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Producing Creative Outputs When You’re Stuck

Producing Creative Outputs When You’re Stuck

Hi, I’m Kendall. I’m a results coach who believes that our most intractable problems can begin to unfurl when we try one thing at a time. 

When I was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Inattentive Type, in my mid-twenties, I had a lot of seemingly intractable problems to work through. I was too overwhelmed to tackle my whole life, so I focused on not losing my car keys. That one thing, never losing my keys, was the springboard to trying other small interventions to manage my ADHD. I discovered that trying one thing at a time has outsized ripple effects. I now apply this principle everywhere, from my coaching company Try One Thing to creativity. 

Trying one thing at a time helps my brain simplify and focus. The upside of a brain with ADHD is that creativity comes somewhat automatically because the ADHD brain is almost constantly generating ideas and making connections. This isn’t always helpful–a nonstop brain makes sleep hard and worries easy. Trying one thing at a time helps balance this tendency.

ADHD also makes big, WILD ideas come easily. Generating big ideas with no application is discouraging. Add in the struggle that many of us with ADHD have getting started and creating ideas can be upsetting. Why bother coming up with great ideas that can never be actualized? 

That’s why I’ve come up with the list below. I need to remind myself that creativity is not about success and failure. Creativity is a process. Taking action is a separate process, and I do not have to judge the value of one by the outcome of another. 

You may be like me, and struggle not with creativity but with application. Or you may be one of those people who are able to start AND FINISH tasks (Way to go! You astound me!) but your well of inspiration is dry. Whatever your struggle is with creativity, I have one thing for you to try:

Give Yourself Permission

We all have mindsets and expectations that are holding us back, sometimes without our conscious awareness. Think of “giving yourself permission” as a one-time experiment. Give yourself permission to reduce an expectation and see what happens. You don’t have to do it again if it doesn’t work for you. 

Below are some ways to give yourself permission around creativity. Try one of them or try them all. If these ideas don’t speak to you, that’s fine–give yourself permission to ignore them 🙂

1. Give Yourself Permission to Have Bad Ideas

Creative ideas are sometimes a stroke of genius. Other times, creative output is a funnel, and not everything needs to get through. Plants die sometimes, right? Same with your ideas. And that’s ok!

Creativity is a process as much as it is the outputs. You want your process to be happening in a rich ecosystem, which happens when your mind is open and energized. Believing that every idea you produce must be good is depriving your brain of creative fuel. 

I struggle with perfectionism, and when I feel it creeping in, I make a goal out of bad ideas. I challenge myself to come up with 50 bad ideas or to develop the worst possible solution to a problem. Join me in being bad on purpose, and see if it helps you banish perfectionism from your brainstorming session.

1. Give Yourself Permission to Have Bad Ideas

2. Give Yourself Permission to Dream

“What if…” is a great starting question for literature, and also for innovation. According to University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios, “Both scientific research and science fiction begin with the same two words: ‘What if?'”  

“What if this were free?” “What if customers could try this at home?” “What if we didn’t need new parts?” “What if everyone bought one?” “What if this could use materials that everyone already has?” “What if we got the problem wrong?” “What if this problem was gone in five years?”

What’s your “what if…” question? I have no idea if the ones above are good, relevant, or even sensical (but I’ve given myself permission to have bad ideas), so make some of your own!

2. Give Yourself Permission to Dream

3. Give Yourself Permission to Dream WILDLY

I have taught myself that it is ok to dream wildly, because figuring out the “how” can always come later. If you need a springboard to dream wildly, ask yourself: What’s something you’ve seen in a superhero film or read in a fantasy novel that makes you think “wow, wouldn’t it be cool if that were real?” Well, what if it could be? 

Springboarding from fiction is a legitimate method for innovation. Universities like Stanford and MIT have incorporated science fiction and comic books into their curriculum as a way to spark creativity. Zhenan Bao, a Stanford University chemical engineering professor says that his students “are frequently inspired by science fiction.” They have channeled their inspiration into real-world solutions: Boa’s students have developed a self-healing skin that was inspired by X-Men mutant Wolverine’s ability to spontaneously heal.

Give yourself permission to let your mind wonder about big possibilities. Again, don’t think about the how; logistics do not belong in a brainstorming session. Start with something fantastical that thrills you, ask yourself “what if…”, and let your mind wander from there. 

 And if you’re a university student who wants to turn the results of your “what if…” session into creative writing, check out the EELISA Science Fiction Contest. This short-story contest sponsored by the European Engineering Learning Innovation and Science Alliance imagines how science-fiction narratives “can help anticipate future technology developments and their impact on society.” Entries can be written in Spanish, English, or Mandarin Chinese and are due by October 8, 2021. Check out the EELISA Science Fiction Contest page for more information.

3. Give Yourself Permission to Dream WILDLY

4. Give Yourself Permission to Use “What’s Come Before”

Very little innovation happens in a vacuum. The world’s great inventions were built on existing technology, concepts, and learnings. According to the book The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, the world’s most creative innovations have come about through a process of bending existing rules, breaking outdated rules, and/or blending unrelated elements. 

Think of yourself as one more flagstone on the path of innovation and progress. You’ll be thinking like a sci-fi author–according to University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios

"The very best science fiction takes things that are established and extrapolates from there."

What’s something that already exists that could be a little better, or less costly, or more fun, or less intimidating, or more diverse, or …? You fill in the blank.

4. Give Yourself Permission to Use “What’s Come Before”

5. Give Yourself Permission to Involve Your Hobbies

I don’t know what your interests and hobbies are. Badminton? Hedgehogs? Cluttercore influencers? Give yourself permission to insert what you love into the problem that you’re trying to solve. 

The authors of The Runaway Species call this “blending.” Blending is also a key principle in the aforementioned EELISA Science Fiction Contest.

“In such challenging times as the one, we are living in, blending scientific and technical knowledge with speculative literature can be a powerful tool to find solutions.”

EELISA Executive Director, Sofia D´Aguiar.

 I also like the term “mashup,” popularised by the teen musical show Glee.

Here’s a concrete example of creative blending/mashup in action: Lin Manuel-Miranda deeply loves 90s hip-hop and Broadway. He inserted his two passions into writing a musical. “Hamilton” is now one of the world’s most successful musicals, as well as a cultural force. Miranda gave himself permission to insert what he loves into his work. 

Take a listen to Miranda’s interview on the Rad Radar podcast–you’ll get insight into his depth of knowledge about Broadway and hip-hop. If you’re a fan of “Hamilton,” you’ll learn more about the specific inspiration behind the songs and characters.

Give Yourself Permission to Involve Your Hobbies

6. Give Yourself Permission to Use Whatever Format Works for You

Sometimes I sit on my porch swing thinking vague “what ifs…” until I have a constellation of dreams and ideas. Sometimes I sit at my desk, make columns of ideas, then use colors, lines, and shapes to organize them. Other times, making a list is a procrastination technique, so instead, I go deep with possibilities around one idea only. 

Give yourself the same permission I give myself: Do what works for you at that particular time. Use a mindmap or don’t use a mindmap. Take a walk or sit. Document your ideas or keep them in your head. Write things down or dictate. What works for you at that particular moment is fine. 

Whatever your creative goals, I hope you give yourself permission to remove needless barriers. If you want to go deeper or explore other ways to optimize your life, check out my website, Try One Thing. I would love to hear from you!

About the Author

Picture of Kendall Ratliffe

Kendall Ratliffe

Kendall Ratliffe is a 30-something white woman living in a small town in the southeastern United States. Her personal journey has been learning how to function and thrive with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On her professional journey she has been a college minister, pet sitter, program director, legal assistant, president, babysitter, Rotarian, and bartender. Kendall works best when connecting people with ideas, tools, and networks that can help them achieve their goals. She channels this into co-hosting the mental health/reality TV podcast Help NSFW, alongside Survivor villain Jonny Fairplay. As a results coach, Kendall helps people develop simple, one-step-at-a-time solutions to optimize their lives. Her coaching service Try One Thing helps businesses and individuals clarify what is important to them, reduce decision fatigue, and accomplish their goals.

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