How to be creative over and over again

Lessons from Leading Pop Artists: How to be Creative Over and Over Again

May 27, 2020

In business, we often have the perception that brilliant ideas come either from the minds of geniuses or through intense, focused collaborative thinking. While both are sources of creative breakthroughs, they exclude a much more accessible and dependable source of creativity.

This third source of creativity enables the average person to be creative over and over again. To understand how this source of creativity works, let’s look to the world of music, where artists must come up with unique, compelling ideas for songs over and over again. The country pop duo, Dan + Shay, offers a window into how this works. Since getting their start in 2013, singles from the duo’s three albums have earned 22 award nominations and won them 11 awards.

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

The pair’s latest single, “10,000 Hours”, a collaborative project with Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, set a new record with 75 million global streams during its debut weeks. Seven months after its premiere, the song’s official YouTube video has earned 148 million views.

The Third Source of Creativity: How Dan + Shay Write Songs

How do Dan + Shay come up with award-winning creative ideas for songs over and over again? They give us insight into their process (or lack thereof) in their commentary album.

For example, here’s how they came up with their single “Stop Drop + Roll,” which was featured on the show Nashville:

“Stop Drop + Roll was written after Dan and I were watching this movie called the Mist… We were watching it and there is a part in the movie where there is this guy who was on fire and Dan is like, ‘Dude, this guy has to stop, drop, and roll…’ And I was just thinking, ‘Man that’s kind of a cool song title. I wonder if anyone has written it.“ And right there we just sat down and wrote most of the song…”

They were hanging out late at night watching a movie. Dan says something random and ordinary in response to a scene in the movie and Shay catches a spark of inspiration.

Here’s the setting in which the closing song on the same album, “Close Your Eyes,” came to be:

“Dan and I were actually at our friend Jason’s house and we were just hanging out – I think they were gone. We were watching their house… We were really poor and so we were staying at other people’s houses. We were just sitting there, and Dan and I were probably eating pizza or something like that. And I had a guitar and I started playing this little riff. And we wrote probably the verse and the chorus or something like that right there on the spot… we were just kind of hanging out, it wasn’t like we planned on writing…”

They weren’t planning on writing a song. They were just doing life and expressing what they were thinking and feeling.

The song “I Heard Goodbye” doesn’t come from deep, concentrated thinking either. Shay’s personal experience at the time created the spark for inspiration.

“I think we got into the room that day and it was kind of a personal experience that I was going through. When someone tells you, ‘I need a little bit of time – I just need time – it’s always over, you hear goodbye…’ That was kind of an emotional thing for all of us. Everyone has been in that position… That’s one of my favorite songs on the record because it really is from the heart…”

Now, you may be thinking that writing a pop song is a bit different than crafting a blockbuster marketing campaign, creating a game-changing product, or developing a breakthrough strategy. But the founding stories of Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook all show us that it’s not. Each of those company’s iconic founders came upon a spark of inspiration as they went through normal life. The ideas didn’t originate within them. You can read more about their founding stories here.

How to Use Dan + Shay’s Process to Boost Your Creativity

If Dan and Shay’s process for writing songs is so ordinary and unplanned – which, to be clear, is not always the case – how can you expect to replicate it and reliably come upon creative ideas? Follow these steps to help make generating creative ideas your norm:

Relax and be present:

Many professionals find it impossible to disconnect from work. They are constantly thinking about what they have to do, what email may be sitting in their inbox, or how many Slack threads are accumulating. This preoccupation with the activity of work makes it difficult to be present both during and after work. This one of the reasons why meditation with its emphasis on being present has gotten so much attention. It offers an antidote to constant preoccupation.

Being present is not only good for your mental and emotional health; it makes you available to notice the sparks of inspiration that are constantly emerging and then disappearing around you as you go through life. If you’re not fully present, you’ll never notice the spark.

How many sparks of inspiration are you missing?

Tune your radio to your biggest creative challenges:

A radio works by aligning your receiver with a frequency that audio messages are sent over. By tuning your radio to a specific station, you enable yourself to hear sounds sent over that frequency. Creative inspiration functions in a similar way. For example, you may witness a spark of inspiration that could lead to a breakthrough in aero-physics, but if your brain isn’t tuned to receive that signal, you’ll miss it.

Shay’s creative radio dial was tuned to the songwriting station. That’s why when Dan uses the phrase “stop, drop, and roll,” Shay immediately thinks about whether someone has written a song by that title. What’s important to note is that it wasn’t that Shay was thinking about writing songs before Dan made that comment. From what he shares, it seems that he was present, watching a movie, and relaxing. But because he was clear in his head that his creative challenge is to write songs, he was able to receive the signal when it came even though he wasn’t thinking about writing songs before the inspiration came.

This is important because it enables you to be present and still receive inspiration when it comes. We know we’re using a lot of metaphorical language, but the point is to get clear about the creative challenges you’re trying to solve so that your mind flags inspiration relevant to those challenges when it observes it.

Pursue sparks of inspiration:

A spark of inspiration is rarely enough to determine if you’ve come upon a creative breakthrough. Shay’s idea to use “stop, drop, and roll” as a song title wasn’t enough on its own. They had to stop what they were doing and pursue the spark – and they did. Shay says, “And right there, we just sat down and wrote most of the song.” The song “Close Your Eyes” came out of a similar pursuit. Though they weren’t planning on writing a song, once they noticed the spark, they “…wrote probably the verse and the chorus or something like that right there on the spot.”

This isn’t to say that you should flit about like a butterfly moving from one flower to the next, or that you should pursue every spark equally or instantly. But you do need a process for collecting these sparks of inspiration as you notice them and following up on them when you have the time and space.

How many sparks of inspiration do you notice, but never pursue?

Ongoing Creativity Is Obtainable

Being creative doesn’t have to be hard. Dan and Shay were two young, poor, single guys eating pizza at someone else’s house when they wrote their first song. They were just present enough to notice inspiration when it hit. They were focused enough to know the creative challenges they wanted to solve. And they were curious enough to pursue the sparks of inspiration when they came. You can do the same.

In fact, this very process is how this article came to be. I was listening to Dan + Shay on Spotify when their commentary album started playing in between their other songs. I was about to skip the tracks when my attention was caught by how unintentional “Stop Drop + Roll” came to be. My creative radio had been tuned to look for writing ideas around creativity and critical thinking, so I quickly noticed the spark of inspiration. And I pursued it by listening to the rest of the commentary album to see if there was other evidence of the creative process I observed in the writing of “Stop Drop + Roll.”

Coming up with creative ideas over and over again may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.