How to Overcome the Greatest Limitation to Being a Creator

You first must know what the greatest limitation to being a creator is before you can overcome the limitation. From my experience as an author (, the head of the Creative Center at Bayer MaterialScience, and a Certified Creative Problem Solving Facilitator (, the greatest limitation to creativity is a false belief. The false belief is that creativity comes from a sudden inspiration out of nowhere. This blog post explores the origin of this limitation and how to avoid this limitation.

Our brain is wired to remember events that solicit high emotion whether negative or positive emotion. We remember events with high negative emotion because these flag threats to be wary of and we remember events with high positive emotion because these are rewards that help us thrive. Neuroscientists have discovered that creativity is immediately preceded by an insight which produces a reward state in the brain. Neuroscientists use puzzles like the Remote Associates Test to simulate an insight. The Remote Associates Test asks you to look at three different words and come up with a fourth word that works with each of the starting three words. For example, take the following three words:

mail – board – lung

A fourth word that goes with each of these three words is black: blackmail, blackboard, and black lung ( I had a grandfather that died of black lung from working in coal mines so the answer to this rather difficult Remote Associates Test came to me rather quickly. When you work out the answer on your own, you experience the ah-ha moment of insight which feels great! In the ah-ha moment, you feel good for figuring out the puzzle.

It turns out that when an innovator is asked to describe how they came up with a creative product, they remember the moment of insight because of the strong positive emotion associated with insight. The innovator tends to not talk about the preparation it took to arrive at the insight because the preparation is less memorable. The tendency of the brain to remember moments of strong emotion but not the boring preparation has led to the Eureka Myth for creativity. The Eureka Myth suggests that creativity comes out of nowhere and so takes no preparation. But, from what we understand from neuroscience, the first step to having an insight is to take your focus off of a problem or challenge. Insights help us thrive because insights help us solve problems and change things for the better. But, an insight can only happen after we are confused about something, perplexed, stuck on a problem we are trying to solve, or stuck on the next step to improve something for the better. The work it takes to find a worthy problem is not remembered by an innovator of a creative product as strongly as the moment of insight is remembered.

The way to get around the limitation of the Eureka Myth for creativity is to engage in the up-front work needed to unleash creativity. The up-front work needed to unleash creativity can be distilled to the three steps of getting curious, getting inspired, and mastering your domain.

Getting Curious to Unleash Creativity
Curiosity is the desire to learn and learning is an important ingredient to creativity. Curiosity is the inquisitive thinking needed to notice things that can be helpful to a problem. Archimedes had the problem of determining if the King’s crown was made of pure gold ( It was Archimedes’ curiosity that got him to notice that the water level went up in the tub when he got in to take a bath. Archimedes was then able to use volume displacement in water to determine the density of a bar of gold. The density of gold combined with the volume displacement and weight of the King’s crown led to a solution to his problem.

One way to inspire your curiosity is to “polish your mind with the mind of others” ( You can learn from others by consulting with them on topics of interest to you as one way to get ideas for how to improve situations or pursue opportunities. You can also learn from others by asking good questions. There are many techniques to ask good questions ( For me, a good question is preceded by good listening to understand what another person is trying to communicate. Good listening means not only hearing the words but thinking about the implications of the spoken words to things you are interested in and drawing insights from those implications. I also try to remember that good questions either generate new knowledge, lead to more questions rather than directly to a solution, or clarify meaning to extend the content presented to a new context. Finally, a good question is either a problem statement or is open-ended. Problem statements start with how to, in what ways might, or how might. Open-ended questions require a person to pause and think and start with why, how, what, describe, tell me about, or what do you think about.

A second way to inspire your curiosity is to do a Zoom-In/Zoom-Out exercise with an object or a concept. An example Zoom-In/Zoom-Out exercise is what Psychologist Jer Clifton describes as the Leaf Exercise to cultivate curiosity for the natural world ( You go to a park or forest and zoom in to pluck a leaf off a tree that interests you. You zoom in again to take in the beauty or the components of that leaf. For example, the beauty of the leaf might include the veins on the back, the colors, and the shape. Then pluck a second leaf and reflect on how that leaf is like but not exactly the same as the first leaf. Next zoom out and take in the magnificence of the entire tree. Then zoom out again and imagine the fullness of Siberia or the Amazon. Then zoom out more such as imagining all the trees and plants that have gone before you and produced the air that you now breathe. Finally, think about what this means to current problems you are facing or in the context of the kind of a world we now live in.

A third way to inspire your curiosity is to read widely and follow your interests. You can join a book club to do more reading. You can also search on Google for top books in different categories. You can follow people you admire on their electronic newsletter or Social Media account to learn about what they are reading. For example, Daniel Pink shares his favorite reads through his Pink Newsletter ( and Barack Obama shares his annual reading list on Twitter. You can follow your interests by searching for TED and TEDx talks on your topics of interest. You can also find many educational videos and courses on You-Tube and through applications like Coursera (, MIT Open Courseware (, and HarvardX ( Read widely and follow your interests because you never know where your next great idea will come from.

Getting Inspired to Unleash Creativity
Inspiration is the desire to apply what you learned through your curiosity. Researchers have described inspiration as a “motivational state that compels individuals to bring ideas into fruition” ( Inspiration to address a problem or challenge comes from understanding why addressing that problem or challenge is of interest to you. To increase your inspiration to address a problem or challenge, look for a connection between the problem or challenge and what you care about. If you are struggling to understand what you care about, then I highly recommend Simon Sinek’s book Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team which will walk you through a process to find what you care about (

There are three kinds of inspiration to explore in creativity ( First is rational inspiration which involves collecting a large quantity of quantitative and qualitative information to inform the insights that will drive your thinking. I’m a PhD chemical engineer and rational inspiration tends to be my default especially for writing and instructional design. I like to create a mindmap in Mind Manager to collect all the information and trigger insights. Second is emotive inspiration which involves tapping into the senses and feelings tied to human experiences. I use emotive inspiration when I am preparing for a singing or piano performance. Third and finally is serendipitous inspiration which involves stumbling on great ideas such as from forced connections between seemingly random topics or random conversations. I use serendipitous inspiration when I am trying to extend a brainstorming session by myself or with a group of people past the first wave of ideas.

Mastering Your Domain to Unleash Creativity
The final and most important element in preparing for creativity is to master your domain. There is consensus across creativity researchers that you need to be an expert in a domain before you can generate worthwhile problem statements that lead to creativity. Some creativity researchers go as far as to say you need to be obsessed about your domain ( In fact, there is no correlation between IQ and creativity but there is a correlation between obsession and creativity.

Creativity gets stifled when we get stuck in the ways we have always done things. An increase in domain competence is what helps us see that there can be a new or better way to do things. Domain competence in our rapidly changing world means keeping up with the latest developments and thinking about how those developments impact your field. Developing competence takes work. This is why creativity also takes work.

Creativity guru Dr. Keith Sawyer believes you can be smart about how you master your domain (Keith Sawyer, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, New York: Jossey-Bass, 2013, 49-72). For example, Dr. Sawyer subscribes to a technique called deliberate practice which is using your expertise or domain skill in ways that challenge you to increase your mastery to the next level. Dr. Sawyer also recommends becoming a T-shaped person to increase your creativity. The vertical line of the “T” represents deep expertise in a particular field while the horizontal line of the “T” represents lower levels of expertise across many different fields. T-shaped people get creative ideas by making connections between what is done in other areas and what is done in their area of expertise.

A natural extension to developing your domain mastery is finding problems such as situations you want to change, improvements you want to make, and opportunities you want to pursue. There are also tools you can use to find worthwhile problems. For example, I like to use Stephen R. Covey’s time management matrix to identify worthwhile problems. Worthwhile problems live in the second quadrant of Covey’s time management matrix which is for tasks that are not urgent but are important ( Covey’s second quadrant challenges you to think about the things that if you address them will have profound positive impact on your work and on your life. The higher your domain mastery, the more worthwhile the problems you will identify to tackle, and the more likely you are to innovate.

Mastering your domain is important to bypass some of the barriers to creativity in identifying worthwhile problems. For example, perhaps you have heard people in the workplace say “we solved that problem years ago” or “that problem is not worth the effort.” Domain mastery helps you develop the knowledge nuances needed to find worthy problems and opportunities for improvement regardless of how long a field has been around. Look at photography! What Google has been doing with the Pixel phone is absolutely amazing! The digital approach to photography can solve age-old problems. For example, my Pixel phone has a Magic Eraser that I have used to erase unwanted elements from a digital photo!

Summary of Being a Creator
There is a persistent belief that creators get their best insights out of nowhere because creators remember their moment of insight better than all the work and preparation leading up to the insight. So when a creator is asked about their innovative piece of work, they talk about the moment of inspiration which perpetuates the myth that innovation comes from an ah-ha moment out of nowhere. Creativity researchers understand the importance of putting the work in to develop persistent curiosity, inspiration, and domain mastery as precursors to the insight needed for innovation. Curiosity is the inquisitive thinking needed to come up with new ideas to solve problems. Inspiration is the motivation to act on the new ideas uncovered by curiosity. Finally, being obsessed about your domain will ensure that you uncover the types of worthwhile challenges that lead to innovative work.