There’s a common belief that drugs and alcohol make you more creative. This is perhaps understandable, since many of the great writers, artists, and musicians have used drugs and alcohol, too often to the point of addiction and self-destruction. Also, drugs and alcohol make people feel more creative. However, studies have shown feeling more creative doesn’t necessarily mean being creative, and in fact, usually the opposite is true. One study found that a group of participants who were given a high dose of THC performed much worse on a test of divergent thinking than a group that received only a placebo. Despite this, the high-dose THC group rated their own creativity much higher. Other studies have found that the link between creativity and substance use is largely incidental. One study found that marijuana users scored better on a test of convergent thinking–finding the unifying factor among apparently unrelated words–than non-users. The researchers discovered it wasn’t the marijuana use that made the difference–all participants were sober–but rather the marijuana users scored higher on the personality trait of “openness to experience,” which includes traits like aesthetic sensitivity and intellectual curiosity. It’s fortunate that drugs and alcohol are not necessary for creativity because creative pursuits can play a positive role in recovery. What’s more, creative people who feel like they need chemical help to work may feel conflicted about quitting and less committed to recovery. It’s normal to feel unmotivated and uninspired early in recovery, but that doesn’t mean you need drugs or alcohol to be creative. If you need a creative boost, here are some strategies that work much better.
Make something awful
Perhaps the greatest killer of creativity is trying to make something great. You set your standards too high and then you find yourself paralyzed. You can’t even begin because you feel like you’ll never be ready to tackle this great task you’ve envisioned. If you never start, you’ll never make anything good. The solution is to deliberately try to make something awful, or at least give yourself permission to. First drafts are always terrible and rough sketches look nothing like the finished painting. Unfortunately, almost everyone who sets out to create is inspired by finished products and not by rough drafts. If you want your first draft to read like Anna Karenina, you will be disappointed and you may not even get started. If you really want to get inspired, read something terrible. It will lower your expectations and let you get to work. This is also a good strategy for creative problem solving. When people look for good solutions to a problem, they typically just think of things that have worked before. However, if the things that worked before worked now, you wouldn’t have to look for creative solutions. The problem is that you will keep looking in the direction of old solutions and keep falling into the same rut. The way out of this trap is to come up with the worst solution imaginable, then look for it’s promising features that can take your thinking in a new direction.
Try something new
Although many people imagine creativity is a spontaneous overflow or a kind of magic that makes something out of nothing, it is really just a recombination of existing ideas and experiences. You throw a lot of material into the hopper and something new comes out. However, if you keep using the same inputs, you’ll keep getting the same outputs. The solution is to find new inputs. It doesn’t have to be a major change. Try taking a different route to work or buying groceries at a different store. Read a book on a subject you know nothing about. Travel, if you can, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language. Being in new places and having to adapt to new ways of doing things fires up new parts of your brain. Take a class or learn a new skill. Make finding new experiences a regular part of your life and your creativity will never run out.
Another pernicious myth of creativity is that creative work is the product of a lone genius. In reality, collaboration among diverse people produces more creative results. Everyone can bring a different perspective to the work. While most people with some degree of imagination can see things from a different perspective, actually working with someone else brings a whole lifetime of knowledge and experience to bear on a project. There will certainly be disagreements. Often collaboration is uncomfortable, and even turbulent but arguing over ideas and finding compromise solutions often produces better results in the end.
Make a lot of work
Studies have found that the most creative artists, writers, and musicians all have one thing in common: They make a lot of work. Picasso painted thousands of paintings, which is why you can find one in nearly every museum you visit. Bach wrote thousands of compositions. Graham Greene wrote dozens of novels, 300 words at a time. There are two major advantages to this approach. First, to produce a lot, you have to work every day. That means you get into a routine and you get a lot of practice. You become less constrained by the technical details of your craft. Second, you begin to iterate. Very few great artists start out trying to do something original. Mostly, they just copy the artists they like. As they do more and more work, their style evolves in different ways. It’s an iterative process and they could not have imagined their late work at the start of their careers.
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