Creativity Comes in a Petri Dish

Declan Wilson

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Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Think outside the box.

It’s one of those cliches you hate you hear. It’s been so overused, it’s lost all meaning to us modern folk. Think outside the box, OK Boomer.

Yet, at one point Think outside the box did mean something. It originated from the following nine-dot puzzle.

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photo from Wikipedia

Can you connect all nine dots with only 4 lines without lifting your pencil?

Hint: you kind of have to think…outside the box.

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photo from Wikipedia

Besides the literal meaning of Think outside the box, the expression was meant to convey that creativity lived outside our normal modes of thinking. While everyone else operated inside the box, one had to find a way outside to discover bigger and better ideas.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

I believe our best creative ideas come from the ordinary, inside the box kind of thinking. All it takes is a little cultivating, patience, and a pinch of staphylococcus.

Think of Creativity as a Petri Dish

There will always be those whose creativity comes easily to them. Lin Manuel Miranda comes to mind when I think of natural-born talent. Billy Eilish is another. Those who work their sleight of hand to reveal something beautiful that wasn’t there before. A genuine artist.

And then there are the rest of us mortals. We have to work at it. Nurture it. Fail. Fail again.

But it’s not impossible to be creative if you take the discarded scraps of life and mush them together. Author Neil Gaiman calls it the compost heap. I married a pharmacist, so I’m calling it the Petri dish.

There are five essential ingredients you need in your Petri dish:

1. Gap time/Boredom

Boredom isn’t just an ingredient, it IS the petri dish holding all of the ingredients together. You can have all of the following things below, but if you don’t have boredom or gap time, nothing will come of it.

2. Curiosity

Without a sense of curiosity, what will drive us to create fun for ourselves? Curiosity stirs the ingredients together to see what works and what doesn’t. Learning, or rather I should say life-long learning, is a necessary component because it broadens our mind and makes room for more creativity to fill it.

3. Community/Friends

Humans are meant to be together. When we share our ideas with others and receive feedback, our creativity not only grows but strengthens over time.

4. Freedom/Alone time with your thoughts

Unlike boredom, this is more intentional. Being comfortable with your thoughts builds inner-trust that what you create serves a purpose. If you don’t allow yourself the time and space to dream, think, and wonder, your attempts to grow your creativity will be futile.

5. Pencil and paper

There is nothing like having a blank slate in front of you. Turning your thoughts, ambitions, or ideas into a medium others can understand is nothing short of a miracle. Sure, there is photography, video, or pantomiming, but nothing beats the simplicity of a clean sheet of paper and a number 2 pencil.

However, nothing will ever happen in your Petri dish if you don’t remember to…

…Give Yourself Permission to Explore

When I happen to have free time on my hands (and I have a lot more free time these days) I often feel as if I’m supposed to do something, not necessarily productive, but something rather than nothing.

Doing nothing is just as important as doing something.

Maybe I saw that on a tee-shirt long ago. The hustle gurus certainly wouldn’t agree with this mantra. The philosophists might argue doing nothing is doing something, thus negating the theory.

Giving yourself permission to explore, to meander, to ask questions is equally worthy as creating something of value.

One must live life to create. One must explore to discover.

As a writer, it’s typical to judge your worth by your output. If you aren’t publishing a new piece every single day, you aren’t going to make it as a writer (so they say).

I disagree, if you aren’t creating space in your life to explore and find new ideas, you won’t make it as a writer no matter how much you write.

Take for example my 30th birthday last month. Do you know how I spent the first morning of my thirties?

I read random articles about Theo and Karl Albrecht, the reclusive brothers who took their mother’s German storefront shop into a multi-billion dollar grocery chain: Albrecht Discount, typically shortened as Aldi.

This eventually led to a popular article I’d later write.

I also watched a documentary about Dieter Rams, the industrial designer who’s influence has shaped many household products today (the original iPod was eerily similar to his transistor radio).

This documentary led to this piece.

What do all these things have in common? They are all the result of giving myself permission to explore. When I find something interesting, I plant my stake in the ground and stick around to see what I find.

If you aren’t exploring you’re breathing stale air. Your Petri dish needs fresh air.

What’s the Takeaway?

Being creative isn’t a magical gift reserved for only those who are true of heart and brave. I consider myself a creative person only because I work at it.

I take common ingredients like boredom and curiosity, I give myself permission to explore, and I let everything fester in the depths of my brain until something interesting emerges.

Stop thinking outside the box, it’s an old adage that doesn’t mean anything today.

Start using your Petri dish instead.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD
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