by Jeff Fajans, SHRM-SCP
“Without creativity, it would be difficult indeed to distinguish humans from apes.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Let’s face it – feeling like an ape is no fun. We all want to be more creative. Regardless of our profession or situation, we all strive to enrich our lives and our work through bringing forth unique value to the world. Many of us envy the world’s greatest innovators, wishing that we could think and act like they do.
But guess what? We can think and act like they do!
Thanks to decades of scientific research on eminent creators, we now know the basic underpinnings that make these geniuses so great – and we also know that anyone can adopt these elements into their own ways of thinking and behaving to take their creativity to new heights.
Below, I draw upon the scientific study of history’s most innovative creators and share with you my top 10 big ideas for helping you think and act like a creative genius.
1) Get Interested – Really Interested
The spark of the genius’s creative fire is simply being interested in something. Reallyinterested in something. Whether their interests are rooted in solving a specific problem, learning more about a field, or they just find something intriguing, all creative geniuses embrace their curiosities in what things are like and how they work.
Without such interest and curiosity, it is hard to become involved in an endeavor deeply enough to work through challenges and break through the status quo.
The first step to thinking and acting like a creative genius is to identify your interests. What is it that gets you excited? What are you curious about? What do you really wish to learn more about? The answers to these questions will set the foundation for your own personal genius to develop.
2) Embrace Personal Paradox & Complexity
Have you ever taken the Meyers-Briggs personality assessment? Cool. Now throw out your results immediately and don’t ever classify yourself as an ESTJ again. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi testifies that if there were one word to describe how the personalities of creative geniuses differ from others, it would be complexity.
By this he means that these creative geniuses demonstrate tendencies of thought and action that in most people are isolated. These geniuses, rather than having one personality “type,” actually have personalities that are much more paradoxical—instead of being one way or the other, these creative geniuses bring together and express the entire range of traits possible within the human experience. Embracing a complex and paradoxical personality does not mean being ambivalent. Rather it means having the capability to move from one extreme to the other as the situation requires in order to best achieve one’s goals.
You don’t really have to throw out your Meyers-Briggs results in order to be creative. But don’t limit yourself to one type or another. Instead, operate like a creative genius and adapt your self-perspective to one who can easily and comfortably shift between opposing personality poles.
Next, I get into some of the specific forms of complexity and paradox that creative geniuses use to their advantage.
3) Use Your Energy Like a Light Switch
Creative geniuses have the ability to channel great amounts of energy and concentration for long, focused hours of creative work. Yet they are not always “on.”
The creative genius balances long periods of focused attention towards his or her work with longer than normal rest periods. They exhibit a high degree of self-awareness in regards to their energy levels, turning themselves “off” by napping or retreating away from the busy world in order to recharge their creative juices.
When the creative genius is not demonstrating single-pointed attention towards the creative process or goal, he or she is most likely to be found in a calm, reflective state; or engaged with a creativity-boosting hobby.
In today’s world of 24/7 emailing and text messaging, this deliberate balance between being “on” or “off” is often lost. Yet, it is a key habit that one must implement if they want to think and act like a creative genius.
4) View the World Through the Lens of an Expert… But Also Think Like a Beginner
To think like a creative genius, it helps to be intelligent. But the relationship between intelligence and creativity is weaker than you might think. Research shows that beyond an IQ of 120, higher levels of IQ do not quite equate to higher levels of creativity.
In fact, being overly brilliant can actually be a detriment to creativity. Someone who is extremely intelligent may become complacent and overconfident in his or her mental superiority. This could unfortunately lead to lower levels of curiosity, playfulness, and exploration. They may simply stop learning because they feel they are already mentally superior.
Goethe has said that naiveté is the most important attribute of genius. Balancing a childlike curiosity and playfulness with refined wisdom is what separates the creative genius from the average human being. This balance allows the creative genius to generate lots of diverse, wild, and seemingly unrelated ideas (by using the lens of a beginner) and then to more effectively hone in on a well-defined problem or solution (by adopting the lens of the expert who knows what is most important).
5) Take Your Work Seriously… But Have Fun Doing It!
Creative geniuses most definitely approach their work with a playful attitude, yet this lightness can only take an idea so far. The ability to shift gears when appropriate into hardcore discipline mode is essential in order to draw forth the grit necessary to break through barriers and innovate.
The generating phase of creativity is often facilitated with playfulness, but the other side of the coin (and the one often not duly considered) is the ability to develop and evaluate what one generates. Discipline, brutal self-honesty, and seriousness may be needed in these later phases of the creative process in order to decide how to best apply one’s energy and attention.
6) Get Out and Socialize… But Stay Home By Yourself As Much as You Can, Too.
Most people view themselves as either an extrovert, someone who loves crowds and small talk, or an introvert, someone who prefers to be a bit more independent. Creative geniuses, on the other hand, seem to express both traits at the same time, or in equal amounts.
To get really creative and become an expert, one must spend long hours practicing and developing his or her skills, in large part isolated from the happenings of the world. Yet new research demonstrates that the highest levels of creativity are also associated with getting out into the world, exchanging ideas, and interacting with others.
Many creative geniuses even deliberately structure their time in ways to alternate between solitary, inner-directed reflection and intense social interaction. They know that they need both to operate at the highest levels of creativity.
7) Kick Ass and Take Names…But Be Sensitive About It
Creative geniuses to a certain extent are able to escape gender role stereotyping. Female creative geniuses tend to be more dominant and assertive compared to other females, and male creative geniuses tend to be more sensitive and considerate compared to other males.
In other words, these creative geniuses are confident, self-assertive, and able to metaphorically kick some serious ass, while at the same time being considerate to others and sensitive to the situation.
Not many people can operate with this type of complexity, but seeking out opportunities to develop your emotional and social intelligence is something to consider when desiring to boost your creativity. One way to boost your emotional and social intelligence is to sign up for data-driven, quantified coaching.
8) Be a Rebel…But Embrace the Rules
Creative geniuses are typically portrayed as iconoclastic rebels. In reality, however, each and every one of these creative geniuses had to first embrace and learn the rules of their particular domain. Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Each creative genius believes in the importance of their domain of expertise; hence, to a certain extent, each creative genius is also a traditionalist.
Being only traditionalistic leads to more of the status quo, whereas constantly taking wild chances without regard to what has been valued or accomplished in the past almost never leads to innovation.
To harness this paradoxical attribute of creative geniuses, one must know the rules and what has been done before, yet at the same time be willing to bend these rules in order to take the domain and oneself to new creative heights.
9) Be Passionate…But Objective
Ever watch American Idol? If so, you know there are quite a few people out there who are extremely passionate, yet lack the self-honesty needed to become superstars (e.g. worst audition ever). In his interviews with over 90 of the world’s most eminent creators, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi noted that this paradoxical tension between attachmentand detachment to one’s work is a primary driver of innovation.
Without the passion, we soon lose interest in difficult tasks (like spending the time necessary to fully develop and evaluate ideas), but without being objective and honest with ourselves, we can never truly learn to work around our personal constraints and fully leverage our strengths. Being able to detach from their work (and even criticizing and tearing it to shreds), is a critical skill that the creative genius utilizes regularly.
10) Make Plans…But Never Stick to Them
Creative geniuses spend a lot of time planning, reflecting, and strategizing about what to do next; however, they also have the uncanny ability to quickly throw these plans out in light of new information or promising opportunities.
Creative geniuses know that creativity isn’t a black-and-white, linear process.Instead the world’s greatest innovations are typically the result of an emergent, zig-and-zag-like process.
Much like how many of the world’s most successful startups “pivot” in order to survive and grow, creative geniuses know that regardless of how much they plan, sticking rigidly to these plans will result in missed opportunities that could have been leveraged towards true innovation.
This is not to say planning isn’t crucial – it just implies that one never has all the information at the beginning of a creative project in order to innovate. If you do have complete information, it is time to re-evaluate what you are doing, because you likely are not really doing anything that creative.