Using Creativity in Your Career: 5 Steps to Recharge Your Career Satisfaction

Welcome to the new year!  How is your career going?

That’s a big question and one that I love to help people sort out since a lot of your time is devoted to your career and life is a lot more satisfying when you feel good about what you do.  What helps is to apply creativity in your career.

Let’s start with a definition.

In her wonderful book, Creativity Rules: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, Stanford Professor Tina Seelig defines creativity as “applying imagination to address a challenge”.  Creativity involves tackling a problem by generating ideas that are new to you in order to come up with an innovative solution. Think of your career as a challenge to solve. Creativity is how you can generate new ways to address that challenge.

The good news is that you can learn how to be more creative using a variety of research-based techniques and processes to help you come up with new ways of thinking about your career and thereby deriving greater career satisfaction.

So to get your new year off to a great start, here are 5 ways to apply creativity in your career and help you to recharge your career!

  1. Define Your Problem

When Albert Einstein was asked how he would solve the most important problem in the world in one hour, he said that he would devote 55 minutes to define the problem and the last 5 minutes to come up with the solution.  So step one in applying creativity in your career to solve the problem of how to derive more satisfaction from your career is to zero in on what the problem is!

To find the right problem, you can use a 3-step process known as Clarify

  • Envision your ideal career

Start by imaging the IDEAL career situation for you.  Spend some time brainstorming what you long to accomplish in your career, including

  • what is your role in your ideal career,
  • how your idea career meshes with mission and purpose,
  • the people who are part of your professional arena,
  • your finances,
  • your location,
  • how much time you want to spend,
  • the level of variety you need,
  • travel opportunities, and
  • anything else that will make you feel great about what you do.

It’s fun to do this exercise with other people so that you can feed off of each other’s ideas.

  • Assess your situation

Then, ask yourself these questions to assess the reality of your current situation:

  • What part of my career do I like?
  • Where have I experienced success?
  • What’s holding me back from achieving my ideal state?
  • What frustrates me?
  • What’s missing from my current career?
  • What would I change in order to be more satisfied?
  • What don’t I know that I need to know in order to change my career?

Review your answers, looking for patterns and common themes.

  • Zero in on the right challenge

Once you have identified the real challenge, frame your problem as a question:

  • How might I _________?

For example, perhaps after doing this exercise, you decide that you like your career direction but you need to learn something new, whether that involves new skills, broader experience or a new knowledge base so that you can advance.  You could frame your challenge as
How might I learn a new skill to take my career to the next level?”

Or, you realize that your career does not allow you to play to your strengths or does not jive with your sense of purpose and mission so that it is time to transition to a new career.  Your challenge statement could be, “How might I find a new career that dovetails with my mission of helping others?”

Maybe you want to step up to a bigger leadership role or have a greater impact on your field:  “How might I assume a greater leadership position at my company?”

Or maybe the problem lies within you and your lack of confidence in yourself?  That statement could be “How might I have more confidence to pursue the career of my dreams?”

As you can see, each one of these problems gives rise to a different set of solutions. So pick the one that seems right to you and move on to step 2!

  1. Ideate!

Now that you are clear on your problem, let’s have some fun and come up with a lot of wild, wonderful and crazy ideas, using a process known as ideation.  In fact, ideation is what many people think of as creativity!  Ideation sparks your imagination and allows you to use creativity in your career by having you think in a different way. This, in turn, paves the way to more innovative and satisfying career ideas.

Ideation involves divergent thinking where you:

  1. Defer judgment and not edit yourself or criticize other people’s ideas while you are tossing out possibilities;
  2. Strive for quantity to come up with a lot of ideas;
  3. Seek wild and unusual ideas to push beyond the obvious so that your tentative solution will be genuinely novel; and
  4. Build on ideas and make connections in order to expand your possibilities.

There are lots of ways to ideate, including

  • Classic brainstorming

where you come up with lots of new career ideas either alone or in a group.

  • Analogous attributes

where you look to an unrelated but analogous situation (like the perfect vacation or the perfect date), identify  its characteristics, examine the pluses and minuses of each characteristic, select the most promising and then adapt it to your career challenge.

  • Worst of the worst

where you consider the WORST possible solution for the problem (think horrendous boss, boring work, no future, low pay) and then flip the worst characteristics to come up with the BEST characteristics for your career situation.

  • Brainwriting

where you start off by writing down your career ideas on a post-it note and then continue the brainstorming process by sharing the ideas with your group members and

So have some fun generating ideas to ramp up your career satisfaction!

Then, create some criteria for deciding what factors go into making this a good solution.  Go back to your ideal state from step 1 and create those filters, including money, time, people, location, purpose and mission. Evaluate your ideas in light of those filters and pick the ones that feel right to you.

  1. Get New and Multiple Inputs

Enough thinking!  It’s time to move to action.  That’s where you can start applying creativity in your career and getting feedback on your ideas.

Too often, we get locked into seeing the world through our current experience. So go out into the field and gather new inputs from multiple sources:

  • Consult your mentors or trusted advisors

Solicit their ideas on what you might do to solve your career challenge.

Assemble a group of people in your life who support your vision and to whom you turn when you want honest and trustworthy advice and/or when you are looking for help in figuring out solutions to your challenge. 

Talk to people whose careers you admire to find out how they achieved career success and what you might do to ramp up your own career.

  • Network

Expand your pool of professional friends both inside and outside of your field to get a fresh perspective on your career possibilities.

  • Explore

Feed your mind with new ideas! Visit a new neighborhood, go to a museum and look at some new art, go to a new coffee shop and observe the scene or change the route you take to get to work. They will alter your perspective and perhaps lead to some new insights to add to your list of career ideas.

  1. Conduct Life Experiments

Along with gathering new inputs, you can use your creativity in your career to investigate different possibilities. Whether you are in transition, looking to improve your knowledge or skills,  interested in increasing your impact or assuming a leadership role or wishing to gain more confidence, go out and investigate what you are like in a different role by conducting life experiments.

Insead Business School Professor Herminia Ibarra in her seminal book, Working Identity, believes that our identity changes over the course of our lives and that we therefore have multiple possibilities for our career. Therefore, she urges us to get out of our heads and take action to explore those different selves by trying out new roles. If you are curious, read about her 9 Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.

What kind of experiments can you run to test out a new role?

  • Volunteer for an organization whose mission appeals to you and where you can use a new set of skills
  • Write a blog on a topic that fascinates you
  • Participate in on-line forums in new areas that intrigue you
  • Take a class in a new field
  • Teach a class on something you know and love in order to explore a teaching role
  • Do a project with someone in a new area
  • Shadow a friend whose career intrigues you

The process of conducting life experiments involves trying things out one step at a time, allowing yourself to make mistakes, learning from your setbacks and building on your successes.

Be sure to document what you like and what you don’t like.  I call this last bit “good information” since it helps you to filter out the things that don’t work for you. And when you find something you like, do more.  Not only will this increase your knowledge but it will also provide you with experience that you can add to your resume and establish your credibility in a new field.

Like all good experiments, you cannot know in advance what will the result will be. So allow yourself this valuable experimental period, remain open-minded to possibilities and be patient as you evaluate your new inputs.

  1. Incubate

The process of addressing your career challenges is by no means linear!  In fact, this is another area where time is your friend and it is an essential feature in applying creativity in your career.

Have you ever found yourself grappling with a challenging problem and then leaving your desk in disgust and frustration, only to find the answer when you wake up the next morning or when you are out for a nice walk?

Welcome to incubation, one of the magical elements of the creativity process, where you work hard on a problem, give it time to evolve and allow new ideas to unfold as a result of your hard work. Incubation does not just happen. Instead, incubation requires preparation so that that the elements of a great ideas are in place for you.

As you organize you thoughts, gather new inputs and engage in life experiments to explore what greater career satisfaction looks like for you, you will undoubtedly hit a wall from time to time.  Relax!  Allow those ideas to marinate.  You will surprised at how giving yourself permission to incubate will enhance your thinking.

So start off the new year with these creativity tips and see how applying creativity in your career can lead to a more satisfied you!