Every successful startup succeeds because it has new, original ideas. And these ideas don’t come out of nowhere; they arise because of the creativity of a company’s founders and employees.
Creativity is hard to quantify, and ever harder to nurture. Your creativity is like a muscle that needs to exercise to remain agile. The easiest way to do this is to learn new things: not how to use new software or a new gadget, but complex skills that involve your entire body and attention. There are two tried and true recipes for success to help you boost creativity: Learning how to play a music instrument and learning how to cook.
Playing a Musical Instrument to Boost Creativity
Music is uniquely human, and it has a strange power. It can make us happy or sad, it can inspire us to dance or reflect, and it can foster community when performed in a group. It is also one of the most creative activities possible, since the real-time act of playing and improvising music puts the brain into a state of flow.
Learning to play music can trigger your brain to work in new, creative ways. It involves sound, sight, and physical feeling, stimulating the brain to orchestrate its different areas as you discover the gestures and movements necessary to play an instrument. If you’ve never played an instrument at all, it’s like a new language; foreign, yet somehow familiar, because everyone understands music, at least as a listener. It puts you in the state of “beginner’s mind,” where everything you learn is new. It takes you on a gradual path, as you learn certain gestures or movements to play notes, master them, then learn more difficult procedures.
And it’s frustrating. Few things are more challenging than being a total beginner trying to make sounds on an instrument, but that frustration is the key to learning. You learn to read notes, to create an acceptable sound, to play scales, and eventually you master all these complex steps that contribute to create music.
The muscle memory that people talk about, it has more to do with neurons than the muscles in your hands or fingers. It’s the brain learning to make new connections in order to move your hands in certain ways, and those connections are then available for other tasks.
Even if you are an accomplished musician, with years of training, you might want to learn a new instrument. I’ve been playing music for decades, and have achieved relative competency on several instruments. Last year, I started learning and to play the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, because I love the sound of the instrument and the music one plays on it. But this seemingly simple five-hole flute is deceptively difficult to play, and confronting my frustration has helped me realize how I react to frustration in other areas of my life. As you make breakthroughs with a musical instrument, your brain learns new forms of problem-solving that can be applied to other tasks.
Cooking Food Can Boost Creativity
We all eat, and many of us like to cook, but learning to really cook is another great way to foster creativity. Unlike learning to play music, you almost certainly have some cooking skills, if only making toast and scrambling eggs.
At a minimum, cooking just involves preparing food to meet one of our primal needs. But it can also be intensely creative, as you know from eating in good restaurants. Good food can be an intense experience: gustatory and olfactory, but also visual and tactile.
Like music, cooking is a rules-based task: Certain ingredients and processes have to be used in certain ways to make specific dishes. But it also allows a lot of flexibility and creativity: You can substitute lime juice for lemon juice in one recipe, honey for sugar in another. Over time, you realize that you can make many changes to recipes and some of them may taste better than the originals.
It’s not difficult to learn to cook. You can simply buy a cookbook, find some recipes online, or watch a cooking show on TV to get some ideas, and then head out to the supermarket to get the ingredients you need. But becoming proficient at cooking goes beyond that. You need to learn about ingredients and how they interact, which utensils you need to make preparation and cooking efficient, and how to serve your meals appropriately.
One way to kick-start your cooking experience is by subscribing to a recipe box service. These give you regular deliveries of recipes and all the ingredients you need to make great meals. These services let you choose the type of food you like, based on your dietary preference and the difficulty of recipes, but free you from the worry of finding exactly which ingredients you need.
As you progress, you’ll discover that you need to hone certain skills to become more proficient. One thing that made me a better cook was buying good knives and learning how to use them. (I recommend Norman Weinstein’s Mastering Knife Skills book and DVD.)
You may want to specialize and focus on certain types of cooking. Baking bread is one of the more humbling types of cooking, as it can take a while to fully understand the interactions between flour, yeast, salt, water, and heat. Or if you have a sweet tooth, try making pastries; make your own puff pastry dough and croissants (spoiler: it’s not easy).
As you progress, your creativity will flourish. You’ll eventually stop worrying about not having one ingredient and know what you can substitute in its stead. And you’ll be able to look in your refrigerator and cupboards and see something that you can improvise for dinner. And it’ll taste good, which is a wonderful reward of enhanced creativity.