The creative type


In the last post we talked about how to improve the accuracy of our self-perceptions in order to better manage others’ impressions of us. It led me to thinking about how our self-perceptions aggregate to form our self-image, and about the more broad categorizations we make about who we are. Self-image is something that begins to form at an early age and continues to shape our behavior throughout our lives.  From the time we start walking and talking, adults begin to shape our identity by what they praise and how they talk to us about our behavior and choices. Are we the creative artistic type, brainy math nerds, natural-born linguists? Over time our behavior becomes constrained to tighter and tighter orbits as we choose behaviors that reinforce these beliefs. This is a natural process by which we gain knowledge about ourselves and others. Our ability to understand and therefore predict our own and others’ behavior serves a useful social purpose – but sometimes these heuristics can backfire.

One broad generalization that can really hamper people concerns creativity. Take a moment to pull up your internal representation of a creative person. Do you picture an artist with paint smudged on their fingers, or someone sitting down to write a novel? Perhaps your definition is more expansive and includes people who create physical things, such as architects and woodworkers. If we consult people who have made the study of creativity their life’s work, however, we see the creativity is not just in the purview of the artists and craftsman, it is something we all possess. Creativity isn’t a personality type, but a problem-solving tool. It is a mental orientation toward perceiving and integrating information and using it to solve problems that we can all develop.

“The ability to make new combinations of social worth” –John Haefele, CEO and entrepreneur

“A special class of problem solving characterized by novelty” –Newell, Simon, & Shaw, team of logic theorists

“The emergence of a novel, relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual” –Carl Rodgers, psychologist and writer

“The occurrence of a composition which is both new and valuable” –Henry Miller, writer

“Creative thinking involves imagining familiar things in a new light, digging below the surface to find previously undetected patterns, and finding connections among unrelated phenomena.” –Roger von Oech

So you can be a creative genius whether you are an accountant or a plumber or consultant. In fact I would argue that to be good at what you do, no matter what it is that you do, you need to develop your ability to think creatively. The key is learning how to break out of existing frames or perspectives and seeing connections between things where no obvious connections exist. It may be true that there is nothing new under the sun, but we can link existing things together in novel ways. You can train your brain to become more flexible. It just requires practice:

  • Go further afield or find new pastures. Gathering information from a wide array of sources helps you see patterns and unexpected linkages. People have a tendency to always go to the same sources – we often get stuck in info-ruts, reading the same news website in the morning, going to the same guy in the accounting department when we have an issue to resolve, asking the same friends for relationship advice. Different sources will give you a different perspective on issues. Read, and read broadly – don’t just read the same industry publications – read broader business journals, read fiction, read poetry.
  • Call on your inner comedian and poet. A critical element in humor is surprise – something is funny when it violates our expectations, when it assembles things in a new way – sound familiar? The most prolific creative minds are not afraid of looking like a fool. Practice thinking about things in an off-the-wall fashion, making heavy use of symbols and metaphors: what would I think about this problem if I were my great-grandmother?  If this issue were an animal, how would you approach it?
  • Get cozy with ambiguity. Black and white thinking is the enemy of creativity – it tells us there is one right answer, and you’d better know what it is. It tells you that you can or should know everything objectively about the nature of a problem. How well can you roll with things? What assumptions can you challenge? What if this issue were actually it’s opposite? How would you proceed then?
  • Sprinkle variety into your days. They say variety is the spice of life, and it also feeds creativity. In the same way that we like to go to the same information sources, we tend to structure our days and work like we live on a factory farm. Jostle your routines, just a smidge, and you will be surprised how you can shift your frame.

You can also help others to be more creative by cultivating an environment that supports it. Creativity thrives in an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid of sticking their necks out – they are willing to offer whacky ideas because they know they won’t get shot down, ridiculed, or criticized. This also means rewarding people when they try something new, even if it fails. People need to be reinforced for challenging the status quo and questioning assumptions. Better minds than mine have written volumes on how to develop personal creativity and build creative work teams (you can find some here, here, and here). To my mind, however, the first roadblock to overcome is the notion that you just aren’t the creative type.