Even if half of us refer to creativity as a rare trait that only the other half has, in reality, creativity is much like a muscle: the more we use it, the more creative we become.
“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College. In 2010, creativity was the go-to quality for achieving success for most of the 1,500 executives who took part in a survey at IBM.
The modern economy needs, more than ever, creative skills. The fourth industrial revolution incorporates smart technologies and transforms not only the economy and jobs, but our entire society. According to the World Economic Forum, the three most important skills for employment in the context of the fourth industrial revolution are creativity, solving complex problems, and critical thinking.
At least 60% of current jobs involve performing tasks that can be automated, according to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. But while many manual jobs fall to automation, and machines will be able to take them on faster or more efficiently, creativity remains firmly in the human domain.
We can all be creative
We tend to see creativity as a rare trait that painters, writers, and artists have—in general, people cut from a different cloth than “the rest of us”. This is because we do not distinguish between radical and incremental creativity, two forms of creativity that have been studied by researchers Lucy L. Gilson and Nora Madjar of the University of Connecticut. While the former is the most visible and popular form of creativity, the latter is the more accessible form, which is based on the practice, enhancement and improvement of creative skills.
In the end, we will be more prepared to approach major changes creatively if we understand creativity as an ingredient that is infused, in different doses, into everything we do.
We tend to be ecstatic about creativity that revolutionises a certain field or has amazing results, as in the case of innovators, while we quietly manifest our creativity without even realising it, when we find new ways to solve common problems. So writes Jeff Mazz, co-author of the book Creativity Inc, explaining the difference between the two types of creativity. In fact, according to Mazz, creativity manifests itself daily, and we can train it exactly as we train our bodies in the gym.
We think quite narrowly about creativity, points out the psychologist Teresa Amabile, emphasising the need to notice the moments and the way we use our creativity, even if it is only in changing a recipe in the kitchen.
Whenever we cross the threshold of routine, we manifest our creativity. And even if this will not appear in any encyclopedia and will not bring the fame that radical creativity usually brings, this creative effort offers a kind of pleasure similar to the one felt by first-class creators, says Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor at Harvard University.
“Creativity is not the result of the activity of magical regions of the brain that some have and others do not,” says R. Keith Sawyer, professor of education and psychology. People think of themselves as not creative because of the myths that circulate about creativity, myths that Sawyer deconstructs in his book Explicating Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.
Creativity, through the lens of myth
One of these myths is that creative people have the gift of turning whatever they touch into gold. But Sawyer says that, in fact, creativity works quite differently. No person is born extremely creative. Rather, creativity is achieved through a lot of exercise, based on a series of common cognitive processes, emphasises the teacher.
The portrait of a creative person is also very distorted: we associate creators with loneliness, maybe even isolation, body tattoos, an atypical lifestyle, and perhaps even addictions. In reality, Sawyer says, very creative people are often normal, happy, and sociable people. Writers don’t just need paper and pencil (or a screen and a keyboard), just as painters aren’t people who live only among canvases and colours, because each of them needs human interaction, and the ideas that are born in these interactions.
Another myth is that there is a connection between creativity and mental illness. Although Hollywood has exploited the theme of a close correlation between the two variables, the truth is that most people with creative skills are people with normal mental health.
In the case of the writer Sylvia Plath, who suffered from depression, the writing flowed more easily and her creativity manifested its presence better in the periods when she was not depressed, according to her own statements.
Another myth holds that one that equates creativity with the violation of all rules, based on the idea that rules constrain creativity. “In fact, creativity would not have been born in the absence of convention,” says Sawyer, who argues his claim by the example of musicians who can create even if they use the limited range of just 12 existing tones and rhythm patterns.
The conclusion we reach by demolishing the myths about creativity is that anyone can be creative, because the development of this skill is more related to our willingness to develop it than to any gene of creativity. This conclusion is simple, yet demanding at the same time: sustained work, a generous budget of time, and a smart structuring of work, alternating between hard work and free time.
How to improve your creativity
The most important thing about creativity is learning to develop and apply it in everyday life, says Roger Firestien, a professor at the University of Buffalo and the author of several books on the subject. We need to learn “how to make creativity happen, instead of just waiting for it to surface. Inspiration doesn’t have to hit you.”
Creative thinking has to do with exploration, and this is one of the reasons why creativity decreases with age. As the years go by, our experience builds up and we tend to ignore the evidence that contradicts our view of the world, says psychology professors Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths.
When we solve a problem, we look for solutions related to those we have already tested, and we neglect unusual ideas and solutions, which could lead to something completely new, and whose trial and error, we expect, would take a lot of time.
So, as we get older, we focus less on exploration and more on exploiting the knowledge we already have. Creativity, however, requires curiosity and the willingness to take a fresh look at an image that we already know in detail. The ability to see things in a new way helped Paul MacCready, a prolific American inventor, to build the Gossamer Condor in 1977, and fulfill his dream of building the first human-powered aircraft capable of controlled and sustained flight.
“To design Condor, I had to pretend I had never seen a plane before,” said MacCready, noting that too much knowledge about what didn’t work in the past, and what can’t work now, only prevents us from trying as many things as possible.
Redefining failure is one of the successful techniques used by creative people. “I’m an absolute evangelist of the value of failure as part of creativity,” said Brad Keywell, co-founder of Groupon. Keywell believes that universities too often model stereotypical thinking, with academics being accustomed to running away from failure.
Creative thinking takes advantage of the “golden hour.” The fate of a new idea is decided by the moments after it appears, writes Professor Tom Sturges, author of Every Idea is a Good Idea: How Songwriters and Other Working Artists Get it Done. Such an idea should not be dissected immediately, but should be noted, drawn, shared, and outlined well enough so that its author can return to it later, to analyse its potential.
Other key components of creativity
A positive mood, particularly the practice of humour, is a means of preparing the brain for finding new solutions. A study led by researcher Karuna Subramaniam, of Northwestern University, showed that a good mood among volunteers participating in a creative problem-solving test increased the likelihood of finding a solution (the “aha” moment). Subjects who watched a comedy before the test solved the tasks better and proved to be more creative than those who had watched a horror movie, or a lecture on quantum electronics.
Research has shown that while only certain areas of the brain are activated in response to various emotions, the entire brain is working to appreciate a joke. Humour also relaxes, leading to perceptual flexibility, an important component of creativity.
Exercise increases creativity, said a series of studies by researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz. A group of volunteer students were asked to complete creativity tests in a room with a deliberately untidy appearance, equipped with a treadmill. The researchers found that while walking on the treadmill at a quiet, preselected pace, looking only at a white wall, the students scored 60% better on the tests.
A subsequent study showed that this effect of walking on creativity is maintained when returning from an outdoor walk. The ability of subjects to generate creative ideas was significantly improved compared to the period before the walk. The mechanism by which a short walk intensifies the mental processes related to creativity is still unclear. Oppezzo believes the effect could be due to improved mood (which is fertile ground for creativity) or the fact that walking allows the brain to pass “through some hyper-rational filters.”
Everyday creativity and spontaneity
“Every day we use language to formulate sentences that have never been uttered. We express thoughts that have never been expressed. All of this is so deeply rooted that we don’t see the creativity involved here,” says Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.
Although it is not known exactly what happens in our brains when we are creative, studies show that we can increase our creativity by exercising it as often as possible. With a little effort, we can transpose ourselves into a mental state that favours divergent thinking (characterised by the ability to generate multiple solutions—some ingenious—to the same problem). Creativity can be trained and developed using this type of thinking more frequently (we often use convergent thinking, which is analytical and helps us to solve a situation where the given data are clear).
Everyday creativity produces an upward spiral of good moods and “flourishing”, concluded a study by researchers at the University of Otaga, New Zealand.
Volunteers kept a daily diary of experiences and emotional states and were involved in creative activities such as drawing, painting, writing (poetry or fiction), knitting, crocheting, graphic and digital design, or composing musical pieces.
“Engaging in creative behavior increases the good mood the next day, and this mood increases the likelihood of participating in a creative activity that day,” said researcher Tamlin Conner, noting that the study shows the role of daily creativity in good emotional functioning.
A man sweeping the street should do his job “just as Michelangelo painted, Beethoven sang, or Shakespeare wrote lyrics,” wrote Martin Luther King, referring to the importance of a job well done. Just as no activity is too insignificant to be done conscientiously, life cannot and must not become so routine that we drain it of creativity. The novelty of a recipe, the originality of an idea, and the spontaneity of a holiday plan are stimuli that transform daily life into a fascinating journey, in which we embrace the fresh miracles that wait for us, even on the most beaten paths.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.