the origin story of Post-Its in my book Cultivating Creativity; they’ve been one of my favorite inventions since I learned how they came to be in a college engineering class. And while they share a lot of traits with notebooks in their utility for the creative process, they also serve a different purpose.
As a “paper perfectionist,” who abhors pencils for their tendency to smudge but also dislikes crossouts because they’re messy, these (literally) scrappy and imperfect signs of the creative process feel unwelcome in my notebooks. But Post-Its? Whole other story. I love using Post-Its to share abstract ideas, organize those thoughts in a structured way (along walls and whiteboards, but rarely connected by yarn), and then express those ideas once they’re coherently “mapped out.”
Post-Its strike me as an exceptional “analog tool” (my catch-all term for non-tech tools) because they’re colorful, portable, and curiously unintimidating. To that last point: I use them frequently in group activities when I speak and facilitate sessions; the ideas that come forth on these tiny sheets of paper end up being eminently more coherent and candid than many of the thoughts I get when asking participants to raise their hands or shout out answers. Their size means what you write can be short, and their relative anonymity in a group setting means that there’s little singling people out for what they’ve written if their name isn’t on it. And if you want to keep a thought? You just take it with you, or take a picture of it. I’m a big believer in lots of drafts before getting things right; Post-Its, themselves the product of a questionable first draft, are the perfect venue for workshopping a big idea on its way to success.
One of my favorite illustrations from my first book The I’s Have It, drawn by the lovely Sue Caulfield, is of a person tightly hugging a door. And it’s true, doors (particularly when they’re shut) can be the saving grace of an overwhelmed introvert, seeking a moment of solitary time after being overstimulated. But they’re also an essential piece of the creative process – regardless of how introverted or extroverted you might be.
Multiple studies have shown that the most creative ideas are generated when budding creators are afforded time to work on their own first, bringing them to a group after they’ve had time to ponder and ideate solo. Unfortunately for many of us, this means that our standard methods of brainstorming are far less effective than we originally thought. But this also means that when we want to encourage people to be creative, or want to enable the creativity of those close to us, we need to give them some time to themselves. This stage is sometimes called ideation, sometimes called incubation, but it is this brief “vacuum” where disparate ideas can start to connect in the brain, yielding that new idea that we’ll eventually get to know and love.
(The Right) Friend
I clarified that the vacuum above would be (relatively) “brief,” and I did that because creativity cannot exist in isolation. The cross-pollination of ideas, and feedback on those ideas that aids the iteration process, can’t happen if the creator’s work never sees the light of day. That’s why the fourth analog tool I recommend for aspiring creatives is a friend. With that said, this is not just any friend.
This friend has to be someone who acknowledges the hard work you’ve put in, but isn’t afraid to give you the honest truth about what you’re working on. This right friend can ask critical questions, not to take the wind out of your sails but to help you sail in the right direction. This person understands what you’re doing, but their knowledge isn’t limited to what you know. Joshua Wolf Shenk suggests “find[ing] a stranger who gets you, or a friend you think is strange.” This combination of affinity and different experience gives you a richer form of support- one that critically and meaningfully encourages you to be better.
And indeed, all four of these tools can critically and meaningfully encourage you to pick up a creative pursuit, stick with it (literally, in the case of a Post-It) even when it’s hard, and do the work that it takes to succeed- all without having to remember to bring along a single charger!