The Kaizen Way: How To Master Creativity By Asking Small Questions


If you’re like most people, you want to do something creative in your life.

You want to write the next New York Times bestseller or write a Billboard Hot 100 song; paint a picture; dream up your perfect career; or solve a conflict of interest in the office.

This is a common aspiration. As Anthony Robbins says: If you’re not growing, you’re dying. The problem is, we often have no idea where to start.

You brainstorm what to do, but the more you summon your powers of inspiration, the more your brain draws a blank. During times like these, it’s no surprise people quit altogether, but there is something that can inspire you – the power of Kaizen.

Introducing Kaizen

In his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Like: The Kaizen Way, Dr. Robert Maurer defines Kaizen as:

Using very small steps to improve a habit, a process, or product. Or, using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions. [1]

Despite its foreign name, Kaizen – Japanese for “small change” – was first applied systematically in Depression-era American, then known as “continuous improvement”.

But decades later, after the war, it was introduced to Japan, when General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation forces began to rebuild the devastated county.

The Japanese were unreceptive at first, but given America’s then sophisticated technology, they decided to listen.

Before long, Japanese businesses skyrocketed to unheard levels of productivity. The philosophy for small steps towards improvement became so successful, that the Japanese gave “continuous improvement” a name of their own: Kaizen.   

But Kaizen doesn’t have to be limited to business. It can be used to think small thoughts to develop new skills and habits – without relying on motivation or willpower; take small actions that guarantee success; and ask small questions – questions that dispel fear and inspire creativity.

Overcome Creative Blocks

Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, uses small questions when he sits down to write his novels.

“I don’t have any grand themes in my head,” he says (a statement you’ll hear echoed by other great writers).

Nor does he start with an impossibly large question, such as: “What kind of character would be fascinating to readers?”

Instead, he takes a few incidents—“like [a] plane crash or the idea of a patient and a nurse at night talking” – and asks himself a few very small questions, such as: “Who is the man in the plane? Why is he there? Why does he crash? What year is this?”

Regarding the answers to those small questions, he says:

Those little fragments, fragments of mosaics, they add up and you start finding out the past of these characters and trying to invent a past for these characters.

The answers to his small questions eventually lead him to remarkably round, realistic characters and prize-winning novels.

Ask Small Questions

One of the most powerful ways to reprogram your brain for creative success is by asking small questions.

Small questions create, what Maurer calls:

A mental environment that welcomes unabashed creativity and playfulness.

A major component of our brains is the hippocampus and it plays an important role in the consolidation of information.

The hippocampus has one main criterion for storage: Repetition. So asking an empowering question – like: “What’s great about this problem” – over and over, gives the brain no choice but to pay attention and begin to create answers.

Your brain loves questions and won’t reject them . . . unless the question is so big, it triggers fear.

But by asking small, gentle questions, we keep the fight-or-flight response in the “off” position. Kaizen questions such as: “What’s the smallest step I can take to be more efficient?” allow us to bypass our fears.

If your questions are small, you reduce the chances of waking the amygdala and arousing debilitating fear. If fear is non-existent, the brain can take in your questions and answer them without conflict.

A Final Word

Although you can’t force your brain to cough up solutions to creative blocks on demand, you can program it to launch the imaginative process, simply by asking yourself smaller questions.

When you use a harsh or urgent tone with yourself, fear will clog the creative process, so practice self-compassion and ask questions that come from a place of self-enquiry.

Your challenge is to ask yourself questions with a gentle and patient spirit.

Here are some small questions that help me overcome my creative blocks:

What’s one thing I wish to contribute to the world with my art, my business or my skill set?

Whom could I ask for help or inspiration?

What is special about my creative process/talents/business?

What type of work would excite and fulfill me?

Remember: If you repeat these kinds of questions over the course of several days or weeks – or for however long it takes – the hippocampus will have no choice but to address it.

If you’re in a creative funk right now, ask small questions; if you’re consistent, the brain will provide you the answers you seek.


[1] Maurer, R. (2014) One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.