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Are You a Creative Researcher and/or Writer?

A secret fear of many graduate students and professors is that they're not creative enough, or if they have been, that the well of creativity is drying up. Of course, this fear itself is crippling. Perhaps the most difficult time is coming up with dissertation topics, when the term papers have always been assigned before. But getting a Ph.D. is not enough for many -- the fears about a creativity drought continue into the professoriate.

Here are some ideas about discovering and maintaining your creativity, from a list by Hugh MacLeod (one of the most creative people I know of) at Gaping I've added some comments in italics, and also deleted some comments of his directed at business people.

  1. Ignore everybody. Especially the naysayers.

  2. Put the hours in. Read a little and write a little every day.

  3. You are responsible for your own experience. No matter what they throw at you.

  4. Everyone is born creative. Your anxiety gets in the way of realizing it.

  5. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were born to climb.

  6. Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.

  7. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. Pain is part of academic life, or any high level career. It will hurt, but you will get over it.

  8. Never compare your inside with someone else’s outside. Just because their article looks so good doesn’t mean they didn’t sweat bullets writing it.

  9. The world is changing. There will be room for your take on it. And you can help it change by being a strong voice.

  10. Sing in your own voice.

  11. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself. Do work on what you love, or it’s not worth it.

  12. Don’t worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually. Especially if you write every day.

  13. Write from the heart. If you are passionate, your work will be good.

  14. The best way to get approval is not to need it. Especially from that one person.

  15. Power is never given. Power is taken. And if you don’t grab it in academia, you won’t get it.

  16. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.

Here are his comments on #1 above: "Ignore everybody", again edited by me (in italics.)

The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you.

You don't know if your idea is any good the moment it's created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. And trusting your feelings is not as easy as the optimists say it is. There's a reason why feelings scare us.

And asking close friends never works quite as well as you hope, either. It's not that they deliberately want to be unhelpful. It's just they don't know your world one millionth as well as you know your world, no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard you try to explain.

Plus a big idea will change you. Your friends may love you, but they don't want you to change. If you change, then their dynamic with you also changes. They like things the way they are, that's how they love you- the way you are, not the way you may become.

Ergo, they have no incentive to see you change. And they will be resistant to anything that catalyzes it. That's human nature. And you would do the same, if the shoe was on the other foot.

The same may be true of your advisor if you are a graduate student. The best advisors want you to do even better than they. Many are insecure and will not encourage you to be your most creative. They're used to dealing with you in a certain way. They're used to having a certain level of control over the relationship. If your idea is so good that it changes your dynamic enough to where you need them less, or God forbid, they seem less than you in the eyes of the academy, then they're going to resist your idea every chance they can.

Again, that's human nature.


Good ideas come with a heavy burden. Which is why so few people have them. So few people can handle it.


    1. Hello,

      Very interesting post. We've published a series of booklets designed to help researchers with their careers, and one of them focuses specifically on unleashing your creativity. You may find them useful!


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