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Ask HN: How can I get better at original thinking and being creative?
34 points by MikeLumos 24 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments
I've never felt like I'm good at being creative, coming up with original ideas, my own unique independent thoughts. Even though I have spent years practicing "creative" skills - traditional and digital art, writing, gamedev, programming. I've made a lot of things, I'm pretty proud of some of my projects.

But "creativity" still feels like a mystery to me. I've had a few good ideas over the years, but they happened by accident, and I can't make them happen deliberately. Sometimes I can go months without an original thought. If I want to intentionally invent a new idea for an app, or a game, or a story, or a business - I feel like I can't, no matter how hard I try.

And generally speaking, in life, I feel like I'm pretty bad at having my own unique take/opinion on things, even though I'm trying. Most of my "controversial" thoughts and opinions came from the controversial/unpopular books/essays/posts I have read.

How do people like Scott Alexander, Paul Graham, Eliezer Yudkowsky, etc, just think of all these unique and original things? It seems like they just have a boundless source of insightful ideas. How can I get better at this?




I'm also not creative. Two (unoriginal) ideas:

1. Do cross disciplinary things, a lot of creativity is really just porting common knowledge to another domain

2. Be contrarian. Assume everything you hear is wrong, unless you can connect it back to first principles you understand. You'll often end up being correct, and discovering some insight that the crowd hasn't come upon yet (the downside of this is people will think of you as a heretic)


Yes, contrarian can be useful to identify strongly held assumptions, once you get past all assumptions you arrive at the first principle.


Slow down, and observe. What looks like creativity from the outside is being able to synthesize lots of information into an easily-digestible form that nobody has ever thought of before. The reagents for that are 1) taking in lots of information, which it seems like you already do and 2) spending the time to mentally organize it and mull it over, which if you're busy doing things, you won't have time for.

Also don't focus on being "creative" - that's too much pressure, it'll bias you toward ideas that sound profound but are actually vapid or wrong. Focus on understanding, even if just for your own mental model. The creative part is just telling everybody what you already understand.


Great advice/insight. I can personally relate it directly to musical improvisation for example.

I do not have a complete answer for you. But I've developed this simple hack that worked quite well for me. That is, before working on anything, play a little game or solve a puzzle. I learned this after reading "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World"[1] by Adam Grant. You can watch his TED talk here [2] to get some ideas.

How do I know it work? This might be survivorship bias but whatever, I believe it worked for me. After practicing this for around a year, I developed a custom 3D visualization for our 3D scanner[3] which greatly improved the UX. Our customers loved it. We even filed a patent for it (pending though)[4]

For me, that little puzzle is usually a leetcode[5] problem, or to solve a non-trivial rubik (my humble collection here[6]).

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00XIYGCDO

[2]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxbCHn6gE3U

[3]: https://bodidata.com/kora-1

[4]: https://patents.google.com/patent/US20210018608A1

[5]: https://leetcode.com

[6]: https://www.reddit.com/r/Cubers/comments/nrzc62/just_my_humb...



“Creative” really just means “ideas unlike everyone else’s ideas.”

Ergo, if you have the same inputs as everyone else, you’ll most likely have the same outputs too.

The solution? Change your inputs. The three people you mentioned are all very much in the same milieu of thought, which one might call “technology-adjacent rationalist.” They all basically have the same worldview, when it comes down to brass tacks.

My suggestion is to start reading things by people without this worldview. Fashion designers, Islamic philosophers, voodoo priests, Deleuzian cyberneticists. Anyone that is outside of your normal range of input. Especially people from the distant past, as most pop science/etc. books today all have the same basic worldview, which historical writers don’t have.

You will make connections between the things you know and the new things. This ability to make connections is fundamentally what creativity is all about.


You may have the same inputs but think in a creative way - for instance: start by taking two dissimilar things and explore the possibilities, real and metaphorically.


Whenever an interesting idea pops into your mind, write it down immediately. Do not wait to write it down because it will very likely slip your mind.

Another tip is, do not look up your idea to see if it already exists - build it assuming it is completely novel. It is an exercise where you're almost pretending you're very creative and not influenced or helped by anyone else.


Listen. You have the skills, you’re just lacking the inspiration. People have so many things they want solved, or to see, or to experience. Listen to what people say at work, at the coffee shop, at parties, wherever. Ask yourself afterwards what you thought about their desires, were they superficial, shallow, meaningful, insightful..? Did their thought or question resonate with you? If it did then try creating something in some way that relates to that question.

Alternatively just sit down, with a piece of paper, stare at it, and just make a mark on it, then another, then another. If you get a giant pile of scribbles grab another piece of paper and do the same. Try arranging them all together to see if you see something that means something to you. Frequently artists draw things not even realizing they were drawing what they drew.

Lastly, if all else fails, just let go. Set your intention, that you want to create something, then surrender to life and put that intention in the back of your mind and forget about it. At some point in the future that thought will pop back into your mind out of nowhere with some sort of solution.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. No one is a perfect creator that has never struggled. Give yourself the space to learn, grow, and to find the things, people, and experiences that inspire you.


To have an original idea i need to take my mind of things.

For small problems i like taking a walk, sometimes talking to someone helps (a dog is great at that, they love the attention, or a guinea pig which will also talk back to you (week week brrr...) just to be able to work at the situation at hand from a different perspective since you have to explain the situation to someone without knowledge about it.

doing something totally different for a while.


This may be controversial but you could try smoking a small amount of cannabis and listening to some music.

I wouldn't reccomend this route if you have a history of drug or alcohol problems.

Another path you can try is consuming less media and try to make your days a little more boring. You might be surprised what your mind comes up with in those boring minutes. I like to write in the morning before I look at the news or read anything.

If you want to maximize the boredom strategy consider a weekend long hike out camping trip.


A few things that worked for me:

Try some ideation techniques [0].

Take a long walk.

Carry a sketchbook.

Spend time with folks you normally don't spend time with, outside of your echo chamber.

Unplug, and take naps. Near dream-states always gets me going.

0. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introd...


Creativity is based on personality trait Openness to experience and is mostly hardwired. You've got what you've got within a 1/2 a standard deviation, or so.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openness_to_experience

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/openness

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/openness-to-...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjtBDa4aSGM

It's not the be all end all of being productive. In fact it can be a hindrance if one's conscientiousness isn't in gear.

Don't compare yourself to other people. Only compare yourself to who you used to be. It's good that you want to be more. But it's even more important to acknowledge what you are and can be.


https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/single_d...

Psilocybin is one of the safest drugs, and there are retreats and clinics and lots of video content on the web to familiarize yourself with the relative risks and benefits. If you're not at risk for schizophrenia or have other mental health concerns, mushrooms are highly recommended. They create the opportunity for profound and lasting change, and increases in the openness trait are one of the benefits.

Good luck in your journeys!


I recommend Julia Cameron’s book the Artists way. It’s designed as a course in creative recovery. With daily & weekly homework. Brilliant stuff…


Add a lot of constraints to the problem you are trying to solve. If you watch cooking shows on TV you may have noticed that the more WTF the theme is the more creative the chefs are.

Think about how much more creative you have to be to prepare a delicious dish when the theme is 'peas' vs when it is 'lobster'.

I am creating a website that teaches Japanese using only Japanese. I have also set the constraint that it has to be through genuinely enjoyable content. Another constraint is that all the visual element must be HTML&CSS (no asset, no javascript). Turns out I have to find very creative ways to make it work (the site is in my bio).


Watch Everything is a Remix: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJPERZDfyWc

I've been prolific over the years in programming and art & code, and about 99% of it was remixes of others work. I'm not ashamed of that - many artists draw inspiration from multiple sources. The trick is to put your own spin on it, not directly rip off someone else's work. Many artists will never tell you they borrowed from various sources, because they think that would come across as unoriginal and merely copying others work, but have a few beers with an artist and suddenly they start sharing their secrets...


When I sketch, I learned to take more risks, and break more rules. I exaggerate shapes, use new perspectives, and keep going after I make mistakes.

I try to create things in isolation, for my own pleasure. I don't compete with others, and I don't try to show off. I accept that I'm not good at it, but still enjoy the activity. This takes a lot of the pressure off. It's how I started sketching again as an adult.

Another important thing is to get bored. I won't take my sketchbook out until I put my phone down. I won't notice the world around me if I'm looking at a screen. I won't come up with ideas and refine them unless my brain is idle for a while. Creativity requires downtime.


You may not want creativity. You can't turn it off.

Also, the world needs people like you far more than people like me. I might move the world forward tomorrow because I create x or b or zx or d, we shall see, won't we? But you will make the world better today for being able to obey, unincumbered by all the shiny things that bounce and trounce your head askant.

Creativity is a bit bunk, basically; just don't dare take it from me.


There is a structure to being creative - not that I could make any claim to being one. You can be creative in original thoughts and ideas, structural creativity in designs - buildings, paintings, policy making etc. In all cases I see that you have to dispassionately dissociate yourself from the doer (which is again you). Please tell us/me your progress


The easiest path is to start reading good poetry, maybe? A bunch of ambiguous lines, if taken on their declarative face value, becomes a nest of hidden associations and different meanings, if taken as a whole with structure, sound and rhymes. Get an anthology with commented poems, then, and start seeing more than the face value of the lines you read.


We are not all awesome or there would be no awesome. Those who are awesome may create something at just the right time or they may not.

I think you may be seeking success over creativity. Comparing yourself to others never ends well. We tend to look in only one direction. Enjoy what you make and have made.


I saw this video the other day that posed the idea to explore what you already know to come up with new ideas. Don't try to come up with ideas about knowledge that is at the edge of what you know.


One idea that I subscribe to is that creativity is basically cross-wiring of ideas from different domains. The people that I know as creative have one thing is common, that they have enormous appetite for reading.


> And generally speaking, in life, I feel like I'm pretty bad at having my own unique take/opinion on things, even though I'm trying. Most of my "controversial" thoughts and opinions came from the controversial/unpopular books/essays/posts I have read.

My position is that it's fine to stand on the shoulders of giants and adopt the opinions of others with due credit, especially for topics outside of your field of expertise. All great thinkers have their influences, so it doesn't make sense to me to expect anyone to have a completely unique take on everything. Your collection of ideas and opinions that you have adopted is in itself unique, so there's no need to build an opinion from scratch on every topic.

In terms of concrete techniques for creativity, there's a couple books on this subject that might interest you -- Messy by Tim Harford [0], The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. Harford talks about stuff like cross-pollination, with the idea that well-known solutions for one medium could be considered breakthroughs in a different context. Pressfield talks about discipline/professionalism and using that to create an environment for your muse to visit. Henry takes more of a productivity-oriented approach, with tips to manage energy, avoid "assassins of creativity", that sort of thing.

For me personally, if I'm in a rut I like to go to the local library and just walk around the shelves until I see something interesting -- it can be pretty hit or miss, but every now and then I'll check out a book that leads to a creative thread worth following.

But one I thing I will note for you specifically, just from your choice of language in your post, is that it sounds like you tend to hold yourself to a very high standard. This is generally a good thing, but consider that you may subconsciously be putting a lot of pressure on yourself to be uniquely great. This can run the risk of developing an excessively critical attitude that can preclude you from giving yourself the freedom and space to make mistakes and explore ideas and activities that may not seem like they will lead to anything worthwhile at first glance.

Creativity generally isn't something that you actively pursue -- it is a process that ensues from letting inspiration marinate in your subconscious. So if you want to be more creative, I suggest pursuing more potential sources of inspiration, and more opportunities for subconscious marination -- long walks, meditation, yoga, etc.

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjYrxcGSWX4


> I've never felt like I'm good at being creative, coming up with original ideas, my own unique independent thoughts. Even though I have spent years practicing "creative" skills - traditional and digital art, writing, gamedev, programming. I've made a lot of things, I'm pretty proud of some of my projects.

Based on that you sound pretty creative to me, but just haven't given yourself enough credit for it. You already have some pride in stuff you've worked on and that's great, is there a reason you don't feel they were creative?

> But "creativity" still feels like a mystery to me. I've had a few good ideas over the years, but they happened by accident, and I can't make them happen deliberately. Sometimes I can go months without an original thought. If I want to intentionally invent a new idea for an app, or a game, or a story, or a business - I feel like I can't, no matter how hard I try.

That's totally normal! You need to let ideas come to you rather than to force them on demand. It's better to come up with one great idea every once in a while than a bunch of forced mediocre ones on a regular basis. When you open yourself up to happy accidents you can get really great ideas you wouldn't have otherwise. Also, don't forget about impostor syndrome, and remember that not everything needs to be goal-oriented, sometimes just the fun of experimentation is enough. Don't think of your ideas as a binary can/can't, instead try just thinking about how far you can take those ideas, regardless of a goal.

> How do people like Scott Alexander, Paul Graham, Eliezer Yudkowsky, etc, just think of all these unique and original things? It seems like they just have a boundless source of insightful ideas. How can I get better at this?

When you read people that inspire you, try to think about their processes, like what do they notice, what motivates them, etc. Don't think about them being better or more creative than you, but just people that have figured out really great processes for producing great work. Once you can start to understand their processes, the more you can start to emulate the parts of it that work for you in a conscious and genuine way. I bet you are already doing some of this without realizing it.

> And generally speaking, in life, I feel like I'm pretty bad at having my own unique take/opinion on things, even though I'm trying. Most of my "controversial" thoughts and opinions came from the controversial/unpopular books/essays/posts I have read.

I bet you actually have interesting opinions that are unique at least from the way you are synthesizing all that information. Having clarity in your opinion is much better than having an "original" one (though one could argue that clarity in itself is unique). That's really cool that you're interested in controversial and unpopular stuff, I bet that just by itself gives you a unique perspective.

Some other tidbits that have worked for me (in addition to other people's good suggestions):

  - Let your mind wander as much as possible. Daydreaming is good.
  - Get plenty of exercise, especially outside and ideally in a nature setting.
  - Trust your intuition above all else.
  - Learn to meditate if you can, and avoid multitasking as much as possible. You'd be surprised what you'll be able to observe when you're only focusing on one thing at a time, that you otherwise wouldn't have been able to.


One thing I've noticed with myself is that I often struggle with creativity too, unless I go do something majorly, radically different and recreational/social. Once that happens, ideas flow like a tsunami whether I want them to or not.

For example, as a kid I was stuck in a rut and routine, school, homework, repeat. Then on a long weekend my step dad and step brothers and I went canoeing in Arkansas. I absolutely hated every goddamn minute of it. We capsized half a dozen times and nearly died at one point, nearly capsizing when going over a sharp and shallow decline (thankfully adrenaline saved us). Well on drive back home (something like ~4 hours) I had a TON of creative thoughts for everything from music videos to a kickass fictional story for english class I had otherwise been struggling with. I was beyond bored with all of it before that, and that one day trip totally shattered the entire cycle and set me loose for a good while.

As an adult, I had another similar "burst" following a rut after passing my first Krav Maga test (WW). It was essentially a ~6 hour non-stop full-power, full-speed demonstration of every beginner defense technique repeatedly. We had a grand total of 15 minutes of break throughout the entire time (two breaks, total). Not everybody passed, and I was surprised that I did. After that I had a total "revelation" breakthrough idea on how to address a particularly tough technical problem I was working on at the time (very early in my career) that I'd been struggling with for a while.

Basically the common theme that works for me is to absolutely go apeshit balls-to-the-wall on something physical outside the home and preferably very social (ill-advised during the pandemic, bear in mind) that will last at least a good 4+ hours, create some really strong life-long memories, and entirely disconnect you from your normal "world", that upon completion, you'll be in a hella good mood. For me, that tends to break the boredom and the blockage same-day if not immediately thereafter. The trick is to be so involved in whatever it is that the other stuff literally is COMPLETELY absent from your mind, not even an emotional "whiff" of it present. If you still think about it, or are still "feeling" an emotion tied to it, you're not lost in the activity enough so dial it up!

Also, just a friendly pointer, stop trying. Creativity is the most counter-intuitive notion of the human mind in that, the more you try, the worse your creativity block gets. But you can't just "let go", you have to entirely OVERWRITE your mind's activity with something else, 100%, without even the smallest hint of the problem/concern/blockage in your mind in the slightest. Only when you're totally distracted and, frankly, having some damn fun will your mind be "free" to work the problem "as a background job" so to speak. Or in another thread, if you prefer :-)




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