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4 Innovators, 4 Ways to Get Inspired

These scientists, artists and athletes share their tried and tested routes to finding a creative spark.
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Creativity is critical to entrepreneurship, whether you’re a veteran tycoon stuck in a rut, an aspiring entrepreneur pursuing your big idea, or a thriving small business owner seeking solutions to an operational challenge. Sure, lightning may strike — but the savvy businessperson knows that inspiration, like opportunity, is as reliant on discipline as it is on a muse. We spoke to innovators in industries ranging from space exploration to skateboarding invited to  PopTech ’s “Sparks of Brilliance” conference in Camden, Maine to learn how these creative successes find their inspiration. The event began Thursday and runs through Saturday of this week. A livestream of the event is available at

Adam Steltzner’s method: Brainstorm first, analyze later
[Note: Steltzner will not be attending the conference due to complications from the recent government shutdown, but we feel you’d enjoy his tips regardless.]  Reasoned, clear thinking helped Adam Steltzner, chief engineer and development manager for the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA, land the rover Curiosity on Mars. But collaboration, selflessness, and trust were what he and his team relied on to find a way there. “My brain gets stuck easily, so I need to agitate my mind to change perspective and freshen up ideas,” he says. “Generating ideas contemporaneously with a group — it’s like playing music. When you play music, your action is making it, but the music is also making you. There’s a communal oneness with music that is similar to brainstorming with other people.”
Your strategy: Make brainstorming a two-step process. First, air every idea, with zero critical evaluation. Then analyze the ideas. This process, he says, brought about the creation of the sky crane, and ultimately landed Steltzner’s team — and us — on Mars.

Shantell Martin’s method:
Focus on you

Shantell Martin’s whimsical line drawings grace objects as small as baby sneakers and as grand as billboards. She has balanced her work in the fine art world with commission-based pieces for both global corporations and individual families, but ultimately, she says, “the pen knows where it’s going. I just follow.” In order to make sure her pen is always moving in the right direction, Martin doesn’t home in on her art. She concentrates on herself. “My focus isn’t my career,” she says. “I work on trying to be healthier, happier, kinder, forgiving and more compassionate. I want to be balanced emotionally in all of these different ways and surround myself with good people. When I’m positive and healthy, the side effect is that I want to do what I love, and that’s drawing.”
Your strategy: If you find yourself in a creative rut, take a break from work. Make sure that you’re eating well, exercising and spend time with friends. Refreshing yourself will provide a fresh outlook on the problems you want to solve.

Anab Jain’s method: Look to potential change
Superflux, Anab Jain’s London-based design studio, bridges the worlds of science and what seems like science fiction, exploring quantum computing, synthetic biology, and post-apocalyptic technology. She says her inspirations are society's tangible needs. “We need to look at the world around us in order to shape the future,” she says. “What we hope to do is broaden our perspectives and show alternate visions of reality by exposing hidden potential and complexities in every day issues.”
Your strategy: Examine the accepted facts about your business and the clients you serve, and consider what is hard truth and what is fiction and therefore what can be changed. Once you break down the component parts of, say, a client request or a company problem, you will better equipped to visualize alternative solutions and generate new ideas.

Rodney Mullen’s method: Get uncomfortable
Lauded as the most innovative skateboarder in history, Rodney Mullen says that while competition can inspire creativity and push you forward, it can also put you on a treadmill of trying to outperform your competitors in a linear way. “Winning” isn’t a catalyst for creativity, he notes. Instead, Mullen, who has founded several skateboarding companies, seeks inspiration in discombobulation. “For me, being in an uncomfortable place, whether by rotten circumstance or by choice, is incredibly inspiring because it forces me to do something new,” he says.
Your strategy: Take your work out of context. See how your product or service will work in a foreign situation or different industry. The new environment will catalyze new approaches and ideas.