As psychologists and neuroscientists start to explore what makes us uniquely human, they have started to look at possibly our most amazing trait – creativity.
The study of creativity has exploded over the last few decades. There are now hundreds of research papers published on creativity each year, ranging from the pure mechanics of how we come up with ideas, to how groups can work together creatively, to how we destroy creativity through our institutions. Here are the five big questions everyone asks about creativity, and how we are finding out the answers. Don’t forget to download this handy infographic and pin it on your desk!
01. Can creativity be learned?
One of the greatest myths of creativity (and we’ll get to more later) is that you either have it or you don’t.
Everyone is capable of creative thought, and everyone can learn to harness their creativity over time.
All you need is to start to see your entire life as a creative endeavor, one where any challenge or problem you come across can have a creative solution. By using some of these strategies every day, you can learn how to intertwine creativity into your everyday life.
When researchers studied people in creative fields, one of the main things they found was that they were very good at re-conceptualizing the problem before starting on design. Advanced art students whose ideas were judged most creative were the ones that had concentrated the most in this initial ‘problem formulation’.
They are also good at reconsidering the problem after the task has been completed. A group led by Keith Markman from Ohio University found that people could double their creativity by thinking about the counterfactual or ‘what could have been’. This viewpoint made them come up with even better ideas, and more creative thinking for future problems.
Whenever you have a task ahead of you, make sure you take the time beforehand to plan out different ways to approach it, coming up with as many creative solutions as possible (even if they are far out). When you are done with the task, then take the time to see what you could have done differently. This will then feed into the creative thinking for your next project.
Give yourself some time
A myth of creativity is that it thrives under pressure. Though there are good examples of people coming up with unique solutions in extraordinary circumstances (see the story of NASA engineers during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), giving yourself time to think over a problem is far better for a creative solution.
This is called the incubation time, and seems to be crucial for real creativity. Allowing your mind to wander allows it to take all of the information you have learned (this part is crucial; if you haven’t put anything in, you will get nothing out) and play around with it, trying different ideas and creative solutions. This perceptual decoupling can aid your creative insight.
As can sleep. Scientists found that having a nap right after learning a task helped the subjects to understand the task better when they woke up. Having a short nap after you have taken in information allows you to remember and use that information better.
If you are having trouble coming up with creative ideas, make sure you take some time away from your desk, perhaps even in your bed, to allow your mind to rest, assimilate the information, and come up with new and better ideas.
Take a step back
Seeing a problem from another person’s perspective can also work as a creative strategy. This psychological distance is just like walking away for 5 minutes and giving yourself some time. You will start to see the problem from another viewpoint and that stimulates new ideas.
New York researchers studied how creative people were coming up with ways to get out of a prison. In the first task, the subjects were asked for ways they would themselves get out of prison, whereas in the second task, they had to help someone else escape. They were far more creative during the second task, when they were not mentally enclosed in a prison cell.
This is the same idea as the metaphor, think outside the box. When you are in the box, you feel restricted, both physically and mentally, but when you are outside your body and mind can flourish.
Whenever you come across an intractable problem, try and see it from someone else’s point of view, ideally different to yours to see if that helps you gain insight.
A lot of it. As I said above, if you do not have anything going into your mind, you are never going to get creative ideas out.
Research has shown that being exposed to different cultures can dramatically increase your creative abilities, as can exposure to any unusual or unexpected experiences. Any new information making its way into your brain can then be used to come up with new ideas. Even bad experiences, can help with creativity.
Try and get as much experience out in the world as possible. The very worst thing for creativity is the stagnation that you will feel trapped at a desk each day. Even reading crazy books can help spark some new creative thoughts.
Take some exercise
Exercise is as great for the mind as it is for the body.
The amount of history’s most creative minds that weaved a walk, a run, or even something more vigorous into their day is astonishing.
Not only are there the obvious health benefits (a healthy mind in a healthy body – exercise can help guard against mental illness, Alzheimer’s and memory loss), but being away from your desk and out in the fresh air (or the fresh gym) can allow you mind that wandering time it needs to come up with unique and creative thoughts.
In fact, changing you environment even slightly can help boost creativity. It all comes down to giving your brain something new to think about and consider.
Generally, we think the better your mood, the better you will work. This is true, and you will have your best insight and thoughts when your brain is not bogged down in depression. But bad moods, particularly conflict can be used to harness creativity. Jennifer George and Jing Zhou studied employees on an oil rig and found that creativity was at its highest when emotions were at their highest, but it didn’t matter whether they were positive or negative emotions.
So, if you find your emotions running high, try and find a way to harness those emotions into something positive, that will be creative and help your mental health.
02. What do the world’s most brilliant minds have in common?
They create a custom work routine and stick with it
Immanuel Kant got up at 5 a.m. every day. John Milton got up even earlier, at 4. It’s not that you have to get up that early, though there is evidence that the fuzziness you feel from getting up early increases your creativity, but that you should work out a good routine for you, and stick to it.
The regular 9-5 might not be the best thing for your own creativity, and, unless you are stuck to that through your company routine, you should feel free to work whenever is best for you. Determining your own routine is a case of trial and error, but can help you be more productive and more creative. Make sure to schedule in plenty of ‘down time’ as this is as important as work.
Having a routine also helps you avoid decision fatigue. By getting up at the same time, working at the same place, and knocking off at the right time, you are letting go of a lot of the minor decisions that you do not really have to make. Some people, like Einstein, even wore the same color suit each day, so he did not occupy his mind with such a trivial decision.
(Of course, make sure you are also getting out and away from this routine once in a while, changing your environment and getting some new experiences.)
They know what they don’t like
The best minds have always swam slightly against the tide. Highly creative people do not like to follow mindless rules and will try and break those rules if they think they are standing in the way of their goals.
To be creative, you have to make sure you understand what the rules are and how you can bend, if not break, them. If something is stopping you from expressing yourself, you should see whether you truly have to follow that rule to get where you are going (this isn’t an invitation to break the law!)
They take risks and they fail
Taking risks is vital for true creativity.
When you are trying something new, something expressive, you are going to fail more times than you succeed.
For the most creative people throughout history it is how they dealt with that failure that set them apart. As Soichiro Honda said ‘Success is 99 per cent failure’.
Because many people are frightened of failure, they are by relation frightened of creativity. It is only be being willing to fail that you can relax, have confidence your abilities, and express yourself freely, and succeed.
They aren’t afraid to ask questions
Being willing to admit that you don’t know everything is vital to creative success. Arrogance is almost the antithesis of creativity. If you want to be truly creative like the best minds, then you have to be curious and ready and willing to ask any questions, no matter how you will look to others.
When Elon Musk recently started the companies Tesla and SpaceX, he went out and got exactly the right people to enhance his knowledge and to bring ideas to the companies. It may be his vision and creativity driving those organizations, but they wouldn’t be anything without him willing to know when he needs the help of others.
Creativity grows with your knowledge, and the more ideas, experience, and knowledge that your mind has to play with, the more exciting and novel ideas and solutions it can come up with.
They follow their dreams
Don’t worry about what people tell you to do, do what you want. If you have a true desire, a true passion for a certain area, then it is in that field that your real creativity will blossom. The creative greats were great in their own fields because of that drive they had doing something they truly enjoyed and loved. But I doubt Einstein would have been a master baker, a great web designer, and certainly got a good interior decorator (Have you seen his desk?).
If you do something with true passion and love, then you will find that your creativity simply can’t be turned off, as you will think about that all day long and your mind will brimming with ideas.
03. What if I don’t work in a creative industry?
Well, let’s get something straight right off the bat – everyone works in a creative industry. For one, life itself is a creative endeavor and you can always use your newly learned creativity in any pastime, hobby, or recreation that you enjoy.
But also, any job can have a creative element. I doubt there is a person alive that hasn’t thought about a better way that their company or office could work. Guess what, that is your creativity at work. It is not all about wonderful paintings, poetry, or prose. Creativity is about coming up with new and exciting solutions to problems no matter where they are.
04. What are the most common creativity myths?
Creativity comes from the right brain
Argh! This is one of those myths that drive neuroscientists crazy! It is up there with the ‘we only use 10 per cent of our brains’ (the people that think that do). Some people believe that if the left-hand side of your brain is dominant you are more logical and thoughtful, and if your right-hand brain is more dominant you are more creative. No.
People are not left-brained or right-brained. Your brain does have specializations in certain areas, but the idea that one side is more dominant in certain people has been shown to be bunkum.
This myth does have a fascinating origin, going back to the very birth of modern neuroscience (so I guess we only have ourselves to blame), but creativity is a brain-wide trait, using areas of sensory cortex, higher level processing, language and memory – it takes your whole brain to make you creative, not just the right half (and certainly not just 10 per cent).
You need to brainstorm
Though brainstorming was once the en vogue method of corporate creativity, its time has now come and gone, with it shown to be effectively useless, and probably harmful for real creativity.
Studies have shown that brainstorming sessions end up leading towards a single, non-creative idea, normally one of the first ideas and certainly not usually one of the creative ones. If you want to get truly creative, then it is best to have sessions in smaller groups, or even individually first, before presenting ideas to the group.
One recent suggestion is to brain-write instead of brainstorm. Here everyone writes down their ideas before the meeting and then posts them on a whiteboard for critique and discussion. This means that the group can move past the obvious ideas to the most challenging and creative ones straight away and come up with novel ideas.
Pressure breeds creativity
Though some people do thrive on pressure, it’s not usually a good idea for creativity. It can work if the person thinks that what they are doing is important and that they are ‘on a mission’. A 2002 study looking at how companies use pressure in the work environment found that the best companies maintained high levels of creativity in their employees whether they were under pressure on not. When they were under pressure they thought that they’re on a mission and were set on fulfilling it. When they were not under pressure, they felt that they were ‘on an expedition’, and were allowed to explore different creative scenarios before coming up with the best solution.
Either way, it was the company ethos of instilling a cause in their employees that led to the creative output, rather than the pressure.
Only [x] are truly creative
Everybody can be creative, whether they work in a creative industry or not. Though society normally only deems artists as true creatives, if you work in an office, surgery, bank, garage, or florist you can be creative.
All areas need creative people to drive those industries and field forward – you could be just the creative genius your job has been waiting for.
It’s all about the “Eureka!” moments
This may be the most persistent of myths about creativity, that it comes as a singular moment of inspiration, where everything suddenly falls into place and the creative genius sees the light. Think of Archimedes in his bath, or Newton underneath his apple tree.
But this is not how it works. Newton spent years thinking about gravity, physics, and mathematics. He worked phenomenally hard at it and it was pretty much what he lived for. He developed his theories, laws and formulas over years, not just one day under a tree in Lincolnshire.
Creativity requires work. It requires a lot of thought, and lot of trial and error, and a lot of persistence. Over time you will get better at getting to the right, creative answer quickly, but it will never come as a single moment in time.
05. Which factors destroy creativity?
Teresa Amabile is the Director of the Harvard Business School and one of the world’s foremost researchers into how organizations foster creativity in their employees. In 1998, she looked at seven different companies and found that they all had drastically different ways of dealing with creativity, and that some seemed to be actively destroying it in their employees. She detailed six keys ways in which companies can turn creative people into drones.
The Wrong Job
A common mistake that companies make is that they just assign a new task to the next available employee, no matter whether the employee is really suited to the job or not. This ‘role mismatch’ means that either employees are not stretched enough, or end up out of their depth.
In any job, people need to feel like they are challenged, but that the goal is not out of their reach. This way they neither feel themselves stagnating, not feel themselves subsumed by overwork.
Managers need to understand the traits and skills of each of their employees and make sure they can match them to the tasks needed according to their skillset. This not only leads to a more efficient workplace, but more creativity from happier and more challenged employees.
Whenever there is a supposed outcome to the creative process then people feel more restricted. This means that they stop pushing themselves and just head straight for the preassigned goal without putting any thought into the process. Employees then don’t push themselves as far and everyone loses out.
Companies might do this by always rebuffing any new ideas from employees, or by constantly moving the goalposts so that the employees don’t know where they are.
Organizations should set goals for a project, but the more open-ended they are, the more likely employees will be creative.
As I said, pressure does not work for creativity, yet managers and companies continue to think that it does. They put unrealistic time constraints on their personnel to come up with new and exciting ideas, and are then unimpressed when the employees turn up with ill-conceived solutions.
People need enough time and resources to be able to perform the job. As companies are always concerned about the bottom line, they often try to get by with the least resources, restricting creativity by restricting the amount of time and resources they give their employees.
Companies that are really serious about fostering creativity in their employees need to make sure that their people have the time to think up new ideas
and are not put under undue pressure to come up with ideas quickly, and shoddily.
Lack of diversity
The siloed work environment that most offices have – coders with coders, designers with designers, admin with admin – means that monotony can easily set in in each of these little groups.
These groups get along very well, but partly because they are not challenging each other’s thinking. Each member of the group has the same viewpoint, so all ideas are the same. In this way, creativity ends up being kept at a minimum, even though each group might think of itself as creative.
The more diverse a group is, the more viewpoints will be seen and the more ideas generated. This takes longer and is more difficult to organize, so companies generally don’t do it, hampering creativity. But for companies that do, where anyone is allowed to chime in, and all different views are represented, tend to reward creativity and generate far better ideas.
If people think that there is going to be a cost, such as criticism, for coming up with a new idea then they will not be creative. Amabile found that some companies end up evaluating and criticizing their people so much that they have effectively driven creativity out of the company altogether.
Good companies do not punish their employees for coming up with novel ideas, even when those ideas don’t lead to anything, which is what happens most of the time. Companies need to encourage any and all ideas if they are to get true creativity from employees.
One of the reasons that small startups can often out-maneuver their bigger rivals is that these big companies are generally not set up for true creativity. Power struggles, office politics, and infighting are part and parcel of such organizations and these can be complete creativity killers, as the internal machinations of the company become more important, and individual creative employees do not have access to the support and resources they need simply because of personality issues within the company.
The more companies support collaboration between groups and the flow of information, the better for creativity.
Unleash Your Creativity Today
We still have a lot to learn about creativity. We still want to know exactly what goes on in the brain when you have an original thought, putting those spurious experiences together into something entirely new. We still want to know how all of our experiences, ideas, wants, and thoughts work together to come up with something unique.
But we are getting there. The main facts seem to be that the more you live life, the more creative you will be. It is nearly always better to be out in the world, experiencing, exercising, and thinking, than stressing at a desk. The more you enjoy life, the more likely you be able to summon more and more creativity.
These answers should show you how much power you have over your own creativity (and worryingly, how much power others have over your creativity as well). But the take-home message should be that whoever you are, and whatever you are doing, you have the ability to become a creative powerhouse, just as long as you can harness that creative energy within yourself.