Seven steps to a more creative life

Written by David Cox on 1 June 2013 in Features

David Cox enlists the help of one of history’s most creative geniuses in answering a pressing present-day problem

In these turbulent times, creativity is at a premium. Successful individuals, teams and businesses will flourish not because they work harder (although diligence and persistence are of course laudable) but because they are smarter about what they do.

This article presents seven steps to leading a more creative life, based on tried and tested methods. 'How to' lists have a long and honourable history, but it might surprise some to learn that this one is based on tips written some 500 years ago by one of the most creative individuals of all time - Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote extensively in daily journals, and some 3,000 pages of his observations survive, providing a comprehensive insight into the workings of his unique mind.

These are his recommendations.

Being insatiably curious

In one of his journals, Leonardo wrote about having "an insatiably curious attitude to life and unrelenting quest for continuous learning". This characteristic marks out many great creative minds: they constantly ask questions, wondering how things work or how things could be done differently. Like small children, they're not afraid to ask questions that might embarrass or mystify adults: Why is the sky blue? Why can't we fly? How do birds find their way home? The general principle at work here is simply keeping an open mind and noticing.

To emulate Leonardo's approach, it helps to take some simple steps, the first of which is keeping a journal, as he did. He used his journals as a means of monitoring his curiosity, recording anything and everything that caught his attention, from major projects to everyday chores (some of the journals even have shopping lists cheek by jowl with designs for weapons and flying machines). This process of continual recording acts both as a way of tracking the evolution of ideas and as an ongoing stimulus for your creative imagination.

My personal recommendation for developing the journal habit is to take these steps:

  • choose a high quality A5 or A6 journal with a sturdy cover and either plain or grid paper, rather than lines. Writing on lined paper encourages left to right linear thinking. Grid or plain paper gets you away from subconscious reminders of linear thinking - and you might want to draw as well as write
  • get a decent pen and preferably a small set of coloured pencils or pens, as colour adds another dimension to even the most rudimentary sketch
  • rather than using your journal from left to right (another linear habit), turn it sideways. This simple action generates a different mind-set, as you'll discover if you try it
  • following Leonardo, it's good practice to use your journal every day, and to write your thoughts as they arise, along with some statements such as 'I wonder how/why…'

These actions also help personalise your journal, making it truly unique to you. Interestingly, after adopting this practice for a while, it will feel slightly odd if you revert to the conventional view. This is a small example of the ways you can retrain your thinking processes

In these days of sophisticated technology, would it not be simpler to rely on a tablet rather than a journal? For me, the answer is both/and, rather than either/or. An electronic tablet is incredibly useful for all sorts of creative activity, but it's hard to beat the experience of expressing your personal thoughts directly on to paper.

Another route is to generate a stream of consciousness, just letting your thoughts tumble out randomly without trying to structure them. Begin by selecting a topic or issue that interests you, then record your thoughts and associations without censoring or editing them (you may need to try this several times to break old habits).

Testing knowledge through experience

Leonardo was very practically-minded, and he accumulated his wisdom through direct experience. Begin by checking your belief systems. What beliefs do you hold that you can verify by experience?

Play the Three Points of View game with yourself to test your beliefs through experience:

  • make a strong case against a belief you hold of this belief? and argue from his perspective
  • take a distant view about this belief as if you came from a different culture or world. Ask yourself what would a visitor from Mars make
  • get friends to give you different contributions from their own viewpoint.

Be prepared for some surprises as you adopt these different views on beliefs you might never have questioned before.

Another way of demonstrating experience to yourself is to consider the opposite of what you'd normally do. As an exercise, find yourself some 'anti-role models'. These are individuals you don't want to resemble, whose mistakes you want to avoid, the opposite of what you'd normally think of as role models (people you'd like to emulate). Observe the traps they fell into so that you can avoid them.

Refining the senses

Leonardo emphasised the importance he attached to "the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience". This is why one of Leonardo's mottoes translates as "knowing how to see" - one of his foundations in both the arts and science.

Following Leonardo, try this exercise:

  • write a detailed description of an experience. For example, select an experience full of meaning for you, such as watching a sunrise, and immediately write about the event in your journal
  • note where you were, what mood you were in and how that changed as the event unfolded
  • record what colours stood out
  • what did you hear?
  • how did you feel at the end?

Make your account as vivid and real as possible. At a later date, re-read your account and see what effect it has on you.

Smell is one of our most evocative senses, and it permeates our lives as much as sight. However, it's easy to relegate smell to a background role, only using it consciously when an odour is particularly good or bad.

So, as an exercise, try to describe a smell in as much detail as possible:

  • capture the smallest element and the biggest impression
  • did it remind you of an event or experience?
  • did it generate a special emotion?
  • did you recall the first time you experienced it?
  • what else comes up as you immerse yourself in this review process?

  • can you find words to capture the essence of this smell?

Once again, write everything in your journal and illustrate it. You can also try this exercise with taste and touch.

And hearing is another primary sense that deserves special treatment. Normally, you hear in a passive way - sounds come to you and form much of the daily backdrop to your life. Because sound is there all the time, it goes largely unnoticed unless something disrupts the pattern, like a loud bang or a scream. However, you can learn to sharpen your hearing skills through a process called active listening. This involves you consciously paying attention to the different kinds of auditory experiences all around you, and this can be a major stimulus for your creative imagination.

These exercises are further material for your journal and, as with the other experiences, it's always worth re-visiting your journal at a later date to review your responses and make further notes on them.

In any discussion involving Leonardo da Vinci, drawing is an essential component. Learn to draw, even if you believe you can't. You can find many resources available to help here; Betty Edwards' books, notably Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, remain outstanding and should convince even the most self-deprecating non-drawer of his innate ability.

Embracing ambiguity

Most of us instinctively avoid ambiguity and gravitate towards certainty. However, a willingness to befriend ambiguity can lead to a whole new way of seeing. Ambiguity is essentially to know something, though its meaning may be indeterminate. Leonardo called it "a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty".

As an exercise, try holding two different emotions at the same time. Picture a time when you were really sad, and a time when you were equally happy. Now put them together and see if you can experience both at the same time. (Don't be discouraged, it can be done: country and western artists are experts at bittersweet!)

Balancing art and science

Here, the emphasis is on "the development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination". In essence, this refers to what we now call whole-brain thinking. The Western world has a history of separating art and science, treating them as though they' re independent of each other. However, modern educational thinking is now moving to a more integrated approach, recognising that both have a role to play and that each can benefit from the other.

One very powerful technique you can use to blend art and science is mind-mapping. This technique is now well-established and is widely used in many fields from business to education. Its strength is that it combines logic and imagination in a unique evolving process - the signature spider-web pattern - using words, shapes and colour in a way thought to be analogous to how the brain itself works.

Mind-mapping is based on a simple set of guidelines designed to help everyone attain rapid mastery of the process.

Some of the most interesting art now being created is based on the latest scientific developments. Several artists are exploring the visual beauty of, for example, the patterns created in genetics and quantum physics, and the mathematics of fractals. And scientists are using drawing and sculpture to help them grasp some complex and abstract issues.

Cultivating the finer aspects of life

Leonardo described this as the "cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise". Today we would call it 'dressing for success'.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Leonardo was something of a dandy, with long flowing locks and the most fashionable and expensive clothes (in contrast to his rival Michelangelo, who dressed in peasant garb and rarely washed, and whom Leonardo enjoyed teasing). The mirror-writing in his journals has fascinated generations and is just one example of his extraordinary physical dexterity.

How do we achieve this? Creativity is, of course, cerebral but it helps to house it in a fit body. Develop a personal programme to cultivate your physical fitness, focusing on these key elements. The benefits of these activities become apparent relatively quickly and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine:

  • develop your body awareness. As you improve your overall physical fitness, consciously become more aware of your body. Whichever techniques you use as part of your fitness regime, try a variety of others that co-ordinate mind and body skills, such as yoga, tai chi or qi gong, juggling or dance - whatever takes your fancy. They're all great fun once you get the hang of them, and you stay fit almost without noticing
  • become ambidextrous. To become ambidextrous, start by performing simple routine tasks such as cleaning your teeth or eating with a spoon with your non-dominant hand. As you gain confidence (and your brain creates new neural pathways to help you), you can graduate to writing. Begin with capitals, then single letters and finally joined-up writing.

As a bonus you might want to teach yourself to write upside down, which can be very impressive across a desk in meetings!

Connecting everything

The final step, which draws all the others together, is recognising how everything is connected. Leonardo described this as "a recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena". Today we would recognise this concept as systems thinking, or what some experts call 'interdependence'.

Much of Leonardo's output is based on his ability to form new patterns through connections and combinations of different elements. Ways to follow his example include:

  • find ways to link things that seem to be unrelated. The more unlikely they are, the better. Find similarities between a bear and a diamond; a ship and a brain; a shoe and a palace
  • play the Dinner Party Game. Imagine you've invited some of your real life and fictional heroes (and villains if you want to enrich the mix!) to your dinner party and imagine the conversation. Feed them a topic and enjoy the spectacle. What does Gandhi say to Hitler about quantum physics? What do Margaret Thatcher and Steve Jobs discuss about modern art?

  • think about how things originate. What has to happen for certain things to exist? Take examples from nature (how do plants re-populate after a forest fire?) and from the man-made world (what do you need to make a motorbike?).

So there you have it. We can't all be Leonardos, but we can all benefit from his wisdom in the form of these tips for a more creative life.

About the author

David Cox is a consultant on creative thinking, owner of Smarter Creative Thinking, co-founder of the Migosh Partnership and the author of Creative Thinking for Dummies (Wiley). He can be contacted via

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