Everyone has creative potential. Here’s how to nurture your creativity and why we need it now more than ever.
Creativity is elusive. It transcends definition and vanishes if summoned. It’s a mustang kind of a thing. It kicks and bucks and hardens and runs at even the whisper of a bridle. The celebrated musician Tom Waits says creativity is a scared bird that only comes to you after you’ve spent months waiting for it in the woods.
Creativity’s elusiveness is the reward. Ingenuity wouldn’t be coveted if it came easily and at will.
Still, creativity in the United States has plummeted since 1990, according to landmark research conducted by Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary.
Kim analyzed the results of more than 300,000 Torrance tests – the gold standard for testing creativity – and found the decrease to be “significant” and “serious.” At the same time, an IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs called creativity the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future.
In other words, what the United States is hemorrhaging is also what the United States needs most.
In this age of artificial intelligence, automation, programmatic this and hyper-efficient that, the need to foster creativity is urgent. We don’t have time to wait for a reclusive muse. The world’s most productive market, if creatively underdeveloped, would become so bland there would be no good ideas left to produce.
Luckily, science has given us insight to arrest creative atrophy and increase creative potential – to tame the mustang and embolden the timorous bird. The good news is, nurturing creativity can be simple and fun.
What is creativity, anyway?
Most contemporary experts agree creativity isn’t about creation at all. It’s about connection – the ability to see solutions in the novel linking of disparate things. Creativity is also about the ability to see the right problems in the first place, usually problems others don’t see. In the New York Times bestseller A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, author Nassir Ghaemi describes creativity as the sum of four essential parts: 1) problem framing, 2) integrative complexity, 3) divergent thinking and 4) extended effort.
If we nurture each of these, we enhance creative potential. I’ll use well-known examples to help illustrate how.
Find the problem
“Problem framing,” or the ability to isolate the right problem to solve, is the make-or-break first step in the creative process. Until the middle of the last century, physicists were still drunk on Newton’s laws of motion.
Then a patent clerk named Einstein became unsettled – Newton’s laws didn’t hold up when applied to light. Einstein saw problems no one else did; this forced him to ask the right questions. If not for Einstein’s problem-framing ability, we wouldn’t have relativity, particle theory or E=mc². Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask.”
To improve problem-framing ability, a regular habit of picture-taking and meditation will do. Evidence suggests photography improves problem-framing because photography is the literal act of reframing. The d.school – a Stanford University program designed to develop creative potential in students ¬– teaches empathy: the ability to consider things from many perspectives by, as the novelist Harper Lee says, getting in someone else’s skin and walking around a bit. Studies show meditation increases empathy.
“Integrative complexity” is the ability to see connections between disparate things. In the form of metaphor, it’s one reason Shakespeare is the best-remembered playwright – his ability to connect the most powerful human experience to the most accessible, everyday things. “Life is but a walking shadow,” “all the world is a stage,” “now is the winter of our discontent” and so on. These universal connections make his stories accessible the world over, almost exclusive of origin or creed.
Gen. Robert E. Lee’s integrative complexity was higher than that of generals he defeated handily, including Hooker, McClellan and Burnside. Only one general’s integrative complexity was greater than Lee’s – Ulysses S. Grant, the general who defeated Lee.
Studies show that travel is a powerful way to increase integrative complexity. Multicultural experiences enhance our ability to see connections we didn’t know existed. It may be novelty, however, that is most effective – not seeing new things, but seeing old things in new ways. Change the order of your morning routine, drive to work via different routes, order something unexpected at the restaurant – all can help strengthen integrative complexity.
“Divergent thinking” is the process of generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, and doing so in a short time. The Apollo 13 crew was saved in part by well-honed divergent thinking.
Using nothing but items available on the crippled spacecraft, engineers at mission control in Houston devised makeshift repairs that the Apollo 13 crew executed, which allowed them to continue to breathe. Within just 24 hours, a team of six University of Texas engineers using slide rules figured out how to prevent the astronauts from being burned up on re-entry into earth’s atmosphere.
Divergent thinking is more like destruction than creation – obliterating subpar solutions at warp speed until only brilliant ones remain.
To expand your divergent thinking, walking works best, studies show. You can walk anywhere you like – a track, treadmill or trail. The act of walking itself is what matters, not the environment. It’s no coincidence that legendary tech icons Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg both took meetings on foot.
When asked about his secret to success, Ted Turner often one-lines, “Work like hell and advertise.” Charles Darwin attributed his achievements to “doggedness.” Science agrees. In their book The Psychology of Creativity and Discovery, Richard Mansfield and Thomas Busse unpack creativity as a two-step process involving only “problem selection” and “extended effort” – in other words, grit.
Finding purpose is the best way to increase grit. In the book Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance, researcher Angela Duckworth writes, “Grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.”
Seek creativity near those people, places and things that matter to you. At the end of the day, science shows us, creativity does require both inspiration and perspiration – both imagination and grit.
Duke Greenhill is vice president of creative and strategy at J.O., a full-service marketing and PR firm. He writes about creativity and a hodge-podge of topics for Fast Company, the Harvard Review, HubSpot and others.