You either have it, or you don’t.
Or so the myth goes.
When we think of creative geniuses, it’s hard to ignore the likes of Mozart who composed his first symphony at age 8, Pablo Picasso, who launched cubism with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” at age 25 or even Mary Shelley who published Frankenstein as a 20-year-old.
But what about Leonardo da Vinci who didn’t find success until painting “The Last Supper” in his late forties? Or Stephen King, who spent nine years working on his first novel, Carrie, for which he was offered less than $3,000.(he’s since made over a million U.S. dollars on the back-end as well as film rights)
As the British video storyteller Adam Westbrook says of history’s creative giants, “All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?”
Creativity can be learned. It’s just that for some of us, it takes a bit more patience and an extra bit of cleverness about how we choose to think. Below are the scientifically proven ways to learn or improve on creativity, along with a selection of quotes from some incredible talent.
Some lessons are simple — surrounding yourself with a different color palette, making time for strolls — while others will take a bit of time to master — training yourself to see thematic patterns, making yourself mentally open to new experiences — but the real lesson is, no matter your age or your experience, we all can learn to be more creative.
Because there’s no such thing as an original thought but rather an original perspective on a thought, it’s not a surprise that the ability to make associations between seemingly unrelated topics is one of the keys to creativity.
For instance, Adam Gopnik’s first story for The New Yorker combined his academic study of Renaissance art with his childhood passion for baseball in one of the most original, creative stories, he’s ever written. It’s this ability to blend information from various scenarios and experiences (known as “conceptual integration”) and the patience to understand complex comparisons that’s at the centre of a creative mind, according to a recent study.
“Linear thinkers,” such as engineers and scientists, often have difficulty finding patterns out of disparate information. Many people who do not think of themselves as “creative” are still incredibly smart but are rather “linear thinkers,” preferring to think deeply about a single subject rather than a variety of subjects. Yet, it’s the combining of subjects, the search for patterns between rather than within subjects that spurs original associations and creative insights.
So how do you get better at making original associations? The first thing is to listen.
Other people can give you new perspectives and unique ways of looking at problems that you may not have thought possible. It also helps to make yourself more cultured — more attuned to art, literature, languages. After all, you’re not going to be able to find an original association between a sport and an artistic movement if you’ve never cracked open an art book or been to a museum.
And finally, read deeply and widely. Know what’s been done or said about the subject you want to pursue and find a way to put a new spin on it.
If you want to be a better painter, study the masters; if you want to be a more creative writer, read the greats.
There’s nothing wrong with getting ideas from the experts in your fields. It’s your ability to add something new to the conversation, to contribute something worthwhile to the historical oeuvre that’s the mark of a creative mind.
One of the “Big Five Personality Traits,” a concept constructed by two renowned psychologists is “openness to experience” along with conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. “Openness to experience” implies that you have aesthetic taste, a dynamic imagination, an understanding of your inner emotions, a restless intellectual curiosity, and a keenness for variety.
Thankfully, “openness to experience” is also a trait that can be fine-tuned and improved.
Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
If we spend our days staying open to new experiences by doing things like learning new languages, meeting new people, trying new foods, pushing ourselves intellectually with difficult books and puzzles, and staying open to tough social and political issues, always aware of alternative viewpoints, then slowly but surely we will change our lives, becoming more creative in the process.
Some say creativity strikes in the shower, but according to recent research, you’re more likely to find your lightning bolt of inspiration while out on a walk. According to a recent Stanford study, “walking increased 81% of participants’ creativity on the GAU,” or the Guilford Alternate Uses, a classic test of creativity that looks at the ability to think divergently and creatively. Even after going for a walk, creativity stays boosted.
The Stanford researchers also conducted another creativity and walking experiment in the same paper by asking participants to think about a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and come up with a similar but different metaphor (e.g. “an egg hatching”).
95 percent of the participants who went for a short walk and came back were able to think of a metaphor; yet only 50 percent of those who sat in a room for the same amount of time were able to come up with a metaphor.
Creative greats have long understood the importance of going for a walk to boost creativity even before the neuroscience was there to back it up. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal. “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” The heart pumps quicker, our blood and oxygen circulation is improved, and our brains reap the benefits.
The neuroscience of color is a complex subject, but, in many ways, it all comes down to green. “A brief glimpse of green prior to a creativity task enhances creative performance,” according to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Whether you’re taking on a word-based or an image-based creative task, looking at green either immediately before embarking on your creative task or in the midst of doing it tends to increase creativity more than any other color, especially blue and yellow, which tend to mellow the brain and can actually lower creativity.
It almost seems too good to be true. But as explained by this Management Professor following an extensive study, “Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order, and convention and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that.”
Plus, many of the great creative geniuses in history have had messy desks. Put simply, if you want to produce important creative work – focus on the things that really matter.
Sharon H. Kim, a professor who focuses on group creativity, found in her most recent study that the most creative individuals are individuals who like to stand out in society or have been, in some way or another, rejected by society.
“Given that creative solutions are by definition unusual, infrequent, and potentially controversial, they are stimulated by the desire to stand out and to assert one’s uniqueness,” wrote Kim. “The experience of rejection may trigger a psychological process that stimulates, rather than stifles, performance on creative tasks.”
Not caring about societal norms and “fitting in” is the first step to standing out and tapping into this route to creativity.
“When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called ‘meta-cognition,’” or the process of “thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts,” as psychology professor Gregory Feist told The Boston Globe.
Clarify: ask the right questions; ideate: look for as many solutions and ideas as you can; develop: make sure the idea is practical; implement: make it happen.
These ideas, inherent to the practice “design thinking” can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy.
Creative breakthroughs are rarely the product of sudden inspiration, but rather a byproduct of perseverance and strict routine. Be patient, be willing and above all – don’t skip the above steps before you reach implementation. In most creative works, perseverance trumps impulse.
According to research, people who are relaxed tend to find creative solutions faster. The idea is that a relaxed, wandering mind helps people to mentally float between ideas rather than getting stuck in a linear, analytical mode of thinking where creative connections are more difficult to stumble upon.
“Drifting, it seems, is a sure sign that our creative juices are flowing,” wrote Richard Fisher in New Scientist. “When it comes to arriving at brilliant ideas, the ability to concentrate is overrated. If a person’s mind is wandering, they outperform their peers in a range of tasks where flashes of insight are important, from imaginative word games to exercises in original thinking and invention.”
As most popularly explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the “10,000 hour rule” is the theory that it’s necessary to work on a specific creative skill for 10,000 hours — eight hours a day, five days a week, for at least five years — before you can truly master it.
Reddit hosted an “Ask Me Anything” interview with Gladwell, who clarified this theory, writing, “Practice isn’t a sufficient condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.” That’s to say, creativity can always be learned to a certain extent and while practice is necessary it is not always sufficient to be an expert creative.
Still, in order to be the best possible creative you can be there’s no trick that can supplant good old hard work.
Outlining, brainstorming, working, refining, repeating — these are the most sure-fire tricks to unlocking your creativity.
So whether you’re young or you’re old, have put in 10,000 hours or no hours at all, knowing that creativity is a talent that can be improved upon is only the first step to becoming more creative.
The next step is to use science to your benefit and slowly but surely unlock your creative potential. So get out there, surround yourself with green, go for a walk, stand out, be a little messy, stay open to new experiences, and always be on the lookout for patterns. But the key is that you must always be working on your creativity.
Write a journal entry every night before going to bed, sketch something small in a notebook on the train to work, or (smirk) try your hand at a new Canva design. Whatever you do, constantly push yourself to think differently, weirdly and creatively.