Creativity, innovation, and brilliance: why do some people have it and other people don’t? Creativity and innovation are the source of new business ideas, excellence in entrepreneurship, and talented individual success stories.  It would be nice to assume that creative people are “just talented,” and fall back on the assumption that “you either have it or you don’t.”

The truth is, the most creative people understand what it takes to be creative – diligence, persistence, hard work and perhaps a bit of a struggle – and tap into various sources of inspiration and known methods for productivity.

Behind every success story – from Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook– there is an individual or a team working hard and following these three tenants of productivity: they understand sources of inspiration; they know how to create moments where creativity can flourish, and they certainly understand that behind every creative idea is unwavering determination, productivity, and a whole lot of hard work.

Look around: there’s inspiration hidden in the people you surround yourself with.

My number one source of inspiration? The people and the networks around you. If you want to be inspired, just watch interesting people, follow talented businesses, engage in new activities, and commit yourself to learning something new.

Become a student of what you want to learn. People are inherently fascinating. Bruce Desilva, a novelist who teaches part-time at Columbia University, describes people as “endlessly interesting.” When asked what inspires him, he replied:

“People do. Human beings are endlessly interesting if you just learn to pay attention.”

In business, most successful ventures start with simple ideas about how to improve upon something that already exists. Red Box and Netflixtook movie rentals to the next level by changing the way that movies were delivered to the customer – offering an additional layer of convenience. The idea of renting movies was not new; how they were made available was changed in a way pleasing to more people.

Paypal and Ebay took the sales and exchange of goods and items to a new front by opening up a virtual marketplace and reconfiguring how we exchange money.  Facebook and other social networking sites reconfigured how we think about networking – replacing excel networking spreadsheets with a system that manages our networks and allows   “friends” to update and exchange their personal information with us – for free.

Pete’s Coffee and Starbucks Coffee are profiting wildly from the sale of a cup of joe mixed with varying amounts of sugar – not a new invention. Want to make a few dollars? Bottle some water or brew some coffee. Hundreds of companies are doing it. The premise is the same: people and businesses are inspired by the world around them. Each of these ideas began with several concepts that weren’t “new.”  Most complaints are actually opportunities to make something new and better by fixing or improving upon something that’s existing.

Cultivate Great Moments for Inspiration.

How do you get that “ah-hah!” moment? In each human mind, we revisit our understanding of the world as it exists from time to time. The mind is the most creative during sustained, semi-focused activity. Here are a few moments that creative people use for cultivating great thinking:

  • Drifting off to sleep: the mind, as it settles and unwinds, often is the most creative during this “unplanned thought time.”  Many artists and writers keep notebooks by their bedsides to capture these moments.
  • Meditation. Practicing putting the mind into a relaxed, free-flowing state has been shown to induce more creative thinking.
  • Exercise. Many marathon runners and elite athletes describe exercise as a “sense of focus beyond everyday thinking.”
  • Walking. Some of the greatest philosophers were known to have many of their conversations while walking.

On a more personal level, here are a few more things that help me to be creative:

Driving. If it’s not in traffic, I find that driving, out on the open road, particularly scenic drives or roads that are familiar to me — can really be a place to let my mind wander. I’ve taken to carrying a tape recorder in my car, to “write down” the thoughts as they float in and out of my brain.

Swimming and running help me think by reducing the amount of ambient noise and clutter surrounding me (can’t carry an iphone in the water just yet!), and letting me get into a different rhythm of thinking that’s more in tune to the strokes of swimming or the pounding pavement of running.  Sometimes I carry my “dumb phone” with me while I’m running, so I can stop and send a short text message to myself if I figure out a new idea on the way.

Sitting outside or walking through quite, green spaces. Being in a garden or an outdoor setting is lovely. It helps me think. Finding the parks and spaces to think – in your city, rural area, or suburban area – and changing it up from time to time – can really help kick-start your brainwaves.

Watch Out For Places and Spaces That REDUCE Inspiration

Just as there are activities that are conducive to creative thinking, there are also sustained activities that are not advantageous to free-form, imaginative thinking. Activities that are over-stimulating or entertaining by their nature (watching television, spending time in front of a computer) can, depending on how and how often they are used, reduce the creative impulses.

Unfortunately, I don’t always think in the same free-flowing way when i sit behind a computer. (The irony is, that i’ll sit behind the laptop screen, wordpress framework in hand, trying to come up with a post, and these are usually the worst posts. )

Furthermore, interesting research by Modupe Akinola, a professor at Columbia Business School and Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales, Australia, suggest that our dispositions and our emotional framework can influence our creative impulses. In “The Dark Side of Creativity,” Akinola finds that being somewhat melancholy can actually improve your creativity. The research suggests that a sad mood can make people better at judging, accuracy, and observing the world around them.

Our creative challenges need diligence, persistence, and focus. Sometimes struggling through an idea — and working consistently on a hard problem, absent from distractions, despite being tired or frustrated — can be when we find the best insights.

Finally: Putting the work behind the inspiration.

Not every moment of brilliance comes during a casual stroll on a beautiful sunny day without any effort. Creative people don’t sit lazily by a lake, waiting for the next great idea. Most great inventors and thinkers toil away at their ideas, producing new iterations daily, until they figure out something that works. Perhaps hard work facilitates a sense of angst or anguish – stimulating further creativity through some emotional strain, as suggested by the research of Akinola and Forgas.

Even the most creative people forget about the anguish of the process – how difficult it can be to create – after they’ve arrived at a solution or design that works. When the inspiration doesn’t come — and sometimes we have to create even when we’re not in the thick of inspiration — get outside, talk to other people, throw ideas around, read, look, question, and wonder.

And above all, iterate.  Iterate, iterate, iterate.

People that are productive, putting their ideas to work, find successful ideas over time – through careful consideration, reflection, and hard work. Robert Sutton describes it well: “The truth is, creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it is about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.”