Nine Ways To Light Your Creativity ON FIRE

I felt so ashamed. I had just lost my apartment in the city. I had no jobs. No prospects for jobs. No money. A few years earlier I had millions and then I had nothing. So I sold my apartment, scraped together some cash, and moved 70 miles north of the city. It was in the middle of a blizzard. I was scared of my neighbors.

I couldn’t get out of bed I was so depressed. I gained twenty pounds because I never moved my body. There was blizzard after blizzard. I didn’t go into the city at all, not even to attend the closing of my hated apartment, which took me almost two years to sell (at almost 50% of the price I originally listed at). I had no phone. Didn’t need one.  I didn’t feel like I would have any skills for a job and it was a recession anyway. I was really scared because my dad’s career had basically ended in a similar way and then fizzled out from depression. The same thing was going to happen to me, I was sure of it.

I got an email the other day. Someone asked me, “when you are totally out of luck and feeling incredibly down, how do you spark that creativity up so you can get going again?”

We’re all creative people. Unless we’re just going to disappear and die, you have to spark it up again at some point.  And recession and politics doesn’t matter. We’re in a $15 trillion economy. There’s $3 trillion in cash lying in the bank. There’s six million private businesses. So once you’re creative again there’s no reason you can’t make money. Lots of it. I don’t care what the debt ceiling did today or what imaginary monster “downgraded” some other imaginary monster. None of that matters for creative people. None of that matters for you and me.

Nine Steps to Get More Creative RIGHT NOW

(1) Turn Upside Down. Not literally. But take any topic people hold dear. Turn it upside down. Pick a topic that people hold so dear its like a religion (See, “The 10 Commandments of the American Religion”). Education is one of those topics. Start thinking every day of 10 new ways people can get educated. Khan Academy is doing pretty good. Is he the only guy out there who can do something like that? Of course not. Advertising is another area. Publishing is another area. Turn it all upside down.

Real estate is another area that can still be turned upside down. Airbnb is only the start. Zillow is only the start. There’s a million ways. Take any topic that is practically a religious topic. Say out loud, “the way the world does this right now is bull-shit” and start thinking “why” and “how” to make it better. You’re not going to solve all the world’s problems right here. This is all to just start off exercising the creativity muscles. You need to start firing those neurons or axons or whatever again. But you never know, sometimes if you exercise enough, you can actually become a professional piano mover.

(2) List options. In chess, the first thing a grandmaster does when its his turn is not look deeply down one variation but takes a step back and lists all of the possible option moves.

Take a pad (my favorite choice: the waiter’s pad) and start listing options. I still do this all the time. Since its your own private pad your options can be as insane as possible. Who cares? Its your pad!

I made a list of options the other day. Even if I don’t intend to do any of these its always helpful to list the possibilities for yourself. To list your options:

  • Start a fund (this led to another list of types of funds, types of investors, etc)
  • Start another online business (and then this led to another list)
  • Write a book about “the American Religion” (this led to me doing a list of chapters)
  • Write a novel (working on it today)
  • Try being a standup comedian just once
  • Get more speaking gigs
  • Create a “Dear Abby” column on the blog
  • Pitch a TV show (blech!)
  • Become a world famous painter (why not?)

And so on (these were the least embarrassing so I list them above).

And for every option you list, that creates new potential lists of options.  When I write “pitch a TV show” that means I now have to make a list of all the possible options there. The more sub-lists you write, the closer you get to execution.

Again, this is not supposed to lead to anything (yet) but just as exercises to kickstart the creativity. This also assumes you are getting the rest of your life together: The Daily Practice plus Avoiding Crappy People.

(3) Combine Ideas. Let’s say there are 10,000 possible things you can be interested in. That means there’s  over 100,000,000 ways to combine any two ideas to make a new idea. When I first met Claudia (an Argentinian who was obsessed with yoga) I instantly told her, “you should create Tango Yoga!” Take Tango moves, combine them with Yoga moves, write a book, take photos of beautiful tango dancers doing yoga poses, give classes, do a DVD, etc. Only problem is, she’s the only Argentinian on the planet who doesn’t know how to tango.

But that’s just an example. When I  started Stockpickr I took my two main interests at the time: making websites, and daytrading, and combined them into one website. BAM!

So do it! List all the things you’ve ever been interested in in your life. See which ones you can combine. Again, we’re just doing this for fun. No pressures. I’m IMing one guy right now as I type this: he’s interested in both the bible and being an entrepreneur. How about a book? “The 10 Best Entrepreneurs in the Bible”! BAM! Is it a good idea? Who knows? But if he does it I bet he can make a living getting speaking gigs about it. And he can self-publish using these techniques and not wait a year for some clueless publisher to figure out how to print up his book.

(4) New Technology. When the iPad came out, everyone should’ve been listing the multiple businesses that would be created off of that ecosystem. Now that we have Google+ I know several people already brainstorming the various businesses that can be created off of that. And do you think “location-based” is done? Do you think it was just a fad? We are not even singing the National Anthem on that one yet. Inning number one is still years away. Start thinking man! And show me the idea before you show it to anyone else.

Start reading about every new technology you can find. You don’t need to be a nuclear rocket scientist to make use of new technologies. That’s what third-world Malaysians are for. You’re the idea guy! The cowboy on the frontier! There’s technology now that can take your brain scan and tell you what letter you were thinking of. When are we going to have the “wiki-chip” that links Wikipedia to my brain? Chop-chop! Let’s do it.

(5) Connect people. Why is LinkedIn so successful? Because it connects people. LinkedIn is worth billions. You don’t need to be worth that much. How about you become a mini-LinkedIn today? Find 5 sets of two people you can connect. Its just like combining ideas only now you are combining people. You don’t need any benefit from it. If you can think of two people who can help each other and you put them together then the universe will take care of your benefit. You don’t have to spend one ounce of energy thinking about it. Just be creative about who you can put together. Ok, GO!

I’ve gone to about four dinners in the past few months where the entire purpose of the dinners was to throw people together. I’ve gotten insulted, brutalized, made fun of, laughed at by Prime Ministers, ignored by supermodels, scoffed at by presidential candidates, but it’s been a great experience for someone as anti-social as me. And it’s strengthened my rolodex of people who I can introduce to each other. Become a connector.

(6) Make something. I don’t know how to paint, sculpt, collage, photograph, nothing. So those areas of my brain are completely dormant and atrophied. It would probably help every area of my creativity, including my business creativity and writing creativity if I just take out the watercolors my kids use and paint something. Or take a bunch of women’s fashion magazines and make a collage. It would take my mind off any anxieties I have, and get me focused on some creative time while at the same time I would be riding a steep learning curve.

So I asked my kids to give me a lesson on how to draw manga comic book characters. They were great teachers, I got to spend quality time with them, I sparked my creativity in an area I never thought of, and I made “stuff” (I have to call it that since I’m not sure they would approve of me calling it “manga”).

(7) Leave. You heard me. Go. Get away. Leave your house. Get in the car and drive a few hours away. Call in sick at work. Go someplace you’ve never been before. Turn your mind off for a day. Find an obscure museum you can visit. Let me tell you a story. In 2004 I got a letter from the IRS. I got scared. At first I panicked. But then once the situation started to calm down I did the only thing I could do – I left. I went to an ashram sort of place for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t speak at all for three days. I ate good. I exercised, meditated, sat at the table where nobody spoke, and kept to myself. By the time I got back I was ready to start my next business and I did and it worked.

You can’t leave all the time. But one afternoon every two or three weeks take an “art day” for yourself. Leave and don’t look back. Have fun.

(8) Virtually Leave. Sometimes when I’m thinking about what to write about I start checking out websites that I know do a good job curating creativity. Inevitably it will have me start thinking. Here are some of my favorites:

  • (note: not safe for work. This site is run by an 80 year old guy who is an awesome curator of creativity. BUT, he intermixes the great sites with his favorite artistic porn pictures. He can do without those but I’m sure they drive traffic.)
  • There’s about 1000 others. They get the juices flowing in my brain sometimes. Usually I try to write by reading first and getting that to inspire me. I’ll read a writer with a strong autobiographical voice. If that doesn’t get me going I’ll switch to a spiritual text. If that doesn’t get me going, I start hitting the above sites.

(9) Seek HELP. Sometimes you really are down and out. Sometimes you really can’t get out of bed. Sometimes life has beaten down on you or me or whoever a little too much. That’s ok also. You can’t just go to a museum and suddenly your brain is on fire with ideas. Every now and then you need a little bit of extra love and attention. Don’t ignore the possibility that you might need a doctor to talk, to medicate, to listen, and just work through things while you are going through a tough period.

On a regular basis, I do all nine of the above.  In my article on “The Daily Practice” I mention four legs of the practice that I work on every day. The third is the “mental” leg – i.e. working on the idea muscle. This is the way I work on the idea muscle, by applying all nine of the ideas above.

Eventually, in 2002, after my depressive exile from NYC, after all the blizzards, and the silence, and the anxiety of wondering if I was ever going to get off the floor again, I found my creative voice. But it took all of the above. It took the Daily Practice. It took the various posts I mention below. Most of all, it took me getting out of bed and telling myself that I wanted to live again.

I’m still alive.

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