“Contradict yourself!” Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and Carolyn Gregoire, senior writer at the Huffington Post, offer that valuable piece of advice to those seeking to be creative. Their new book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind provides a compelling description of ten habits, skills, and personality dimensions of the creative person. This book, inspired by a widely popular article by Gregoire, is sure to resonate with any individual who feels the urge to create and will be informative for educators who seek to inspire habits of creativity in others.
The stages of creativity have traditionally been defined as progressing from a period of knowledge gathering and preparation for insight, to an incubation period in which ideas form out of conscious awareness, to illumination in which there is a creative breakthrough, and finally to verification in which the idea is tested. Kaufman and Gregoire argue that this model describes the messy creative process too cleanly. The creative process requires disciplined switching between rational and imaginative thinking, each of which is supported by distinct networks in the brain. The creative person harbors paradoxes, prefers complexity, extracts order from disorders, takes risks, perseveres, and feels passion.
Kaufman and Gregoire assert that a drive for exploration and an openness to new experiences may be the most essential force for enabling creative achievement. Dopamine, which the authors dub “the mother of human invention” is the neurotransmitter that urges us to explore. Creative people explore by enjoying artistic and imaginative hobbies outside of their domain of expertise and engaging in intellectual “cross-training”—learning ideas from across disciplines. Creativity is enhanced when we have novel experiences, whether those experiences are cross-cultural exchanges or simply driving home from work using an unusual route.
Creative people do not think of work and play as divorced; they do not pit effort and inspiration against one another. Playful adults are less stressed and more successful. For children imaginative play enhances creativity, but youth today have too little time for free, uninstructed play. Like play, experiencing passion is important. Passionate children are more likely to grow into creative adults, especially if they pursued a “harmonious passion” out of a deep curiosity and love of the activity. Inevitably, creative pursuits will present hurdles, but possessing an image of oneself as someone who will overcome any obstacle to achieve her creative dream can help one realize that dream.
Day dreaming is typically characterized as a costly distraction from important learning and instruction. Kaufman and Gregoire argue that in its positive constructive form day dreaming is valuable for planning one’s future, engaging in self-reflection, and even feeling compassion for others. They praise the uninterrupted sick-in-bed day, the long hot shower, or the leisurely walk in nature, all of which are known to have spurred creative insights. The advantage these activities confer may be in part because they are solitary. As many artists know, alone time is critical for developing emotional maturity and a sense of oneself. Indeed, it is when we are alone that the brain network that enables creativity is most likely to be active. Aloneness can help us hear more clearly our inner intuitions and gut feelings, which are valuable guides.
In the vein of the contradictory creative process, as valuable as day dreaming is, the opposite, mindfulness, facilitates creativity also. When we are mindful, we experience more of life by focusing on what we observe. Indeed mindfulness has been shown to increase activation in the brain network that supports imagination. Just a few minutes of meditation before a test can boost performance. One step we can take towards increasing mindfulness is to put our smartphones down and spend less time “grazing” on social media.
Creative people are typically more sensitive. They respond strongly to emotional, cognitive, and physical stimuli. Sensitivity allows the creative person to make herself vulnerable, which can help produce creative achievements. Sensitive individuals who are reared in harsh conditions, may experience that upbringing as even harsher than less sensitive others would. The suffering artist is a common trope; it is true that people who have experienced adversity are inclined to express themselves creatively as this can be a way of coping with and making meaning of that adversity.
Being a creative person in our society takes tremendous courage and perseverance. It means breaking from the crowd, contradicting norms, and taking risks. Often the external reward for doing so, if it ever comes, is delayed. Nonetheless, as Kaufman and Gregoire show, we all benefit when we laud creativity in all its messy, contradictory beauty.
Kaufman, S.B. & Gregoire, C. (2015). Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. NY, NY: Perigee, Penguin Random House LLC.