How To Be More Creative: Advice From A Writer, Artist, And Pianist

Not only are we born with creativity, but we also have the power to become more creative with effort. The more creative you are the happier you will likely be. There is a tremendous amount of fulfillment when you create something from nothing.

Being more creative could make you more money as well. It takes creativity to solve problems and start companies. Once you shift more from being a consumer to a creator, good things start to happen.

After all, we are living in the “creator economy” where anybody with enough courage to put themselves out there has the ability to make money online. Sure, we might get ridiculed. But those who ridicule are too afraid to try themselves!

Making money only from your day job is so 1990s. Now, having a side hustle that harnesses our creativity to bring in extra income is more commonplace. With extra income, we could ultimately achieve financial freedom sooner. And once we achieve financial freedom, then we can take even more creative risks!

We Were Creative As Children

As a father to a kindergartner, I am reminded children are filled with creativity. Every day, my son brings home a drawing, a figurine, or some science contraption he made at school. At home, he plays with his magna-tiles and creates new configurations all the time.

But something sad happens to our creativity once we get a day job. We tend to lose it because we're forced to work at jobs that require little-to-no creativity. Most jobs have fixed tasks and clear goals. Hence, creativity is not needed. Consistent execution is.

We are also afraid to create because we fear criticism and nasty one-star reviews. Who wants to get put down by strangers after putting your heart and soul into your work? Nobody.

The extinguishing of our creativity is like watching a beautiful rainbow turn grey. And sometimes that greyness permeates throughout every aspect of our lives. How sad.

If you want to be more creative as an adult, you must find your ikigai, or “reason for being” in Japanese. One of the biggest reasons why I've been able to post three times a week on Financial Samurai since 2009 is due to ikigai. I've found something I love doing, I'm good at, that helps others, and generates income.

Coming Up With A New Lullaby

When my son was born in 2017, I wrote a lullaby called, Cutie Baby. I thought it would be nice to come up with a new song while on the graveyard shift during his first three months of life.

The melody just came to me as I sat still holding him. After rocking him to sleep, I was afraid to move out of fear of waking him up. Once he was asleep, I wrote out the lyrics in about 20 minutes. As you can see from the sheet music below, it's pretty basic.

Have a listen before you hear another amazing rendition. My wife put together the sheet music.

A Samurai Lullaby Sheet Music - Cutie Baby

I was under no illusion that Cutie Baby would become a popular lullaby, embraced by new parents. I just wanted some variety to go along with all-time classics such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Hush Little Baby Don't You Cry.

A New Rendition Of Cutie Baby

As I was playing the song on my iPhone one evening to help my boy sleep, a random idea popped into my head. A long-time Financial Samurai reader named Charlie Albright was a concert pianist. How cool would it be if he could create his own rendition of Cutie Baby?!

That evening I shot him an email with the request. My expectations were low, but the very next morning he sent me a new rendition. I was blown away!

Charlie's rendition is far beyond what I could have ever imagined. I wondered how in the world did Charlie come up with this 4-minute version and expertly weave in hundreds of new notes to the basic melody?

Have a listen for yourself.

Where Does Creativity Come From?

I asked Charlie where he thinks his creativity comes from. After all, at the age of 4.5, he already knew how to play over 70 songs on the piano by heart! Don't believe me? Check out this clip from when he was a kid.

Clearly, Charlie was born with incredible musical talents. However, his parents had to guide him to the piano and recognize his talents. Otherwise, they would have never flourished.

Here are Charlie's thoughts on where his creativity comes from,

With music and improvisation in particular, I often think of it as playing with Legos. When I improvise a sonata or piece after audiences give me four or so random notes to use as a melody, I try to figure out what key can work and what “feel” I want the piece to have. Then, I’ve also got a “timeframe” in mind (is it a 5-minute piece, or is it a 30-minute, multi-movement work?). After that, and keeping how long into the piece I am in mind, I just go for it.  

People often ask if I’m thinking about chord progressions and theory and whatnot, and the answer is a resounding no. It’s like having a big box of Legos, where you’ve got all different shapes and sizes and colors. You can build whatever you want (i.e. house, car, boat, etc.). But you don’t cut up Legos into different sizes or re-paint a different color. Instead, you take existing Legos and fit them into your creation to make whatever the final product is.  

Now, I think you can expand the different types of Legos you’ve got in your “box” by doing more and more improvisations and whatnot. You find out what works and what doesn’t and keep what works for future pieces. “Expanding the Lego box” can include a combination of just fiddling around at the instrument and trying out stuff, trying to play piano versions of different songs (i.e. pop, K-pop, jazz, etc.), learning other composer’s pieces, etc. :)

Fundamental Skills Are Important For Creativity

The reason why education is so important is that once you have a strong educational foundation, you can expand to do more incredible things. Reading, for example, is vital. Once you learn how to read, you're able to learn whatever you want. And if you can't read, you must listen well.

There's no way Charlie could have turned around a new improvisation of Cutie Baby the very next day if he didn't know already how to harmonize and play chord progressions in a variety of styles. Therefore, step one for improving creativity is knowing your fundamentals.

As a writer, I need to understand basic grammar and punctuation. I still get things wrong all the time, which is why my dad and wife edit my posts. But for the most part, my writing fundamentals enable me to tell stories and come up with new concepts, such as the Wealth Reality Ratio to measure financial satisfaction.

Spend Time to Be Creative

The next step to improving your creativity is actually committing some time to be creative. While in school, we were forced to be creative because we took art classes. Once we graduated, for most of us, art and music, were no longer needed.

I never would have come up with Cutie Baby had I not had many hours at night to burn in silence. I didn't want to be on my phone while rocking my boy to sleep as the light might have woken him up. Our kids are light sleepers. For example, my wife says that if she's in the same room as our sleeping daughter, as soon as she starts using her phone, our daughter tends to stir and wake up.

If you allocate a set amount of time to be creative, I promise your creativity will increase. Ideas are nice, but they are somewhat useless if not acted upon.

According to the author and artist, Colleen Kong-Savage, creativity is both innate and learned. She writes,

“What works best is that you have some structure in place – boundaries or a set of rules. It gives the artwork some focus. In Charlie's example it was the timeframe. For me, maybe it'll be a limited color palette. Or maybe it'll be a theme or it'll be variations of a shape.

Visual arts is not just drawing. It's color, design, ideas, and feeling. We all have art tendencies. Color – we get dressed by deciding what colors match or go with patterns. Design – shifting furniture around in the room to create flow and balance the space. 

I get a lot of ideas from seeing/hearing other people's creative work. You remix those same building blocks/legos – it's all been done – but you put in your handprints – your style, your sensibilities – and that's what makes it an original. 

Piano Wants To Play by Colleen Kong-Savage

Piano Likes To Play, a new children’s book by Colleen Kong-Savage. Click the image to purchase.

Take Risks To Be More Creative

Every musician wants to be heard, every writer wants to be read, and every painter wants their art to be viewed. At the same time, criticism and ridicule often makes us afraid to create something new. Instead, it is much more comforting and easy to follow the status quo.

For example, the amount of backlash I received from creating the Financial Samurai Safe Withdrawal Rate was immense! You can read the 300+ comments yourself. Another blogger impolitely called me a troll in his post. Meanwhile, another blogger felt compelled to take down my guest post about the subject due to pressure from his readers.

As a result, I can see why most personal finance bloggers stick to the 4% rule from the 1990s. And even though no rich person I know got rich off index funds, writing about index funds is safe and protects you from ridicule.

However, it's not interesting to write about the same old things over and over again. Further, as times change, so should we. The institutionalization of the way things are done is one of the main reasons why some folks simply can't get ahead.

Peer pressure forces many to conform. However, it's difficult to stand out if you're always doing what everyone else is doing. Be creative, but also fight plagiarism as unoriginal people end up copying your work.

Embrace The Criticism To Make A Better Product

Instead of shying away from criticism, hang a lantern on them!

Critics can often shine a light on your blind spots. For example, one 3-star review of Buy This, Not That on Amazon said I ignored the importance of public schools as it pertains to where to buy real estate. This variable seems obvious given some of our property taxes go towards funding schools.

Further, I have a whole chapter on education. However, given I live in San Francisco, I seem to have not emphasized schools as an important variable for buying real estate in the book.

Here in San Francisco, we are big on social engineering. As a result, there is no guarantee your children will get into your neighborhood public school even if you pay tens of thousands a year in property taxes. Instead, your children might be assigned to a school 25 minutes across town due to our convoluted lottery system.

As a parent who has to navigate this process, the importance of public schools for where to buy property was not top of mind because it matters less.

But thanks to the criticism, I'm going to highlight this point in the 2nd edition of my book. As a result, the book will be refined even further.

You shouldn’t try and be all things to all people. But it’s always good to take in constructive criticism.

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Learn To Be Still To Be More Creative

Finally, I believe one of the best ways to improve creativity is to be still. The more still your body, the more still your mind. However, unlike meditation, where you try to think about the vast expanse of nothingness, being still encourages you to welcome new ideas.

One of the most common ways to be still is in the shower. Let the water splash your back or chest as you let your mind dance around a topic. My favorite area to be still is in the hot tub. I often spend 1-2 hours just sitting in the hot tub thinking about nothing and everything. Over the years, dozens of post ideas have emerged from relaxing in a hot tub.

The busier you are, the more your mind gets crowded out by various thoughts. However, once you are still, your mind has the opportunity to welcome new ideas.

Increase Your Production Percentage

I'm confident if you spend more time creating you'll be happier. Just think about how much happier you are after waking up from an amazing dream. Your dreams are a way of unconsciously awakening the creativity inside that so desperately wants to be utilized.

Not only will you feel happier creating, but you will also be able to come up with more optimal solutions. One of the core principles in my book is recognizing there is always a better solution to a vexing problem. Don't just accept “no” for an answer. Your creativity will enable you to discover more win-win scenarios.

The act of creating something from nothing is one of the most rewarding feelings you will ever experience. And if you end up creating something that is widely appreciated by others, the feeling may grow even further.

Just beware of the trough of sorrow that sometimes comes after doing a hard thing. I'm convinced this empty feeling is one of the reasons why some artists and writers have a reputation for being moody, eccentric, and sometimes even a little crazy.

Regardless of the ups and downs you may experience as a creator, I highly recommend dialing down your consumption and dialing up your production. Even if you go from a ratio of 100% consumption / 0% production to 95% consumption / 5% production, you will feel more alive. If you put in the effort, you will surprise yourself!

How to be more creative? Art by Sam Dogen
Original art by Sam Dogen

Examples Of How Creativity Helped Me Live Better

  • Came up with the idea of engineering my layoff so I could receive a severance package and retain all my deferred compensation. In the past, it was almost impossible to break gold handcuffs. As a result, people just kept working at their miserable jobs for longer than they wanted to. Then they’d eventually quit with nothing. No more!
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  • Had the vision in 2014 and 2019 to redesign two fixer-uppers by reclaiming unused ground floor space. Then proceeded to go through the painful process of remodeling over three years between the two to create more value. Having an eye for design helps buyers see through the ugly and better recognize the potential beauty.
  • Started Financial Samurai in July 2009 as a creative outlet to deal with the financial crisis. This site saved me from abusing drugs or alcohol during an extremely harrowing time. Financial Samurai has also given me more purpose every day.
  • Synthesized 23 years of financial experience and wrote an instant Wall Street Journal bestseller to help readers build more wealth and make more optimal decisions. From cover design to book structure, it was fun collaborating with others to make something special.

Finally, for an interesting talk on creativity, watch this video. The late Sir Ken Robinson's contention is that creativity is as important in education as literacy. To be original, be prepared to be wrong!

Reader Questions And Recommendations

Readers, how has creativity helped you make more money and live a better life? Are there some strategies you use to boost your creativity? Do you think creativity is inherent or can be developed?

Pick up a copy of Buy This, Not That, my instant Wall Street Journal bestseller. The book helps you make more optimal investment decisions so you can live a better, more fulfilling life.

For more nuanced personal finance content, join 60,000+ others and sign up for the free Financial Samurai newsletter. Financial Samurai is one of the largest independently-owned personal finance sites that started in 2009. 

You can also receive my post in your inbox every time I publish three times a week. All my writing is free so that we can all achieve financial freedom sooner, rather than later.

Finally, you can subscribe to my podcast on Apple or Spotify. I interview investors, authors, entrepreneurs, educators, freelancers, and anybody interesting that can help you live a better life.

13 thoughts on “How To Be More Creative: Advice From A Writer, Artist, And Pianist”

  1. Ms. Conviviality

    That was a beautiful rendition of Cutie Baby. The article was a great reminder for me to get back into creating again.

  2. Hey Sam – thanks for another great newsletter! Regarding this “ You have to really grind for an extended period of time in order to experience tremendous joy and pain.” I am currently reading a book called From Strength to Strength that deals with this subject. And just like you said, the book points out that mediocrity can shield people from the risk of disillusionment. Overall, it’s a fascinating read and very applicable to me at age 43. The broader theme of the book is the reality of professional decline and the need to recalibrate our expectations and approach to life as we enter the second half.

    I always love reading your informed perspectives on the economy and the stock market, but I’m glad that you also write about non-financial aspects of success and happiness. At this point of my life I’m lucky enough to have some financial strength and I’m working more for the non-financial rewards than I am for the comp. It took a lot of effort to get my money situation and investing strategy right, but I think the other aspects of preparing for the fruitful semi-retirement I want are even more tricky.

    For now, I’m focusing on bringing as much creativity and relationship fulfillment into my work as possible. I convinced my employer to let me create a youtube travel show that lets me travel the world and document the lives of our global team. All of the things that led up to this only happened because I had the financial strength to work without fear and to take some big risks.

    If you want you can check it out at
    I would be fascinated to know what you think if you watch the 2-minute trailer.

    Also, congrats on landing your #5 WSJ bestseller spot against incredible odds. That’s an astounding accomplishment!!

    All the best,

  3. Love your recognition of Creativity’s place in the world—not just in the arts, but also in business, general problem-solving, and a sense of well-being. Thanks for sharing my thoughts and work. Keep feeding and flexing that creative muscle, Sam!

  4. That is amazing! As a psychology instructor I teach on the principles underlying creativity. This was a nice read- and loved the composition!

    While nature- genetics- play some role in creativity, nurture- the environment has a far greater influence. Particularly at a young age.

    Expertise: A well-developed knowledge base.
    Imaginative Thinking: The ability to see things in novel ways.
    Creative Environment: A creative and supportive environment. Intrinsic Motivation: A motivation to be creative from within.
    Venturesome Personality: A personality that seeks new experiences.

  5. Almond Butter

    Sam, you have an extraordinary voice! At least coming from someone who sounds like a wounded pterodactyl. I’m impressed with your creative side. You grind, grind, and grind! I’m so inspired to invest time in creating my artistic projects outside of work. Thank you!!

    1. Hah! I’m sure you sound better than you realize. My voice is just average, like most everyone else. But Charlie’s piano is in a different stratosphere!

      I hope you enjoy spending time creating! It feels wonderful to come up with new things. More people should set some time in their week to do so.

  6. Hi Sam,

    I loved this post and was amazed by Charlie’s rendition of your song. How creative of you to think of contacting him, and thank you for sharing the end result!

    I’m a fellow blogger/podcaster/journalist and I believe creativity begets creativity, i.e. the more I write, the more ideas I get. You might enjoy my post on creativity here:

    I also run a boutique college admissions consulting company where my specialty is essay coaching. I love this job because it’s very creative. I help my students brainstorm story ideas and when we work on their writing, it’s like putting a big puzzle together to make sure everything fits and flows.

    You asked how creativity has helped people earn more money and live a better life. I’ve written several blog posts on college admissions that regularly bring me new clients. Those posts also allow me to authentically show my values and coaching philosophy, so I find clients that are a strong match.

    For me, there’s nothing better than making a living as a Creative, especially since I grew up as the child of Asian immigrants and was told it couldn’t be done :) Glad you’re able to embrace your creativity as well. I love your unique angles on your articles – your writing / path has always inspired me.

  7. Great article! I felt very identified with this article, I consider myself a person who likes to explore her creative side. Creativity has especially helped me when I’m stressed or stuck with work.

    For example, I love to assemble Lego figures for adults (or sometimes my nephew’s legos) create origami figures, I feel that they help me release stress or improve productivity in some task either from work or from university.

    1. Almond Butter

      Charlie, your rendition of Cutie Baby was magnificent! Thank you for sharing your talents with the world.

  8. Holy smokes Charlie’s “improv” sure does’t sound like an improv to me – it sounds like a full on masterpiece! That is phenomenal!

    Really fun article and great insights. I’ve also watched that TED talk before and really enjoyed it. It is sad how we do tend to lose our creativity as we grow up. Becoming a parent has helped me re-tap into my creative side though. I’m all into art projects now and creating the next coolest tower with blocks etc.

    I also find that sleep makes such a huge different in my ability to be creative and think outside the box. My mind goes into flatline mode when I’m tired lol.

    Thanks for the extra motivation to boost creativity!

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