Mike Kruzeniski

Creativity is like Sudoku

by mkruzeniski. Average Reading Time: about 2 minutes.

“…it’s like Sudoku” is a phrase I’ve started using recently. I don’t play Sudoku. The phrase comes from a zefrank video, which is one of my favorite descriptions and analogies for design and the creative process. The point is, problems can rarely be solved all at once. You just have to start. Somewhere, anywhere. And have your eraser handy.

“I’m interested in this…confidence to start things, because I look at creative projects like they were Sudoku puzzles: you can stare at them as long as you like but you won’t suddenly see all the numbers. You have to start. You have to find one box to fill in, and from that, another one reveals itself. You might not be able to solve all of them, but as long as you know its possible, you’l keep trying. And no matter how many you solve, each new one begins with a bunch of empty spaces.”


I was thinking about the video again recently after hearing Mitchell Resnick, from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, speak about the work they are doing to help children grow their creative mind. He stated, “At the root of creative thinking is the ability to create.” What I prefer about zefrank’s perspective on creativity is that he focuses more on the ‘willingness’ to create rather than the ‘ability’ to create. Zefrank’s monologue emphasizes the importance of self-motivation in creative acts.

“the intrinsically motivated state is essential for high levels of creativity…” Teresa Amabile, Creativity in Context, p. 102

Not only does external motivation (i.e. rewards) often not help, it can even have the opposite effect. While a person’s natural capacity for divergent thinking surely has an effect on the level of originality, when comes at least to basic creativity it seems that the belief that one is – or is not – creative is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You just have to be willing to try, to start.
I’m supposed to be ‘creative’ for a living. It’s part of my job description. But it’s impossible to be motivated every moment of everyday. Motivation can easily be swayed by disinterest in projects, personal distractions, mood, weather… Reflecting on my own moments of creative ebb and flow at work, lack of motivation, not a lack of some sort of creative muse, is usually the root of the problem. I’ve found that the best way to cheat this is to create artificial project deadlines, or immediately schedule work sessions with team members. Basically, force myself to start. I know from past experience that once I get started, solutions will appear and the satisfaction in making new things and ideas will slowly impel real motivation, momentum, obsession.
Start. It’s harder and simpler than it sounds.