No matter who you are, you probably love being creative. Many of us pick up photography to escape the dread of our day jobs.
However the issue is that many of us become less creative as we get older. How do we stay creative and retain that child-like curiosity when we were younger?
1. Never stop learning
I meet people who are older (in their 70s and 80s) and am amazed that while some of them look fantastic, some of them look like crap. Some of them are active, creative, and full of life. Others are dying on couches, watching Netflix, and feeling purposeless in life.
What is the secret of aging well and staying creative?
To never stop learning.
I have a buddy named Fred, who is in his 70s and has never lost his child-like enthusiasm for learning, being creative, and expressing himself. Talking to him is like taking a triple shot of espresso; he speaks with so much energy and life, and has a million ideas running through his head.
He told me to never stop being amazed by the world, and being grateful for all the beauty in the world. I think as he’s getting older, he’s becoming more and more active and creative.
But Fred wasn’t always that way. For a long time he hid his photos and didn’t share them because of a fear that people would steal his images, or that he might be judged negatively. But once he realized that he wanted to start to share his images, that is when he started to take off. Now he is doing exhibitions, pursuing creative collaborations, and also pushing his photography to the next level.
2. Assume others are smarter than you
I have a big head and ego. Sometimes I fall into the trap of being an “expert” in photography.
The problem is that this causes me to stagnate in my photography. The more of an “expert” I become, the less creative I am. The less willing I am to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.
A new thing I’ve been experimenting is this: assume that others are smarter, more creative, and talented than you. This way you stay humble, and can continue to learn. When others critique or give you feedback for your photos, don’t defend yourself. Simply keep your ears open, keep nodding your head, and appreciate their feedback. Of course you don’t need to blindly follow all of their suggestions. Listen to what they have to say, and then later figure out how to integrate their suggestions.
For me, I think creativity is about re-combining ideas that have already existed before, adding your own personality, and creating something new.
One of the best ways to be creative is to cross-pollinate different ideas or skills you have.
For example, let’s say you’re passionate about photography and law. Maybe you can combine that to create an idea to help support photographer’s rights (especially street photography rights).
Let’s say your passion is photography and computer science. Perhaps you could make some sort of app that helps the photography community at large. Michael Zhang (who founded PetaPixel) studied computer science, and has used his interest in journalism to design a fantastic website that delivers interesting photo-related news to the public.
Saul Leiter combined his love of painting and photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson combined his passion for surrealistic art and his photography. Elliott Erwitt combines his humor and his photography.
I have a friend Bil Brown who combines his love of poetry and photography. I combine my passion for sociology and photography.
What are other elements you can combine, remix, and “cross-pollinate” to make unique and creative ideas in your photography?
4. Publish everyday
I have experimented a lot of different ways to be creative. And of course, all the things in this post are suggestions— not rules or laws to creativity.
I’ve recently started to make more YouTube videos and have committed to posting at least 1 video a day. I know that not every video is going to be great, but it has helped stimulate my creativity.
For example, I’ve recorded a bunch of YouTube videos just on my webcam in my bedroom in the suburbs, and just shared random ideas on my mind. And then these ideas stimulated me to write more.
So what I do nowadays (when I don’t know what to write) — I look at some of the YouTube videos I’ve made, and just turn it into writing form.
I also find that by publishing 1 thing a day, you are able to relieve yourself of any sort of “creative constipation” you might have.
Also by publishing, you affirm your creative work into a tangible act. Many of us have a fear of publishing and putting our work out there— and that is what causes us to stagnate creatively.
One of the biggest things I learned on “Originals” by Adam Grant is that quantity leads to quality. Picasso painted thousands of paintings, but only a few became memorable. Einstein went through thousands of ideas before he found 1-2 memorable ones. Beethoven composed thousands of songs, but only a few have stuck in our collective memory. The more quantity we output, the more likely we are to have a few quality ones.
If you publish something everyday (365 in a year) — you are bound to have a few good ideas.
- Publish a photo everyday to social media
- Upload a YouTube video everyday
- Write a blog post everyday
- Take a photo everyday (can be done on smartphone or any camera you have that is easy)
Also, only do this if you want to do this. Doing one thing a day— you don’t want this if it causes you stress and anxiety in life.
What I have also done in blogging and my video is that I will create a bunch of content in one day, and then schedule it out for the week (so one thing posts everyday). This helps me feel less stressed and anxious, and more willing to create more creative materials.
5. Drink lots of coffee
Honestly, I know very few creative people who don’t drink a ton of coffee or some sort of caffeine.
Part of it is that caffeine and coffee stimulate our minds. Also part of it is that whenever I go to a coffee shop to do work, I always bump into other creative people, share ideas, learn from them, and become motivated to do more creative work.
There are a lot of people who can be creative by sitting alone in their home, and others (like myself) who need to be out in the real world.
There is no right or wrong; experiment and see what works for you.
But I’ll have to say, nothing inspires me more to write a blog post than to have a lovely double-shot of espresso.
6. Find beauty in everything
Amelia, my niece, is a baby and is a learning machine. She finds beauty and joy in everything. From playing with leaves on a tree, to throwing things into the laundry, and to learning how to speak. Everything is a challenge for her, and fun and interesting.
When we grow up to become adults, we lose this child-like sense of curiosity and beauty and wonderment in the world.
As photographers, we can be more creative by finding beauty in everything we see— and by wondering and asking ourselves questions.
For example, if you shoot nature photography, ask yourself, “Why is the sky blue? Where do these birds get their food? How do plants grow out here in the desert?”
If you’re a street photographer, be curious in the lives of others. Ask yourself, “What is this person up to today? What is his/her life story? What feelings or emotions do they have today?”
If you shoot architecture, ask yourself: “Who designed this building? Why did they decide to create curves instead of straight lines? What kind of political statement are they trying to say with this building?”
The more questions you ask, the more wonderment you will find. And the more creative you will become.
7. Relax your mind
My most creative moments or the “aha” moments I get are when I am not doing anything active. I get most of my creative breakthroughs when I’m taking a shower, working out, driving in the car (without any music on or podcasts), when I am walking around the streets (with my phone off), or when I am taking a nap.
Studies have shown that in order for us to be creative, we need to relax our minds. We cannot constantly stimulate our minds and expect to be creative. You need to relax your mind, and allow ideas to randomly hit one another.
So as a practical assignment, don’t always stimulate your mind (either audio-visually). Go on long walks with your smartphone off and with no music. Drive your car and don’t listen to a podcast or listen to music. When you want to take a break from doing work on your computer, shut your computer off completely and don’t check social media or blogs.
And whenever possible, take a nap. If you work at a company, for your lunch break, take a nap in your car (I used to do this). Or take a 15 minute break, walk to a park, and take a nap on the bench. Daydreaming yields so many beautiful ideas (and gives us more energy to output creative ideas later on).
8. Don’t edit
This is going to be a bit controversial— but I feel one of the best ways to output more creative ideas is to not edit your ideas.
I think in today’s society there is an over-emphasis on editing. But I like to live life un-edited. Even 99% of my blog posts are not edited. I write what is on my mind, and then hit publish. If I make an error or a typo, I can always correct it later.
An over-emphasis on editing causes you to become too self-critical, fearful of publishing, and disrupts your creative flow.
Of course you don’t want to just put crap out there either. My personal rule is the 80% rule: make your work 80% good (to your own standards) then just hit publish.
I can write a blog post in 30 minutes or an hour and get it about 80% good. I could spend another 4 hours to make it 95% good (but is that worth it?) Not for me. I’d rather spend that time to read more, talk with friends, go on a walk, take photos, or write.
Try to do creative things without editing for a while (experiment with this), and I guarantee your creative ideas will continue to flow.
9. Have fun
I’ve never been able to be creative when my mom forced me to do so. I hated doing piano lessons as a kid, never had fun, and never got any good at it.
But with photography and writing— I have so much fun. I do it for the sake of it, because the act in itself brings me so much joy and enjoyment.
When you do something for fun, it doesn’t feel like a chore, and you are more inspired and motivated to continue to do it.
Even with exercise— only do workouts which you find fun. Or else you won’t stick with it.
Children don’t expect to get paid money to have fun and play in the playground. They do it because they enjoy it.
Treat your own photography and creative life the same. The more you have fun, the less stress it is, and the more authentic it is. Whenever you have fun and enthusiasm in your creative work, that same joy with transmit to your viewer.
10. Only do creative work you must do
Life is short; why spend it doing things you don’t like to do? Only do creative work that you must do— rather than creative work you think you “should” do.
When you do creative work against your own will, you will always do it with a tinge of resentment and frustration.
Listen to your own heart, and follow your creative compulsions.
For example, if I go a day without writing or taking photos, I get creatively frustrated. Then my negative energy and vibes ruin my relations with my friends, family, and loved ones.
I know that my creative duty is a must— and I prioritize it above everything else. I make sure not to check email first thing in the morning, and often keep my smartphone turned off (completely off) until around 3pm. This gives me a ton of undistracted time to do creative work throughout the day, when my energy levels are high.
Of course you might have a full-time job and not the same flexibility as me. So perhaps wake up super early before work, and do 1-2 hours of creative work in the morning. Or block off your weekends to creative work (eschew pointless social obligations or time-wasting activities).
Defend your creative time fiercely. After all, without your creative time and attention, you will die.
Stay creative, nimble, humble— and never stop learning. Expand your potential, and share your unique and creative vision with the rest of the world. Don’t waste a single day; make the best of today.