Being more creative is possible, but it takes work

Do you desire to be a more creative person but don’t think you have the “creative” gene? You may have some hard work ahead, but it’s possible to become the next Walt Disney or Martha Stewart, according to R. Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor of education and of psychology, both in Arts & Sciences.

“No one is born highly creative,” Sawyer said. “Psychologists studying creativity have discovered that it is based on cognitive processes we all share. Creativity is not the result of some magic brain region that some people have and others don’t.”

Sawyer’s latest book, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, is a seminal overview of the history of creativity and of research into traits that highly creative people all share.

Designed as a textbook for his course “Psychology of Creativity,” Explaining Creativity is a general overview of the science of creativity for anyone who wants to know more about it. In the book, Sawyer outlines some of the myths that many of us hold about creative people.

“When people say they aren’t creative, it’s because of some false ideas about creativity that we hold as a society,” Sawyer said. “One myth is that if you’re a creative person it’s a trait and everything you touch turns to gold. That’s not the way creativity works.

“It’s not some magical trait. You have to work hard to be a more creative person. You have to be diligent.”

Collaboration is key

It’s a myth that creative people “have pierced body parts and tattoos and they sleep at odd hours and maybe they are not socially smooth or skilled — maybe they are loners.”

Actually, when researchers study creative people, Sawyer said, they find that most of them are normal, happy and healthy.

“Another myth about creativity that many people in our society believe is that there is a link between mental illness and creativity,” he said.

Sawyer added that many people have a vision of highly creative people as “lone geniuses.”

“In reality,” he said, “creative people network with other people. A lot of creativity happens through collaboration. Much of my own research focuses on the relationship between collaboration and creativity.

“In today’s technological society, many of the more important or popular creative products are made by large organizations,” he added. “For example, PlayStation video games are created by a team of more than 100 people.”

Sawyer insists that to be creative, one has to have organizational structure and collaboration.

“If you are a loner in a room somewhere doing your own thing, you aren’t going to be employed very long,” Sawyer said. “Video games are just one example. Think of any major creative organization. Increasingly over the past 20-50 years, the important kinds of creativity and innovation have involved large groups of people.”

But the myth of the lone genius still persists because many people, when they think of the stereotypical creative-type person, think of the ultimate lone genius — the poet.

“People see poets as being very solitary and yet very creative,” Sawyer said. “Many people think all a poet needs is a pencil and some paper and he or she never has to talk to anyone. People tend to view painters the same way. They think all the artist needs is a canvas and paint and he or she doesn’t require social interaction.”

However, he said, research shows that even writers and painters are very social and they spend a lot of time interacting with other people. “They have to get ideas from somewhere,” he added.

Some conventions needed

Another myth about creativity held by many is that creativity is the opposite of convention and constraint.

“Many people think the best way to be creative is to break all the rules; anytime you are constrained or limited, that will get in the way of creativity,” Sawyer said. “That’s just not true. In fact, creativity could not happen in the absence of convention.”

An example of this is something as basic as musical creativity.

“All music, at least in the West, is based on 12 tones and has certain rhythmic patterns,” Sawyer said. “There are structures to songs and a finite number of instruments are available. Those are all conventions for creating music.

“You wouldn’t say that a composer is not creative because he composed a tune in the 12-tone scale. We don’t insist that every composer make up a whole new scale. We don’t insist that every composer invent his own instruments.

“Music wouldn’t exist without this complicated set of conventions that we often don’t even think of as conventional. Musicians never get frustrated because they only have 12 notes in the scale. Writers don’t get upset because they only have 26 letters to use.”

Many people don’t realize they’re being creative by just carrying on a conversation.

“Everyday conversation is a great example of creativity that everyone does on a daily basis,” Sawyer said. “There’s a lot of give and take, and everyone is listening to everyone else.

“You hear what your partner says and really absorb that and build on it. So a good conversation is truly collaborative and emerges from what everyone is doing together.”

How can I be creative?

So what’s the secret to becoming more creative?

“You can’t be creative without knowing a lot about what you are trying to be creative in,” Sawyer said. “You can’t just decide to be creative in something. Really creative people spend a lot of time in preparation.

“For example, it takes a long time to become a good jazz musician. It’s not something you do on your first try. If you try to sit in with a band before you’re ready, you’ll get booed off in a hurry. It’s like that with nearly every creative domain.”

If you want to be creative, Sawyer said, spend a lot of time learning about the subject and what others have done before.

“Network and find out who else is working in the area,” he said. “A lot of good creativity comes from collaboration. Creativity takes a lot of time and hard work.”

Sawyer thinks much of the difference between highly creative people and the rest of us is hard work and work habits.

“Creative people work hard but they also work smart,” he said. “There is a certain way they structure their work habits. They structure their day so they alternate between hard work and time off. Researchers call it ‘idle time.’

“A common pattern for creative people is to work hard in the morning and then take some time away during lunch to take a walk or garden or ride a bike.

“A lot of creative people have their great ideas when they take time away from their work. Idle time allows them to think of their problems in new ways. People talk about the ‘aha’ moment emerging when you are doing something else.”

Sawyer said that the brain processes we use for creativity are based on the same building blocks that we all use every day, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower or fixing breakfast.

“The story of the man who invented Velcro is a good example,” Sawyer said. “He was taking a walk with his dog, and the dog got a burr stuck in his fur. The guy examined a burr under a magnifying glass and noticed the little hooks.

“He had the idea that a string of similar tiny hooks could be used as a clothing fastener, replacing the zipper. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic idea.

“We all have ability to see the burr in the dog’s fur,” Sawyer added, “but the more creative person is able to make the connections more easily. Creative people are able to gain insight by forming an analogy between two things that seem really dissimilar.”