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Whether it’s at work or in our free time, many of us would love to learn how to be creative. Coming up with great ideas and new perspectives is a blast.
But “thinking different” is not something we really get taught in school. So how do you become an innovator? I called an expert to find out.
Scott Barry Kaufman is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the co-author of the great new book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.
Scott has some amazing (and easy) tips on how you can be more innovative. And something else you’ll learn is how a creative mindset can lead you to a happier, more meaningful life. Let’s get to it…
What did Scott say is the #1 thing to keep in mind if you want to be more creative? Be open to new experiences. Here’s Scott:
My data so far suggests “openness to experience” is the number one thing to cultivate for both personal meaningful creativity and world changing creativity. What that means is constantly challenging yourself beyond your comfort zone, constantly questioning assumptions, being intellectually curious, and appreciating beauty. Personal growth is intimately tied to openness to experience.
“Openness to experience” sounds fancy. What’s that mean for you and me? Try new stuff. Here’s Scott:
It’s important to encounter new and unusual experiences. It really helps with your cognitive flexibility. Any exposure to things that take you out of your normal way of viewing the world really increases cognitive flexibility, and is a core part of creativity.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, you’re open to new stuff. But what are some concrete things you can do today to be more creative?
Yeah, it’s that simple. Just going for a walk, preferably in nature, can be a big creativity booster. Here’s Scott:
Our most creative ideas don’t tend to come when we’re consciously focused on the problem. Great insights come through interacting with people, gaining experiences and letting your mind make connections. There are various ways of allowing those unconscious connections to bubble forth to consciousness, and getting in touch with nature and movement are really important.
When did Tesla come up for the idea for alternating electric currents? During a stroll. It’s estimated William Wordsworth walked 180,000 miles in his lifetime. And Nietzsche once said:
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.
So be a creative Übermensch and go for a walk.
(To learn the single most proven way to get smarter and happier, click here.)
Okay, you went for your walk. What’s another dead simple way to increase creativity? Well, if you’re sweaty from that hike it might be time to…
And if you’re the boss, you may want to install showers at the office. Sound crazy? Scott found 72% of people have new ideas in the shower — in fact, far more often than when they’re at work. Here’s Scott:
We did this international study and found that more people reported having great insights in their shower than they did at work. Disconcerting, I guess. It seemed like there’s definitely some benefits to being in a relaxed state.
In an interview, Woody Allen once said:
In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.
(To learn the work habits that nearly every creative genius has in common, click here.)
You got a hot shower and you’re looking good. Time to hang out with friends? Wrong…
Turns out a little bit of solitude has powerful positive effects on your brain. Here’s Scott:
Neuroscientists discovered a brain region called the “default mode network”, but we refer to it as “the imagination network” in the book. Solitude does a good job at stimulating it. Taking an extra pause for reflection, turning inward and making meaning of your experiences turns out to be absolutely critical for compassion as well as imagination.
But do you need to be a hermit to be creative? Far from it. There’s a time for solitude and for collaboration.
Research has found that creative people frequently require solitude in order to generate interesting new ideas, and then turn to collaboration to spin those ideas into a coherent concept or product.
(To learn the 4 rituals that neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
You’re getting some time to yourself. Nice. But when you need to be creative how should you be thinking?
Many have speculated about the connection between mental illness and creativity. Scott says you do not need to be mentally ill to be creative but there is some overlap between the relevant traits. Creative writers do score high on measures of psychopathology — but they also score high on measures of psychological health.
Barron and Donald MacKinnon found that the average creative writer was in the top 15 percent of the general population on all measures of psychopathology covered by the test. But here’s the kicker: they also found that creative writers scored extremely high on all the measures of psychological health…
So what’s the takeaway here? You don’t need to have a mental disorder but thinking like an outsider, like someone new to your field, is often enough of a perspective shift to start the innovation gears in your head cranking. Here’s Scott:
Even within your own field you can harness an outsider’s mindset, where you’re making sure that your ideas and the things you’re working on really come from your own identity and value system. Creative people are really good at seeing past the traditions of their field to a different horizon.
What’s a simple way to do it? Think like a kid. Kids are always trying new things and approaching things differently. “Thinking like a kid” being an imagination booster is a very romantic notion, but it’s also backed by research.
(To learn the four principles that will lead you to breakthrough creativity, click here.)
Okay, you’re officially a rebel outsider. But that doesn’t always instantly produce innovation. What should you do when everything above fails?
Creating new things, especially things that are new and useful, takes time. Don’t give up. Research shows that more attempts leads to more creativity. Here’s Scott:
The greatest creative geniuses of all time have been shown to have created the largest amount of total stuff in their life. The more you make, the higher your chance of eventually producing a masterpiece.
Sometimes we have to try things just to figure out what we want to do. As Peter Sims says, it’s a matter of making “little bets” and seeing where they lead. To quote Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson:
The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.
(To learn how to be more resilient, from a Navy SEAL, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot from Scott. Let’s round it up and also see how creativity doesn’t just improve work and play — it can also lead to an awesome life…
Here’s what we can learn from Scott about how to be creative:
So what happens when you spend more time being creative? When you spend more time daydreaming, taking photographs, talking passionately about personal goals or keeping a journal? You live a better life.
They also report a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to those who are less engaged in these everyday creative behaviors.
Some will say they can’t live creatively. Their job is boring. Or they’re too busy with other things. But we can approach anything with an inventive spirit. And very creative people agree.
In the same way that there’s an art to crafting surfboards or an art to designing cars, there’s an art to pumping gas or being a garbage man. No matter how much you’re being paid or what you’re doing as a career, you need to embrace the art of it and not be afraid of the artist in you… Find the art in everything you do.
Enough of my blabbing. Get out there and try new things. (Or just take a hot shower.) Creativity isn’t just making paintings or writing sonnets, it can also be your path to a better life.
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