Unless you’re an artist, you may not often think about creativity as being important for your work (or your life), but unless you work on a factory production line with a particularly autocratic boss, creativity matters. At its core, creativity is nothing more than coming up with new ways of doing things, and it’s the keystone of interesting work. You might think of progress itself as nothing more than the creativity that stuck around.

When we feel stuck on a project, the sense of dissatisfaction comes from the fact that we have a problem to solve and none of the solutions currently on the table feel quite adequate. We need alternative solutions. In other words, when you’re stuck, it’s creativity that’s going to save you.

Psychologists have been trying to get to the bottom of what makes people creative for a loooooong time. And there have been some useful insights. Let’s not get bogged down in the details though. Let’s apply Pareto’s rule and get 80% of the results with a simple principle that’s easy to learn and remember.

It’s hard to be creative when you take things too seriously.

Or, to put it another way:

Being creative requires being playful.

If you pause for a minute, you’ll probably be able to see this for yourself. Have you ever played Articulate, Pictionary, Taboo, or Charades? These games all require creativity. We need to convey an idea without using the usual ways we would communicate that idea. They’re fun games because this becomes trickier and trickier to do the more your adrenaline levels go up. If you want to win in these games, get good at winding up the other team.

When was the last time, in the pit of despair, you came up with a ground-breakingly clever idea? No. Me neither.

This is why we so often say we’re not in the right place to tackle a certain problem. We know when we feel creative, and that’s when we’re chilled out.

Psychologists have had hard evidence of this effect for decades. Sam Glucksberg published a study in 1962 using the famous ‘candle problem’. The puzzle, imaged right, is simple. Participants in such experiments are given a box of thumb-tacks, a book of matches and a candle, and asked to stick the candle to the wall. The ‘creative’ solution requires realising that the box isn’t just there to hold tacks. It can be part of the solution. Glucksberg offered financial rewards only to one group of participants — $5 to those who were in the fastest 25%, and$20 to the fastest participant. He found that those offered the money took on average three and a half minutes longer. Glucksberg put this down to ‘functional fixedness’ — seeing the box as a holder for tacks and not being creative enough to see it as a potential candle-holder. Another simpler way to put it is:

You can’t easily be creative on a tight deadline.

It’s not just time pressure that blunts creativity. Creativity requires some trial and error. The operative word here is error. We can’t have the trial — and so we can’t have creativity — without being willing to make errors, say silly things, or be thought a fool.

Imagine you’re surrounded by your nephew and his friends, little kids who are all doing silly voices, and trying out different accents. One of them says “go on, you do one! Do a Bart Simpson voice!” You see the look of expectation in their eyes. You know that they’ll be disappointed if you don’t try.

Imagine you’re at a dinner party with some of your most sophisticated friends or colleagues. Maybe your boss is there. Maybe your boss’s boss. Someone says “Jane does a great Bart Simpson voice. Go on Jane, show us.” You immediately scan the faces of the assembled and you know they’ll be disappointed if don’t do an almost perfect impression.

In which of these situations are you more likely to have a go? In which situation are you most likely to realise that your Bart Simpson is rubbish but that the voice is funny nonetheless? In which situation are you like to say, “No, I can’t do a Bart voice, but now I think about it, I reckon I could do Gandalf!”?

Creativity is harder when the stakes are high. When we feel we’re going to lose something, whether that is the respect of our peers, or the salary that pays the rent, creativity shuts down. We follow well-worn and ‘safe’ paths instead.

What can you do? Create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes, to propose wrong ideas. Surround yourself with people who are playful — who don’t take themselves too seriously. If you find yourself in the sort of organisation that goes into paroxysms of outrage whenever someone is a bit silly, make yourself nearly indispensable first, then lead the way. Show them how being playful, how finding the humour in a situation, leads to creative solutions.

Most of all, educate yourself and others that

“Serious” does not mean “solemn”.

I’ve typed enough. I’ll leave it to someone more talented to convince you. In the words of John Cleese…

“I think we all know that laughter brings relaxation, and that humor makes us playful, yet how many times important discussions been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was {air quotes} “so serious”?

This attitude seems to me to stem from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’.

Now I suggest to you that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner, discussing matters that were extremelyserious like the education of our children, or our marriages, or the meaning of life (and I’m not talking about the film), and we could be laughing, and that would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious.

Solemnity, on the other hand… I don’t know what it’s for. I mean, what is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I’ve ever attended both had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed us all, and made the services inspiring and cathartic.

But solemnity? It serves pomposity, and the self-important always know with some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor — that’s why they see it as a threat. And so {they} dishonestly pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.

{John blows “raspberries” with his tongue.}

No, humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how ‘serious’ they may be.”