Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is responsible for some of the most creative films of all time. But how does he come up with these wild and crazy ideas? And what can the rest of us mere mortals learn from him and other top tier creators?
Tarantino told Joe Rogan in a 2021 interview, that he works for five or six hours a day when he's writing a film script. Then, he floats around in his pool and meditates on a film sequence or creative problem in his script.
“I’d hop in my pool and float around in the warm water and think about everything I’ve just written and how I could make it better… and then a lot of things would come to me. I’d get out and I’d make little notes on that.”
So generating ideas must be easy, right? All an aspiring creator has to do is work for several hours, buy a nice pool and swim after work? Riches, fame and Oscars await!
Creatives, including Tarantino, can easily describe a creative routine, for example, getting up early, drinking coffee, and meditating. But they spend less time articulating how their creative thought processes work. And that’s what other creators really want to know, not what they ate for breakfast or their daily routine.
Philip Glass, the famous composer behind operas like Einstein On the Beach, touched on the problem behind articulating creative thinking. In his autobiography Words Without Music, Glass wrote,
“I often have a great deal of trouble remembering what I was thinking when I wrote a piece. What I do is to take all my sketches and number them, like an archivist, or almost like a scientist, so that I can look into my own past and find out what I was thinking.”
What Is Creative Thinking?
Creative thinking involves synthesising information and generating novel ideas, and solving problems in unique ways, all while learning from failure.
Tarantino consumed hundreds of films and TV shows from the 1970s and westerns and slasher flicks before writing his screenplays. Glass studied with dozens of music teachers in the United States and France and wrote across various genres.
They synthesised thousands of ideas before producing popular interpretations. And the results didn’t always work either. Both creators can point to massive hits…and flops in their back catalogues. Tarantino wrote dozens of unfilmed scripts, and he said about Death Proof:
“Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right? — so if that’s the worst I ever get, I’m good.”
I’m skeptical of academics who try evaluating creativity using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. It gauges a person’s ability to solve problems based on fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration of ideas.
Many of the best creative ideas emerge when doing anything but working or taking a standardised test. You could be walking through the woods, floating around in a warm pool like Tarantino or even daydreaming.
Subconscious creative work is hard to quantity with an academic test. Take Paul McCartney. He wrote Yesterday after waking up from a deep sleep. He said,
“There was an upright piano next to me, to the right of the bed by the window. I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F sharp minor 7th—and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to E. It all leads forward logically. I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it, I couldn’t believe I’d written it. I thought, ‘No, I’ve never written anything like this before.’ But I had, which was the most magic thing!
The Benefits of Creative Thinking
Creative thinking helps solve problems in your daily life, business, home, or work. Use it to:
- Start a business
- Record a podcast or video
- Find novel ways of earning more money
- Express yourself through the written word, painting or some other pursuit
- Set goals
- Develop relationships with others
- Learn to play a musical instrument
- Find relief from stress
- Give a public speech
- Connect with others
- And lots more!
For example, a writer uses this mindset to work on their book or screenplay. An entrepreneur relies on creative thinking to solve a cash flow problem. And a parent uses it to cook a meal for their family when short of ingredients.
Creative thinking isn’t just for tortured artists. You don’t need to become Quentin Tarantino or Paul McCartney to enjoy the benefits of creative thinking. Now, let’s cover how to develop your creative thinking skills.
Learn the Conventions of Your Genre
Every creative works within the confines of a genre or niche. These conventions and rules saves them time and effort.
A filmmaker writing a script for a thriller adheres to certain conventions in terms of dialogue, structure and pacing.
A mystery novelist learns what their readers expect so they can sell more copies.
A podcaster figures out the conventions and format of a good interview before recording a show.
Genre gives creatives confines within which to work. Once you understand the rules of a particular genre, you can play around with or even break them.
Embrace Lateral Thinking
Many entrepreneurs solve problems by planing for the coming year linearly. They pick targets and set goals based on revenue, dates and calendar events.
Linear thinking and planning work well for CEOs and managers in prominent companies with quarterly goals and targets. But successful creators avoid excessive fixed thinking. They come at a problem from different angles to find innovative solutions.
Creative thinking is helpful for solving problems in your daily life, business, home, or work. Mind mapping works too and doesn’t require a team. I sometimes brainstorm and mind map solutions with pen and paper if I’ve spent too long looking at a computer screen.
Tip: Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats offers a useful framework for lateral thinking.
Multi-tasking is an anathema to creativity. Email, social media and browsing the web are all surface-level activities that won’t move the needle on any big creative project.
Creators, like Tarantino and Glass, cultivate extended blocks of deep work for creative thinking each day. A writer works for several hours each day on their manuscript. A podcaster edits their show without distraction. A course creator records lessons in sustained bursts of creative work.
Free yourself more easily from the tyranny of meetings and phone calls that plague everyday workers in larger companies. The Pomodoro Technique can help distracted creators focus too. In short:
- Pick one creative task
- Disconnect from the internet
- Work for 25-30 minutes
- Take a short break
- Repeat three to four times
- Take a long break
- Repeat each day
Successful creators need time alone to write a book or compose an opera. But, the focused mindset isn’t without risks. Avoid building a war room whereby you isolate yourself entirely from followers, customers and or others in your business. Step out into the world for source material and feedback on potential new solutions. Or as Roberto said,
“The highest odds of coming up with a creative breakthrough come from intense focus, punctuated with a few purposeful attempts to get some distance from the problem, to help really stimulate ideas.”
After a deep focus session, going for a walk or exercising often offers a new perspective. Your subconscious brain will continue working on the problem.
Tip: Use Freedom App, Rescue Time or Forest to disable internet access and manage distractions on your computer or phone.
Create A Personal Braintrust
The Pixar Braintrust critiqued classics like Ratatouille and other films before directors released a final cut. Feedback from all employees of all levels helped filmmakers overcome their inner biases. But the ultimate creative decision remained with the films’ directors.
If you’re running a creative business, you don’t need to worry as much about hierarchy and structure. You also have a significant competitive advantage over more prominent companies because you can execute on a plan much faster.
But why not create your brain trust by getting on the phone or a Zoom call with customers or followers? Ask your audience if they’d like to learn more about or even buy whatever you’re making.
Podcasting and interviews and great ways of talking to other experts so you can overcome inner biases. This approach is ideal for creating content that grows your business too. And helps develop secondary soft skills like interviewing, active listening and even critical thinking.
Tip: Use a split testing service like Pickfu to create real-word feedback on a creative idea. I’ve used it to create polls and A/B tests for book covers. It’s cheaper and easier than Facebook ads.
Benchmarking helps gauge if the market wants your ideas, products and services. It’ll help you understand your genre too. If you want to benchmark your work against peers:
- Follow them on social media
- Consume their best content
- Subscribe to their email list
- Analyze their email funnel
- Buy their products and services
- Learn new skills from their work
- Evaluate how they position themselves versus their competitors
Remember, benchmarking your work against peers isn’t always fun. A new creator risks wondering how they’ll ever attract that much website traffic, podcast downloads, readers, fans or followers. That’s enough to induce procrastination.
“It's important to keep up with the competition, but benchmarking leads to fixation. We fixate on what they're doing, and we end up copying them rather than learning from our competitors. In many cases, we copy badly, because we don't really, truly understand the roots of their success."
Without consulting enough sources, you risk creating something derivative. Keep an open mind, and look outside of your industry or niche too.
Learn From Failure
Predicting whether a creative project will become a hit or a misfire is tough. Although Tarantino wrote and directed massive hits like Pulp Fiction, he also released critical and commercial flops like Death Proof. If top tier creatives can’t always predict successes and failures, what hopes do the rest of us have? Roberto says,
“We're obsessed with the question when someone comes up with a new idea, ‘Will it move the needle? Is this a big idea? How big is the market?’ We're putting people in a really tough spot where they're being forced to predict.”
Assuming you’ve gathered initial market feedback, focus on shipping and execution. Unlike larger companies, a creator can release a creation quickly and learn if it’s working or not.
Become a Naysayer
Criticizing other people’s ideas is easy, criticizing your own is more challenging. Consider early feedback about the iPad from researchers who said customers would never buy an oversized phone that doesn’t make calls.
That said, adopting the naysayer mindset helps creators critically evaluate their ideas before spending months or thousands of dollars on them. I like using a premortem for this approach.
Larger teams usually hold premortems as part of a group brainstorming session. But, a solitary creator can explore their fears through journaling or meditating on the worst.
I use this approach when deciding whether or not to work on my business full-time. I imagine the worst has already happened: it failed.
Could I find another job or take up freelancing until a new idea works?
Then, I listed out all the ways I could generate income or find another job. To hold your creative premortem, use questions like:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- How likely is it between 1-10?
- How could I undo the consequences?
- What am I putting off due to fear?
- What is the cost of inaction?
Try holding a premortem in a new environment like the local library, coffee shop, or renting a meeting room for groups of people. It’ll get you out of your comfort zone.
Tip: For more problem-solving questions like these, check out Tim Ferriss’s Ted Talk about defining your fears.
Creative Thinking: The Final Word
It’s fun to think of creative thinkers like Quentin Tarantino floating around in a pool and musing on Once Upon a Time In Hollywood or Paul McCartney waking up from a deep sleep and knocking out Yesterday.
These creators all approached their projects after extended periods of deep preparation. They relied on lateral thinking too. But, don’t be fooled.
They also worked and worked hard. Tarantino still put in five and six-hour days at his writing desk. Ask any writer, and they’ll tell you that’s a mammoth amount of time to spend engaged in deep work.
But the creative process requires commitment, but anyone can do it with the right mindset. Are you ready?
Creative Thinking: FAQs
Why is having a creative mindset important?
Having a creative mindset matters because it’ll help you overcome problems in your business more efficiently. With this mindset, creative people can access a suite of mental tools and think through or solve any problem.
Is creativity a skill or mindset?
Creativity is partly a skill and somewhat a mindset. Anyone can become creative with the right mental approach. They also must get into the habit of executing their ideas and iterating them over time.
Resources for Developing a Creative Mindset
Unlocking Creativity by Michael Roberto
The Innovation Code by Jeff DeGraff
Words Without Music by Philip Glass