Unleashing creativity: Elton John, Richard Branson, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Steve Wozniak and a walk in the woods

Dr. Greg Wells


One of my obsessions is understanding how we can unleash our creativity.

Science shows that when our creativity is peaking, we emit theta waves and several regions of our brains interact to make new connections and come up with novel ideas. But how do we get into that state, keep track of the ideas we generate and stimulate a long-term source of ideas?


I attended an Elton John concert many years ago in Helsinki and got a press pass so I could sit right at the front. I was alone, so I just sat there taking it in. During “Rocket Man,” Elton went off on a solo that lasted about 12 minutes. His eyes were closed. He looked like he was asleep. He had gone off to a different place as he poured out this incredible music. It was pure creativity.

How do we do that?

One thing we know is that creative juices get flowing when we engage in rhythmic and repetitive physical activity. For Elton, it was tapping on the keys. But it can be anything: run, bike, jog, swim, paddle, walk. Anything where the level of exertion is low enough that you are able to let go and just create.

Another option is listening to incredible music. I encourage everyone to get some amazing headphones so you can transport yourself into a creative frame of mind. You can also stimulate theta waves by heading out into nature – waves, wind, trees, beach – and away from the enemy of theta waves: technology. Having your phone pinging means no chance of getting into theta mode.

Once you determine the best approach for you to get flowing, you need a method for recording your ideas. To do so, take a tip from Richard Branson. I met him a few years ago, and he explained that he always carries a notebook so he can capture ideas for future consideration.

Now, you just need to feed your creative processes. There’s no better model for that than Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci only produced 15 to 20 finished pieces of work in his entire life, but he was maniacal in his studies of the human body and perfecting his ability to illustrate it. As a polymath, he studied art, theatre and anatomy. He did many, many dissections of the human body to see what was going on underneath the layers. He dissected the face so that he knew every single muscle and how it works, which is partly what gave him the knowledge to perfect the Mona Lisa smile.

This relentless obsession with his craft meant that he was pouring a steady stream of input into his creative processes. And it meant that he was constantly reinventing his craft.

As but one example, after about 20 years of dissections, he realized that he had been representing the sternocleidomastoid muscle incorrectly. That’s the muscle on either side of your windpipe that pops out when you turn your head. What he realized was that at the base of the muscle where it connects to the clavicle, it breaks apart into two strands. He had been representing it as one continuous muscle. Through his passionate exploration of the actual structures of the human body, he discovered the inaccuracy, and this shift led him to remarkable work like the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. He fueled his creativity with information, detail and content.

Thomas Edison was famous for his prolific capacity to invent – to generate solutions that no one else could dream up. One of this techniques was to create a space inside Menlo Park where he would go to do his thinking. It included a bedroom, so he could nap, a small kitchen, so he could make some food, and a zone for creative work. And he set up a culture where everyone in the organization understood that disturbing him was fireable. This was Do Not Disturb to the nth degree.

It’s similar to the tradition of writers disappearing into the wilderness to create. For me, that place is in Central America. No Internet. Jungle and ocean everywhere you look. A house I can rent that is unplugged. My family and I go there for two weeks at a time. That’s where my deep thinking takes place. That's where I recover and regenerate. But it’s only two weeks at a time. It doesn’t address my ongoing need for a space that supports creativity.

After I heard Steve Wozniak talk about deep creativity, I made a decision to dedicate a section of my home to the Menlo Park scenario. My space is pretty simple. It’s a room with everything I need: art on the walls that I find beautiful and stimulating; a concert poster signed by two brilliant musicians I adore; an amazing piece of work by Jane Waterhouse right beside my desk; comfortable furniture; a computer; access to inspiring music; and a view of the park outside if I need to stare into the trees.

Whenever I need to go deep, this is where I go. The space pulses with creative energy for me. And the more I go in there, the more my mind learns that this is the place it can run. I get more and more creative. Then, I take those ideas and head out into the world – to the hospital, WeWork, wherever. Places where I am surrounded by people and can engage in the types of productivity and creativity that happen in a group.

Whatever your personal version of inspiration and creativity is, take these four elements into consideration: figure out how to get into your creative mode, find a way to record your ideations, feed your creativity with a steady stream of input and stimulation, and create a space where you can go to be creative.

Perform, ThinkGreg Wells PhD