How to make anything.

I spent a lot of time in school learning to conjugate latin verbs.  I ground my way through trigonometry. The dates of medieval wars. I memorized the key exports of African countries, the table of elements, and the names of all the US vice presidents.

But I never, ever studied the very thing I’ve made a living from my entire adult life. 

In no country on earth, as far as I can tell, do they teach the creative process in school. 

Not as straight-up part of the curriculum. Not in elementary, high school, business school, not even in art school. 

Rather than teach it like any other useful discipline, we treat creativity like some weird alchemy, a God-given gift, a luck of the draw.

But it’s not. It’s a process which has basic elements, that can be written on a blackboard just like the pythagorean theorem.

And these basic steps, once understood, can be used to unlock creativity in any field. Art, music, finance, medicine, sports, tech, politics, you name it. 

It’s a mystery why creativity is a formal part of the basic curriculum.

Like most essential skills, the creative process makes theoretical sense when written down but it takes a lot of work and practice to put into useful practice.  Just as a teacher can write Every Good Boy Does Fine on the board, it takes years for her students to master the violin. Studying Organic Chemistry doesn’t make one a gifted surgeon. And football coaches run drills and drills and drills in preparation for the coming season. Creativity works the same way. Practice makes it habit.

School is the ideal place and time to study the basics of creativity from a young age and then inculcate that process so that every student learns to be a successful problem solver.  As it doesn’t happen in school, pay attention and I’ll take you through the basics here instead.

Creativity has three main steps. Let’s call them Ready, Fire, and Aim

First, you must get ready. Gather your materials. Reap, harvest, hunt the elements that will go into your creative stew.  Embrace the riches of the universe. Watch movies. Read books. Study the masters. Listen to all sorts of music. Have conversations with strangers on the bus. Wander, roam, explore. Fill your brain until it groans at the seams. You have to develop a marrow-deep habit of open curiosity, delving into all disciplines and cultures for the way they approach problems, innovate and improvise. Cultivating an energetic, open, absorbent mind is the first part of the creative process.

As you get ready, your subconscious mind will be diving deep into this reservoir of inspiration and making connections. It’ll put disparate pieces of information together in random, infinite ways. Linking a musical theme with an historical fact with a snippet of converstaion with a data chart and a recipe for Greek meatballs. The cauldron is going on simmer and the ingredients will melt into a rich broth. 

That takes time. Private time. Just the reservoir of your brain perking and bubbling with no adult supervision. You can’t open the oven door in the middle, you gotta just distract your conscious mind, and let the juices flow.  

No amount of straining or worrying will help. Quite the contrary. You gotta trust in the process. Take a nap. Play a game. Stare out the window. Take a shower. Floss. 

And suddenly, poof, stuff will appear. Ideas will pop like kernels.

At this stage, you will spew out all sorts of ideas. Good ideas, bad ideas, weird ones, and useless ones. You will be a well-fed meadow, your rich soil a magnet for seeds from across the world, sprouting up flowers and fruits and weeds and trees in abundance. An unmanicured, cacophony of abundance.

But that’s not the end. Because what appears is still raw, full of potential, but not ready for prime time. 

Next, the hardest part. You gotta polish. You gotta prune. You gotta evaluate. You gotta execute.

This requires a gear change. You have to switch from the wide eyed stage of readiness and the wild energy of firing to a methodical, critical period in which you cull the herd down to a few solid ideas to be tested, refined, critiqued and polished into gems that can change the game.

Creativity is, at its heart, a teachable, learnable process. Learn and apply it and you will be prepared for any career path, any eventuality.

You will write creative legal briefs, make creative contributions to your manufacturing process, launch creative tech startups, create new recipes, symphonies, traffic ordinances, and budget proposals. Creativity is an essential skill and it’s never too late to learn and practice it to make the world a better place.

Related post: Let’s get rid of Art Education in schools.

12 thoughts on “How to make anything.”

  1. Ohhh I so agree with this. From a science viewpoint my supervisor of my PhD told me to spend as much, if not more time in the bath thinking about experiments not just doing them. And later in my career the best students were the ones who could troubleshoot..and that requires creativity. My husband takes on apprentices and it is the ones who are creative in their approach who do best and get taken on for jobs. None of this comes from a lesson but it should! I agree being creative means learning how to expand and think and imagine and ponder.,and then how to put thoughts into reality…and then how to edit. Which is the stage I always fall down at 🙄😃


  2. Add, add, add, stuff “stuff” into brain; mush, mush,mush, stir it up; then subtract, subtract, subtract … fondle, polish, refine. Bingo.


  3. I love this approach. You break it down so simply and elegantly. Here is where I get stuck – and it is the most difficult part. “cull the herd down to a few solid ideas to be tested, refined, critiqued” – Danny, do you have any recommendations for weeding out the ideas that will be flops? Appreciate it.


  4. I did get an education in creativity at an industrial design school through courses on the creative process and design logic/methodology. One book was used in one of the courses: The Creative Process: A Symposium,1965 by Brewster Ghiselin (editor) which explores the creative processes used by artists, sculptor, and others in creative disciplines. I was taught the difference between art and design – since art is a means of self-expression, it was deemed not necessary to know how the creative process works as art focused more on “feelings” rather than logic. Perhaps, that’s why creative process may not be taught in most school. And I noticed that STEM/STEAM education philosophy seems to be missing one important aspect: design. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I agree with the tenets of your post, and I must say that I’ve seen these approaches not only taught, but applied and re-taught in schools that I’ve taught and observed in. This is especially the case in TAB classrooms and Reggio Emilia inspired schools. One problem is that many schools lose track of the need for play and process based making withing the learning process. Even in art class, it becomes more about the Elements of Art/Principals of Design, than the actual process. It is easy to teach rules, but much harder to teach, or rather, coach inspiration. A good teacher can coach/prompt their students to become involved in the process, learn to reflect, asses and revise, and have fun doing so! I wish that secondary schools would continue the concept of Kindergarten, where play and activity is the central component (I’ve written several posts about how a lifelong Kindergarten approach can maintain healthy minds and development). Setting up an environment where teachers and students co-create knowledge and where students develop raw ideas into conscious and expressive forms of art, is indeed liberating and it has lifelong impacts on other disciplines and endeavors. I like to take into account what each student’s interests are, so that I’m providing instructional scaffolding in order to harness their creativity and prompting them to apply creative knowledge towards the disciplines and subjects they are passionate about. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, schools just need to focus on incorporating studio habits of mind, doing/seeing/acting/relating, and other creative methodologies that artists incorporate in their daily lives. As educators, it’s our job to make this explicit knowledge implicit so that our students are passionate about the process just as much as we are! Thank you for the very engaging and thought provoking post, which has led me to write this lengthy comment! Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you Danny. Thank you for getting my brain and emotions fired up with your engaging post! I think that the standardization of curriculum to focus on teaching to tests, the no-child left behind policy, large class sizes, and many other forms of oversight, have made it harder for teachers and students to focus on building authentic relationships in the classroom. Smaller classes and a greater focus on collaborative processes instead of measuring quantitative results, would go a long way in my opinion. I think that all educational models should be based on inquiry and experiential based learning and doing. Activity should be at the center of everything. We learn through the process. Tim Ingold is particularly inspiring to listen to in regards to how we think via making. This was present in early forms of progressive education, especially in primary schools, however, we’ve lost sight somehow by focusing more on competition and binary data like passing and failing. No one is binary, so this is so futile and frustrating.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Danny for this provocative article which provoked what I consider to be a wealth of information. I also want to thank those whose response I truly appreciate and will benefit from. Apologies for the redundancy.


  7. It’s funny, I taught for 35 years. We taught a lot of steps to arrive at answers; Scientific Method in Science, steps for problem-solving in Math and visual mapping for writing in English. What you’re driving at is a much more Montessori approach to something more intangible. The wait-time
    required would drive administrators crazy because they couldn’t measure or quantify it. Teachers DO recognize that students are sorely lacking in independent
    problem-solving skills. That would at least be a place to start, but it’s not precisely what you’re talking about. Thanks for your thoughts.


  8. Spot on! I have an advance degree in Econmics, but my working profession is as a Solution Architect; they don’t teach that in school.


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