Reigniting Your Creative Spark
Issue № 336

Reigniting Your Creative Spark

As creatives, we usually have no shortage of good ideas. There are times, however, when inspiration and motivation elude us. Looming deadlines, fussy clients, uninteresting projects, or feelings of fatigue which suggest the onset of burnout: all of these can work to effectively extinguish our creative fire. When we find ourselves in these situations, we need methods to help reignite our creative spark and rekindle the creative flame that burns within us.

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The following fable may provide some ideas on how to re-enter your “creativity groove”:

Once upon a time, there was a web industry creative. This was a kind person who did good work, but, for some reason, this capable professional had lost his spark. He tried all of his usual tricks to regain his mojo, but to no avail. One day in a fit of desperation, he went to a soothsayer. Looking into her tea leaves, in a low voice, she offered this enigmatic advice:

  • An epic win unlocks keys,
  • Believe in the power of threes,
  • In concert with others will please.

He found himself more confused upon leaving the soothsayer. What do her words mean, and how will they enable him to get his professional groove back?

In his book So You’re a Creative Genius—Now What?, author Carl King aptly suggests, “to be able to explore, first you have to be lost.” As professionals, when we encounter that “lost” feeling, or the feeling of having lost something, we need to find our way back to the path of creativity. We can’t locate the path without a torch—and we can’t light the torch without a spark.

An epic win unlocks keys#section2

When we’re at work and we find our energy and motivation levels low, what we are experiencing is evolution in full effect. A de-energized state may actually be our neurological system indicating that we’re squandering energy on the wrong goals. Ironically, this listlessness kicks into gear to compel us to focus our efforts on actions that will yield productive progress, which in turn encourages us to feel re-energized and motivated. Culturally, we’ve been programmed to seek the ultimate goal of leisure and repose. Neuro-biologically, however, the natural preference of humans is challenge over boredom and productivity over dissipation.[1]  Take a hard look at your day-to-day work. Consider where you feel bored, stymied, unappreciated, and frustrated with seemingly pointless tasks. If you’re feeling this way, there’s good news: you can infuse new life into your work life by gamifying it.

Be a stress alchemist#section3

We cannot expect to be inspired or creative while we’re stressed—or can you? Frequently, at the root of a debilitating creative paralysis which cripples our imaginations is negative stress from perceived pressure from external sources, fear of failure, and a sense of danger. Not all stress is negative, however. Negative stress has an upbeat doppelganger known as eustress. Triggered by taking on challenges that are internally mandated, eustress causes exhilaration, focus, optimism, curiosity, and a sense of excitement. Eustress transforms uninspired boredom into high motivation.

Transforming negative stress to eustress requires little more than a shift in perception. Rather than allowing external factors to fill us with dread and uncertainty, we should instead decide that we are choosing and generating the stressful situation. At that point, we can begin to consciously shift from fear and pessimism to confidence and optimism. Once we do this, we can revel in the stimulus of the situation and further capitalize on the opportunity to apply and stretch our skills. Not only will this improved approach boost our motivation, but it will bolster our mood as well. These are all factors that lead directly to success, and most often an “epic win”—an outcome more positive than we thought possible, and ultimately “fiero”—the emotional high we feel when we triumph over adversity.

Here be the dragons of the inner critic#section4

Now that we’ve accepted the challenge to rediscover our creative spark, it’s time to meet our creativity’s most imposing adversary. Enter the e-vil inner critic.

How long has that troll inner critic been squatting under your proverbial creativity bridge, snuffing out great ideas before they see the light of day, occupying valuable space in your brain and your life? If we allow him to, he will gleefully drain every remnant of our valuable professional super powers to fuel his maleficent aims. Part of our great challenge is to triumph over the nefarious inner critic as he works relentlessly to alter our ability to see ourselves as competent and capable professionals.

Gamify your work#section5

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal suggests that games are powerful motivators which give players the capacity to tackle obstacles that otherwise may have seemed insurmountable. The lift we feel when we play a game is called “gamefulness.” Because the hard, but satisfying work of playing games has been described as “more fun than fun,” adopting a gameful approach to your work and finding inspiration may be the mind frame you need to recharge your creativity batteries. The goal then, is to create more happiness and satisfaction by structuring real work like a game, thus transforming efforts to overcome obstacles into an epic win. Here are some steps you can take to get there:

  1. Commit to overcome self-chosen challenges

    When we engage in a game, we sign ourselves up to tackle unnecessary obstacles in the spirit of learning and having fun, as we look for the opportunity for skill-building and growth in every challenge. See if you can weave this approach into your work life.

  2. Set clear goals and actionable steps; determine reliable feedback and desirable rewards

    As humans we are optimized to work: we are happier working hard than we are relaxing. More satisfying work comes from clear missions, a clear path to the desired outcomes, reliable feedback on our progress, and valued non-material rewards.

  3. Keep upping the ante

    Contrary to popular thought, failure—specifically “fun failure”—actually energizes us and lends a sense of urgent, but flexible optimism. With urgent optimism comes extreme self-motivation: the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. These obstacles can include learning a new skill, doing something you’ve never done before, or overcoming a fear. In the process of meeting increasing challenges, we tap into a rush of neurochemicals which make us feel confident, energetic, highly motivated, excited, proud, satisfied, powerful, and in control. While achieving and then applying mastery of our new skills, we more easily find “flow.” We become fully immersed in our projects, our focus is sharpened. We are wholly involved and blissfully productive.

  4. Make it epic—part of something bigger

    For a thing to be “epic” it must be of heroic proportions which far surpass the ordinary, especially in size, scale, and intensity. Envision yourself taking up a challenge that is so awe-inspiring to you that it makes vividly clear your place in the larger scheme of things. This situation not only stimulates a desire to serve, but lends a sense of reverence and the awareness that you’re participating in an expansive process that unites you with others as an integral part of a bigger whole.

Of course, framing our work within the parameters of a game will require us to take our imagination for a stroll through some psychological neighborhoods that we don’t often visit. However, The resulting rush of activity combined with a fresh sense of optimism, makes the effort worthwhile. Remember, a newfound belief in our abilities and the subsequent reignition of our creative spark is an endeavor that goes beyond the individual. Our triumph over the forces of negative stress can light a path of change for other professionals as we share the details of our journeys. This victory needn’t be confined only to our immediate surroundings. It can (and should) be expanded throughout all facets of our lives and communities.

Believe in the power of threes#section6

Three is a magic number. For many, working solo can get lonely and stressful. The onus we place upon ourselves to be the sole source of ideas, designs, and clever solutions can sometimes be enough to make one want to retreat into their tortoise shell. Unfortunately, neither project timelines nor expectant clients will allow for such faintness of heart. Fear not, help is available—you need only summon it.

Children do it naturally: they easily enter into worlds of inspired make-believe at will. As adults, we could do with a bit of the child’s wisdom. For instance, we can envision a “dream team” of entities which will provide us the wherewithal to overcome the inner critic, rescue us from dead-end thinking, and deliver us into the magical realm of inspired ideation and flow-ful productivity. Another way to kick-start your creative process is to send out a call to the mythical inspiration triumvirate: three muses, a daemon, and a genius.

ISO my Muse(s)#section7

The Greeks believed that inspiration came from the Muses, which is a handy belief when your creativity is sputtering. You have nothing to lose by inviting the spirit of the muses into your life to give your creativity a little tune-up.

Instead of inviting all nine of the typically known muses, just stick to the original three, who are the most relevant to our cause: memory (Mneme), voice/song (Aoide), and practice/opening/opportunity (Melete). The muses are known for inspiring us mortals to do our best, and these three pack a powerful three-part punch.

Memory: Harken back to previous instances when you were inspired, bursting with creative energy, and highly productive. What were some of the elements that were present at that time that are lacking now? How can you introduce of those elements back into the present situation? Are there certain works or individuals who have inspired you in the past? Mine your memories for creative firestarters which you may have forgotten.

Voice/Song: Are you using your voice—that is, expressing your talents and ideas in your unique style—or are you trying to shape your style into something that is more of what you feel you’re “supposed” to do because that’s what everyone else does? While you may be creating a solution that is UI, UX, content, strategy, visual design or code, consider: are you singing your own song in your own voice or are you singing someone else’s song at last-call karaoke? You may find that fully expressing your own signature style gives you the extra boost of confidence that provides the missing ingredient to your professional punch.

Practice/opening/opportunity: At the harmonious intersection of thought and execution, exists the “zen” muse of creative inspiration. There are two kinds of practice: the first is the action of making or doing repeatedly to acquire a skill; the second is intense, focused discipline. When it comes to tapping into your creative inspiration, both are relevant. How often are you really refining your craft, delving into the depths of knowledge, and applying yourself to the repetition that leads to mastery? What opportunities are you initiating, pursuing, inviting, and/or allowing into your life that will inspire you to create? Sinking down deep into your craft may open up new worlds of thought and inspiration.

That’s daemon with an “a.” No, it’s not evil.#section8

The greeks considered a daemon a “divine something”—a disembodied entity that inspired and guided an artist. Think of your daemon as an interpreter between you and the divine; a babel fish whispering inspirational awesomeness in your ear. Daemons will listen to the ideas from the gods that are waiting to be heard by you, translate them into a language that you understand, and push you to bring them into being. Daemons are knowing and wise distributors of inspiration, helping you hear your destiny.

You don’t need to be a genius, just have one#section9

Trying to be a genius or display genius all of the time can be exhausting. Take the pressure off of yourself by believing that genius is outside of you and therefore beyond your control. The Romans thought of a genius as an artist’s attendant spirit. In modern terms, your genius acts as a personal coach and mentor. By its very nature, genius is about helping to shape and guide your ideas and the work you produce. Step aside and give your genius permission to do the hard work of being the manager of your ideas, giving form to and breathing life into that which you produce.

Once you have envisioned these entities as being available to help you create what you want, when you want it, then it is simply a matter of taking your seat at the creative table to produce. Trust that your creativity “dream team” will arrive and take up the duties of identifying or generating ideas that want to come into the world, communicating them to you, and then guiding and motivating you to make these ideas concrete and tangible.

In concert with others will please#section10

DIY is so 20th century. Welcome to the era of DIWO: do it with others. Having a crack team of creativity collaborators and a support network does not have to be purely imaginary. If you haven’t already, shift your work life from a DIY approach to one that encompasses the synergy and inspiration inherent in DIWO collaboration.

The source of good ideas#section11

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Stephen Johnson suggests that ideas are not singular, unheralded events. While the oft-celebrated “aha!” moment is both fun to think about and experience, ideas are most often comprised of networks—or even swarms—of many ideas colliding, connecting, recombining, and fusing together to create a single compelling concept. While this process can happen effectively within one person’s head, multiple people sharing their ideas with each other amplifies the process. Imagine our minds and the fragments of ideas contained therein akin to the primordial soup that spawned life on earth. Our ideas—like carbon atoms with open valences—stand ready, yearning to connect and recombine with the elements of the ideas of others, thus creating the molecular building blocks of some brilliant concept.

To facilitate the collision of your connection-hungry ideas, push yourself away from your desk to immerse yourself in dense, intellectually diverse social environments such as the conference room, a co-working space, shared studio or coffee house. Brainstorm with people in different fields and schedule time for freewheeling, unstructured discussions. The intellectual diversity of the parties involved engenders information spillover from other disciplines, intensifying the strength and outcome of the ideas generated. Be careful not to limit yourself to sharing only what you consider to be your most clever ideas. Your mistakes and stalling points are just as relevant, often even more so. Both you and others can use what you consider as imperfections as a tool for learning and a springboard for truly brilliant solutions. You don’t have to DIY any longer, so let go of your lone pioneer thinking habits. Shift your time and energy away from protecting ideas and focus instead on connecting them.

Creative synergy from collaboration#section12

Take your inspiration to the next level by not just sharing your ideas, but collaborating with others on projects. First, make your muses manifest by identifying people who represent the spirit of each: those who help you access your voice, your memory, and perfect your practice, thereby leading to a multitude of opportunities. Then, band together with these creative co-conspirators on a project to generate creative chemistry.

Co-working spaces are the ideal environment to locate peers to connect, communicate, and collaborate with to generate creative synergy and achieve high levels of productivity. Through the process of reaching a common objective, you’ll collectively share knowledge, generate new creative solutions to problems and get support for implementing new initiatives. Furthermore, you’ll share a responsibility for success and failure, have a common dedication to the success of the project, and practice creating while implementing your shared vision. You’ll experience the same benefits of gaming but in real life: working collaboratively can help all parties collectively obtain greater resources, recognition, and the end reward of “fiero.”

Everything I learned about creative collaboration I learned from improv—and gambling#section13

Once you’re in a collaborative environment, how do you keep the ideas flowing? Employ an improv technique Walt Disney called “plussing.”  Whenever an idea is put forth, grow it by using the “yes, and” construct. You’ll see small ideas develop and blossom into great ones before your eyes. Through this type of playful exchange, you effectively bypass the parts of the brain responsible for judging and censoring ideas, and stimulate the areas for generating them.

Finally, now that you have generated a rash of good ideas from “plussing,” it’s time to put them to the test. While gambling as a lifestyle usually leaves one feeling decidedly poorer, making “little bets” part of your creative ideation process can spawn big payoffs, unleashing an avalanche of inspired creative innovation in the long run. In the book of the same name, author Peter Sims defines a “little bet” as a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea. Instead of over-refining your ideas to perceived perfection before testing them out, take the risk of moving them beyond your trusted collaboration circle and vetting them before a larger audience.  Use any relevant feedback to initiate the iteration cycle and test, evaluate, refine, and test again. By actually executing ideas, the feedback loop tightens and you gain immediate, applicable insight, spawning a chain of tiny bursts of creative inspiration and innovation that spurs you on.

It was inside of you all along, padawan learner#section14

The belief that your creative spark is all but gone as well as the means to get it back are both all in your head. While most would scoff at the notion of whimsical, day-dreamy flights of fancy as a means to greater productivity, arguably the opposite is true. Indeed, such uses of your imagination may be exactly what you need. Use your brainpower for good, not evil. By making your work gameful, calling a meeting with your imaginary creativity advisory board of the three original muses, your own personal externalized genius and daemon, and then banding together with others to playfully improvise and make small creative gambles to encourage brilliant ideas to emerge, you’ll have tools to stoke an elusive creative spark into a roaring flame. You’ll be able to light the torch that helps you recover your creativity path, getting you back on-point in your professional game. 

Whether or not you decide to invite a unicorn to lend further inspiration is entirely
up to you.


[1] Reality Is Broken, “How Games Provoke Positive Emotions

13 Reader Comments

  1. I wholeheartedly concur with the value of setting yourself a challenge to overcome if you feel stagnant in your work. Just recently, I was tasked with a web design project that just did not excite me, but I decided to turn it into an opportunity to pick up some experience using lettering.js and a jquery rotator. Indeed, when I changed careers and went to design school for 2 years in my late 30s, I turned every assignment, even if it seemed boring, into one that would add to my skill set.

    But as to the advice to squat in a coffeehouse for “inspiration” : please, we need fewer all-day squatters–some of us, including me, go to coffee shops to get OFF the grid and sit and drink coffee, maybe read the sports section…it would be nice to actually have a chance of a seat!

  2. I have been struggling with depression lately and very unmotivated in generally. This article has described my situation really well and made me realise I’m not alone with this. This is some great advice and I am already feeling more positive about my work. thank you 🙂

  3. @Chris Raymond – So fantastic that you totally got what I was getting at: that making something interesting and turning it into a game of sorts where you reach a goal and gain skills along the way can totally transform the mundane into the sublime. I’m glad that trick worked for you in school.

    The advice to sit in a coffee house is not necessarily literal – there are a lot of modern-day “coffeehouses” that will serve the purpose well: conferences, tweetups, networking functions, volunteer committees. The gist is really more to get out of your house and your head and around other people to mix and mingle ideas. Starbucks or the equivalent need not be the spot to do so. 🙂

  4. @mechanism – I am so, so glad that the information in the article helped to raise your mood! It sounds like you’re about to put yourself on the right track, and that looking at where you have been focusing will probably help a lot. Please do keep me posted on your progress, and feel free to email me directly at if you have any questions or need another boost. 🙂

  5. Maybe I’m new to the blog, but am trying to understand exactly what you mean when you say, “Consider where you feel bored, stymied, unappreciated, and frustrated with seemingly pointless tasks. If you’re feeling this way, there’s good news: you can infuse new life into your work life by gamifying it.”

    Is there a process of gamification that I may pursue?

  6. Having moved from a small town to a big city and shacked up with a delightfully social roommate, I have discovered that my previous self-identification as one who re-energizes after a period of solitude is completely delusional. This truly is the DIWO era: for as much as I’d like to fancy myself a lone wolf type, most thoughtful and productive on my own, I actually revive my creative inclinations during a great discussion or activity with friends and co-workers.
    Strange, because during my undergrad I always enjoyed meeting with others from my classes to muscle through a poem or piece of short fiction and come up with wicked ideas collaboratively. But I never made the connection.
    DIWO! Great point!

    Sarah Bauer

  7. This was a very well written and helpful article that highly related to the current situation of myself and the design firm I work for. We currently all work remotely, myself as a designer. Working from my own room can prove to be distracting on occasion, but all the points you made, I was able to fit myself into and see that they could work if I am to feel unmotivated or lacking creativity.
    I was also very impressed with your section on idea creation and collaboration, as this is also a challenge for our firm. Lacking an office where we can constantly feed off of each other for creativity and idea generation, it is sometimes hard to move forward on some projects. We have discovered the value of and our need for brainstorming with a variety of people within our firm, and the suggestions and points you made will help in the process, with or without an office space. Thanks!

  8. I think travel and getting yourself out of your comfort zone is the greatest inspiration for creativity, at least for me. If you want to hit that
    Flashlight “rabbit hole”, then you need to put yourself in different situations.

  9. Seriously, this entire post was THE BUSINESS! The best two paragraphs I have ever read in my entire life, *and I have read many paragraphs* is “Be A Stress Alchemist”, It almost brought tears to my eyes! I thought maybe I was the only one with serious external stressors, especially the ones that have plagued me for a long time. I have read those two paragraphs, over and over, and my entire physical disposition changes with every re-read, it’s like the whole world just changed before my eyes, being a recent graduate with surmounting debt and a crap-tastic economy, this entire article changed my life. I don’t even know how to repay you, I’ll figure something out.

  10. @DjarumS – That’s freakin’ AWESOME! How wonderful that those words facilitated such a profound shift for you! Yes, practicing that perceptual shift (indeed ANY perceptual shift) can be life-transforming.

    No repayment is necessary – your comment is a enough to affirm the power of the practices suggested in the article. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  11. Denise,
    You’re a wonderful writer. I keep a keen eye on the competition and that’s where my motivation comes from. Sometimes we need our rest, anything in excess is not good at all. But what you put into something is what you get out of it. Goes for anything in life.

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