Maximize the Value of Your Creative Inputs - Creativity Part 5

In the previous posts on creativity, I’ve mentioned “inputs” pretty frequently, but I haven’t gone into much detail about them. Today, I’ll talk about what I mean by inputs, why they’re important, and share some rules for maximizing their usefulness. I’m very excited to be sharing this with you, because I think it’s an often overlooked aspect of creativity that can have huge effects on your work with very little effort.

First off, let’s get on the same page about what I mean by inputs. I am using this fairly vague term to mean anything that you read, watch, listen to, view, or otherwise interact with in the hopes that it will contribute directly or indirectly to your creative process. That’s a pretty broad, abstract definition, let’s go for some examples. A novel you read for pleasure is probably an input, but one you read to get in the right frame of mind for writing your own story is definitely one. Music you listen to while you drive to work might be an indirect input, but music you analyze for technical skills you might incorporate into your own performance definitely is. The bill you get in the mail almost definitely is not an input, but hey, it just might inspire you. What these distinctions point to is that “input” is not really a category with discrete edges, but rather a radial based on intent: some things are dead center, others are so far away that they almost definitely won’t function as creative inputs. One of the reasons we have to talk probabilistically rather than deterministically is the role the subconscious plays in creativity: a relevant connection to that story you read three years ago might suddenly pop into your head, even if you were reading it with no particular purpose at the time. As such, while the rules I recommend below will serve you well with any sort of material you engage with, you don’t have to become a total hardass about everything you interact with - apply these more rigorously in areas you are specifically targeting for your creative work (unless you really want to). So without further ado, here’s Jeff’s rules for creative inputs:

1- Privilege Long Form over Short

As much as possible, pick a book over a blog post, a blog post over a tweet, a tweet over a comment. Seek out longer, more involved renditions of whatever you need, and actively avoid shorter versions where possible. There are a couple of reasons for this - first off, the longer something is, the more likely that the creator put some real thought into it and genuinely cared about it. This isn’t an ironclad rule, but it’s a reasonably useful heuristic. This can be hard to swallow in a world obsessed with speed, efficiency, and convenience - but remember, our goal here isn’t to go through as much stuff as possible, it’s to get genuine, long-lasting benefit from high quality stuff. Secondly, even if the longer form content isn’t actually any better than shorter stuff, engaging with it lets you exercise your attention span. As many of us have noticed in the age of the smartphone and constant availability, you can lose your ability to focus on just one thing at a time when every day is full of constant task switching. Fortunately, it works the other way too - you can practice focusing on one thing at a time for extended periods and get comfortable with the boredom you will almost certainly feel at some point. So longer stuff gives you a double whammy for improving creativity- higher quality material that simultaneously improves your ability to focus.

2 - Go for Depth over Breadth

As with the advice in a previous post to alternate rest and effort, this one also comes from Josh Waitzkin. We are living in a world of nearly infinite information at our fingertips, so you are unlikely to be challenged by a lack of exposure to neat stuff. Rather, you are at a much greater risk of never truly diving deep into something and finding the beautiful insights only available to someone who truly masters it. I’ve got to admit, following my own advice on this rule is incredibly hard - I am a hardcore serial dabbler. Breadth can be fantastic for creating truly novel connections between disparate material, but paradoxically, pursuing depth is required for truly getting the value out of breadth. If you have only a shallow understanding of two topics, you will only know what makes them different, or only perceive the similarities that are so obvious as to be worthless. Only a deep understanding of a topic will allow you to see its principles embodied in unexpected places.

3 - Actively Engage

At this point, you may have noticed a distinct lack of the terms "consume” and “content” - this has been entirely intentional. Consumption passively implies the material does all the real work, but creativity requires action. Likewise, content has a certain connotation of things produced to fill space or support some other aim, rather than for its intrinsic beauty or worth. So, I have emphasized interaction and engagement because you have to make material your own before you can use it in your creative process: probe it, question it, internalize it. 

The best way I know how to actually do this is by creating some version of a commonplace book. Ryan Holiday explains the method he learned from Robert Greene, which involves index cards in a box. I am strongly tempted to give this method a shot due to my love of all things analog, but thus far I have been seduced by the various conveniences of digital, and so use Evernote. My very favorite feature is the Evernote Web Clipper plugin for my browser. This allows me to easily store blog posts, articles, even entire web pages right alongside quotes, .pdfs, and my own notes. Further, I can sort and tag all of this stuff so that I can identify connections and themes when I review. The other feature that makes Evernote especially conducive to creativity is Context, which points to notes, websites, and other material that might be relevant to what you're currently viewing. Now, Context doesn’t always get it right, but the beauty is that this kind of "fuzzy" connection-making introduces just enough errors to spur you to creative insights, while usually helping you find things that you’re looking for. 

Whatever method you choose to use for engaging with your inputs, make sure you do not simply passively read, listen, or view: grab your inputs and shake them until their lunch money falls out.

To close, I'll repeat a no-doubt familiar refrain: there is so much more we could cover here, and I look forward to digging into it with you in the future. For now you've got a great set of easy rules you can start applying to the material you use in your creative process. I also want to point out that all of the creativity methods, exercises, and rules we’ve covered so far are multiplicative rather than additive - every one you adopt makes all of the others more effective. Little daily habits add up to life changing results pretty fast. Next time, we'll cover some resources to help you move beyond this base camp and venture into the wilds of creativity.

Want more stuff like this post delivered straight to your inbox every week? Sign up for my newsletter below.