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How to Trigger Spontaneous Creativity

Tap into a natural state that makes everything better

In This Issue:

How to Trigger Spontaneous Creativity

(Hint: It’s another good reason to embrace adventure)

Tools and Talismans

  • The Cruyff Turn

  • Become an Idea Machine

  • Steven Kotler on Flow

How to Trigger Spontaneous Creativity

It was the 1974 World Cup, and soccer fans were about to witness something nobody had ever seen before.

Dutch player Johan Cruyff had control of the ball, but a Swedish defender was aggressively blocking every move he made.

Cruyff cocked his leg to make a pass. His opponent was already in position to take control of the ball.

But then Cruyff surprised the Swede and the entire world by deliberately missing the ball and using his other leg to drag it behind him. He broke free with a maneuver that had never been used before.

This wasn’t a move he had practiced ahead of time. Cruyff was acting on a sudden spark of inspiration.

This moment was the creation of the widely emulated “Cruyff Turn.”

Johan Cruyff

How to Trigger an Instant Flash of Creative Genius

It’s not news that when you spend thousands of hours practicing a skill, you get better at it.

You develop muscle memory. Myelin sheaths are formed around key neurons to reinforce neural pathways.

Complicated actions that initially require concentration become simple, and eventually automatic.

Those are the benefits of doing the same thing thousands of times.

But what about doing something new, spontaneously, as Cruyff did in the World Cup?

You’ve heard about people who suddenly gain superhuman strength in an emergency, such as a mother lifting a car to rescue her children.

But gaining exceptional creativity in a high pressure situation is far rarer. In fact, we’re wired for the exact opposite.

Normally when we’re in a stressful situation, we’re likely to make bad decisions. Your mind and body plug every resource into three possible responses: Freeze, run away, or fight.

But sometimes, under the right circumstances, this external pressure can lead to flashes of game-changing brilliance. As you look for an opening against a wall of opponents, something tells you to move the ball in the wrong direction with the wrong foot.

How is this different than paralyzing stress? 

Tap Into the Power of Flow 

Steven Kotler of the Flow Research Collective has spent years searching for a way to explain this phenomenon.

When you encounter a sudden and dramatic change of circumstances, it triggers several complex activities in the brain. These are all natural responses to stress, novelty, danger, and uncertainty. 

These responses often happen when things are in state of flux, when you don't know how the event is going to turn out, when your circumstances change from moment to moment. 

Kotler and his colleagues reviewed all the known responses that would happen in a hypothetical situation: A person riding their motorcycle who was suddenly forced to swerve to avoid an accident. 

What’s important is that the same circumstance can trigger two entirely different responses. 

One of these responses is the well-known fight-or-flight response.

However, the same circumstances, triggering almost the same physical response in your brain, can lead to a state known as Flow.

Flow can be a response to stress, novelty, flux, danger, and uncertainty, but the results of flow are very different.

The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi spent much of his career studying the physical and mental state he called Flow.

You’ve probably experienced Flow when you’re “in the zone.” It’s a state of complete concentration or absorption in a task. 

Csikszentmihaly was interested in Flow because it’s strongly correlated with happiness. But it turns out there are many other benefits of getting into Flow as often as possible. 

Flow often leads to insights, learning, growth, and many other positive long-term changes. 

It also creates a nearly superhuman ability to deal with the problem of the moment.

Flow seems to be the key to unlocking spontaneous creativity, from the Cruyff turn to the writer inventing a new twist of phrase to the master chef who improves a recipe by slicing the ingredients in a new way. 

How to Get Into a State of Flow 

Flow seems to be triggered by the right balance of risk, unpredictability, complexity, and novelty.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. 

Whether a stressful situation triggers fear or flow can depend on your pre-existing beliefs around the event. It seems to be a matter of attitude. 

The research suggests that when you seek to avoid a stressful situation, you’re likely to trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response.

But when you proactively seek the situation, your brain is more likely to trigger the Flow state.

Now suppose you are facing an immediate crisis because of a quest you chose.

Instead of running away from challenge, threats, and the unknown, you are on an adventure. You are excited about the novelty.

You are expecting unplanned mishaps, and eagerly awaiting them to see what you can do. 

This isn’t just related to physical experiences such as riding a motorcycle or playing soccer in the World Cup.

You can take on risky challenges as an artist or a musician. You can do it in the kitchen and in your relationships. 

Starting a business can put you in a Flow state, especially a business that requires lots of selling, problem solving, and other interactions with the world. 

This shift of consciousness into an adventurous attitude is the key to unlocking fantastic creative resources that you probably didn't realize you had.

Tools and Talismans 

  • Watch the Cruyff Turn in Action. This video shows the historic moment. This genius move appeared spontaneously out of nowhere. What new creations are waiting to be born from your actions?

  • Become an Idea Machine. This long blog post is worth applying. TL;DR: It’s all about regular, proactive brainstorming. Write down 10 good ideas every day. If you can’t then write down 20 bad ones.

  • Steven Kotler on Flow. If you want to know what actually goes on in your brain as you get into a state of Flow, here’s a recent article. It gets into a lot of dense neuroscience, and I’ll admit I didn’t understand all of it. But I like reading things that are over my head, and trying to grasp what I can. If you want to give this practice a try, this article is a good place to start.