Tapping your creative side can give you a leg up in business

Paul was majoring in zoology at college. One semester he took a course in the study of birds (ornithology). For the final exam, Paul studied until he had the textbook nearly memorized. He knew his class notes backward and forward. He was eager to take the exam, certain of getting a good grade.

The morning of the exam, Paul took a seat in the front row of the big auditorium where the class was held. More than 100 students were in the class with him. On a table at the front was a row of 10 stuffed birds, each with a sack covering its body so that only the legs were visible.

The professor announced, "For this test, which counts for 80 percent of your final grade, I want you to identify each bird up here by its legs, and then discuss its species, natural habitat and mating patterns. You may begin."

Paul stared at the birds. All the legs looked the same to him. After spending half the exam period in growing frustration as he tried to determine which bird was which, he picked up his exam and threw it on the professor's desk.

"This is ridiculous!" he shouted. "I studied the textbook and my notes all night, and now you're asking me to name these birds by looking at their legs? Forget it!"

The professor picked up the exam booklet and saw that it was blank. "What's your name, young man?"

With that, Paul yanked one leg of his pants up. "Why don't you tell me?"

Paul's response probably didn't earn him a passing grade, although I must admit, I admire his creativity!

"Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea," said English psychologist Edward de Bono. "Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone. Creativity makes life more interesting."

Everyone is born with the ability to be creative, but some people seem to lose it as they grow older, whereas others are better at accessing their creativity throughout their lives. Studies show that there is no correlation between IQ and creativity.

Here's how to regain or retain your creative spark:

•Be aware of what's going on around you. A scientist needs to analyze all available facts and every bit of research. Stay on top of current business trends. Learn from other people's ideas and mistakes.

•Explore. Examine all of your options and alternatives, no matter how far-fetched they may seem at first. Don't rule anything out as you look for solutions and new approaches.

•Be courageous. You've got to be fearless and not worry about what others may think. Don't try to be like everyone else. Take your own approach, whatever you're doing. Prepare to accept some criticism but don't take it personally.

•Rely on your instincts. As you assimilate the information around you and assess the possibilities, factor in your instincts to come up with creative solutions. As legendary film director Frank Capra said, "A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something."

•Assess your options. Sort your ideas into categories, and rank them. Try combining ideas, and eliminate any that don't fit what you're looking for.

•Be realistic. Step back and evaluate how your idea or solution is likely to play out in the real world. Look at the upside, but consider the downside as well. Not all great ideas will work, but they may lead to other solutions.

•Stick with it. You need to be persistent if you want to achieve anything significant. A novel takes a long time to write; a successful business may take years to build. Keep a detailed picture of the intended result in your mind to help you stay focused and move forward.

•Be patient. You can't hurry creativity, so take time to ponder your ideas. Sit back and take time to think things over. That's usually how the best ideas bloom.

•Evaluate the results. At the end of the process, ask yourself: Has my vision been realized? Learn from what works and what fails, so you can move on to your next project.

Creativity isn't just a process. It's a value. If you value success, get creative!

Mackay's Moral: It only takes a little spark to ignite a great fire.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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