How to Become More Creative

Creativity is widely misunderstood to be a single “Aha moment”. The reality is both more complex and more interesting. Creativity is preparation followed by recognition of opportunity.

My book, Vigilance: An Anesthesiologist’s Notes on Thriving in Uncertainty is about the intersection of anesthesiology, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics. Vigilance describes how anesthesiologists use cognitive psychology and behavioral economics to save lives every day in the operating room; then applies their unique methodology to large catastrophic events of the 21st century. The book is a practical way to describe uncertainty, characterize rare cataclysmic events, and create a more stable future.

How did I get the idea to combine three (seemingly) unrelated fields?

From an outside perspective it started with COVID-19. When COVID-19 became a pandemic in March 2020 it also became a case study in how people deal with uncertainty. Initially there was no way to test for the virus, no one knew how it spread, and hospitals filled up without warning. I saw both constructive and destructive responses to the overwhelming uncertainty. When I read an article about how Sweden chose not to shut down suddenly a lightbulb went off in my brain. I finished my first outline of the book on April 30, 2020. Looking back COVID-19 was just the tip of the iceberg.

Since I started medical school in June 2013 I noticed science was only a small part of Medicine. Human Factors, the application of psychology to processes and systems, determined whether the knowledge acquired in medical school actually worked in reality. A common saying in medical training is “patients don’t read textbooks” meaning how patients display disease in reality can be very different or even opposite from how textbook say they are supposed to do it.

Perhaps this gap between what is supposed to happen and what actually happens wasn’t only in medicine?

As I scoured the internet to describe what I saw I stumbled upon two fields: cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. Cognitive psychology compared how people perceived their thoughts to objective data collected by researchers. Turns out human perception is not representation of objective reality. Behavioral economics compared how humans should make decisions to what they actually chose in reality. Turns out humans consistently make illogical decisions when faced with economic tradeoffs. Both fields highlighted the gap between what humans are supposed to choose compared to what they actually choose.

COVID-19 connected all three of these fields for me. Medicine, psychology, and economics were suddenly blended together in a real world experiment. Perhaps I was just the right person in the right place at the right time?

Did I just get lucky? Or was my book more than a lucky accident?

Going to medical school was certainly not an accident. My undergraduate years were spent researching organic chemistry, volunteering in nursing homes, and working in student affairs. This was in addition to the time commitment necessary for excellent academic achievement. Time management was the key to balance my academic workload, extracurricular activities, and maintain my own well being.

After I started medical school I had even less free time. I created better time management strategies to compensate for the increased workload. Part of my free time was used to read about psychology and economics because I wanted to know how human factors transformed science into medicine. The more I read in books the more I could see it in my life. My journey down the rabbit hole accelerated.

In my anesthesiology residency I continued to read 1 book per month despite spending 60-90 hours per week in the hospital. My learning reached new heights because I could make my own decisions. Rather than reading about the experiments of others I became the subject of my own experiment! The positive feedback loop between reading, experimenting, and more reading produced new insights and ideas.

12 years of sustained effort, time management, and focused practice is certainly not an accident. However, the book (probably) wouldn’t have happened without COVID-19 tying all of those ideas together in a once-in-a-lifetime event. Maybe I would have eventually written the book for other reasons…maybe not. There is no way to confirm or deny an alternate reality that didn’t happen. Perhaps the book was a combination of both skill and luck.

The eyes can only see what the mind knows.

Lucky breaks cannot be perceived by those who cannot recognize them. Creativity is therefore a combination of years of preparation followed by a single lucky break. From an inside first person perspective success looks like years of hard work. From an outside third person perspective success looks like a single lucky break.

I happened to be in medical training when cognitive psychology and behavioral economics were taking off. I happened to have Amazon to purchase books at a price I could afford. I happened to have an extensive knowledge of medicine, psychology, and economics at the exact time COVID-19 occurred. All of this was situational luck.

However, my recognition of the “lucky break” would have never occurred if I was unprepared to see it. Preparation is the only one of those two factors that can be controlled. My insight only occurred because I was willing to go down a rabbit hole searching for something I didn’t know existed. I took a risk by investing my precious free time into my own knowledge.

Creativity for me was seeing something old (medicine) in a new way (cognitive psychology and behavioral economics). I’m not more intelligent than anyone else- I’m just more willing to take chances and learn from my experiences. Creativity is not inherently present in certain people. It is developed through years of preparation, focused practice, and learning.

What the creative process actually looks like

Below are three pieces of advice to be more creative:

  1. Focus on preparation not luck. The only thing in your control is your own thoughts and actions. Focusing on what you can control (preparation) brings you closer to a new insight. Focusing on what you can’t control (luck) causes anxiety and burnout.
  2. Fall in love with the process not the result. I genuinely like medicine, psychology, and economics. That made the 12 year process sustainable. If I hated the subjects I would have quit a long time ago.
  3. Experience is necessary. Original insight requires a variety of experiences. Multiple perspectives are recombined until a new perspective develops. Creativity is simply a new way to see something old.

Good luck!

Published by Nabil

Nabil Othman, MD is an anesthesiology resident physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA. As a Michigan native he advocates calling carbonated, sugary beverages "pop". When he is not an indentured servant in the hospital he enjoys CrossFit, telling everyone he meets about CrossFit, and attempting dangerous hikes in Hawaii with his college roommates.

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