“If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.”
“If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.”
How does anyone become successful at thinking creatively, of generating novel and valuable ideas?
In evaluating what causes creativity, research and anecdotes indicate that there are several important attributes, including: curiosity and openness to new experiences, resourcefulness, ability to be observant, personal drive to take initiative, grit or perseverance, confidence, among others (including some level of luck as well as natural talent).
But which of these traits actually matter for creative success?
In an article published on Entrepreneur.com, author James Clear argues that grit is the number one defining element of geniuses:
“How do creative geniuses come up with great ideas? They work and edit and rewrite and retry and pull out their genius through sheer force of will and perseverance. They earn the chance to be lucky because they keep showing up…No single act will uncover more creative powers than forcing yourself to create consistently…”
Grit, Clear explains, is what allows creative geniuses to keep pressing on through failures and bad ideas in order to uncover truly valuable concepts.
We see evidence of the value grit – or persistence – plays in any form of success: from sports and academia, to business and relationships. But grit’s particular appeal for creative success has long been spotlighted, most notably from Thomas Edison, who famously quipped: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Creativity, it appears, absolutely requires diligent work.
Neuroscience researcher and creativity author Jonah Lehrer echoes this sentiment in his 2012 talk at the 99u conference for creatives. Lehrer explains why grit is the most important attribute for creatives to have if they want to be successful:
“Grit is not just about stubborn persistence. It’s also about choosing the right goal in the first place. … The unfortunate reality is that it’s not all going to happen. How can we make sure all our struggle and sacrifice will be worth it? Make sure it passes the underwear test.”
Lehrer tells us the underwear test works like this: think about your underwear for a minute…
“Do you feel it? Are you conscious of it? Of course not. That’s because you’ve adapted to the feel of underwear, habituated to the touch of cotton on your bum…What does this have to do with grit and long-term goals? Well, the only dreams worth pursuing are those that pass the underwear test. These are the pursuits that don’t bore us, even after we put in 10,000 hours of practice.”
No matter what your endeavor may be: if you aren’t invested to make it through the work until the end, you don’t stand a chance at succeeding. Grit matters.
This is especially true for creativity, which regularly entails the act of encountering false positives or discouraging results. For example: Thomas Edison and his team of inventors tested some thousand or more variations of filament for their lightbulb before ending up with the unique carbon version.
Many inventors worked on their own versions of the lightbulb, but it was Edison and his team who stuck through countless experiments in order to wind-up at the most promising (at the time) conclusion.
Edison’s belief in the 99% of having a good idea entailing diligent work would seem appropriate.
But what exactly is grit, and what is the role it plays in creative ability?
MacArthur Genius grant receiver and psychologist Angela Duckworth – whose work is the primary focus in the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character – explains:
“Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.”
Duckworth continues to explain how understanding the changing structure of both our minds and the problems we work on impacts grit:
“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
This is a crucial point: grit matters when it’s aligned with the understanding that our abilities – our talents and efforts – are continuously changing.
When the ability to keep working, even in the face of failure, is paired with the understanding that concepts, opinions, and processes can change, creative likelihood increases.
Then we encounter arguments against the value of grit in creative success, such as that from associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman. Grohman explains that grit doesn’t come into play until after the creative work has already started. How can grit matter, Grohman argues, if no action has taken place to begin with? “Creative achievement and grit, intellectual creativity and grit, everyday creativity and grit: no effects whatsoever.”
The problem, Grohman explains, is that the role grit plays in creative success is defined by a person’s ability to take action in the first place. To Grohman, openness to new experiences is the defining trait that makes creative successes possible.
There’s undoubtedly truth to this (seemingly counter) belief as well: being open to try new things – one of the big five personality traits – allows creativity to thrive. Without new experiences, without being open to new possibilities in our work, our brains have limited information upon which to build and explore.
Over at the 99u website, psychologist Art Markman defines it as: “the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.”
In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman explains how openness is one of the single most common attributes in creative geniuses.
On BusinessInsider.com, Drake Baer discusses the implications with Kaufman:
“Openness is about ‘valuing information,’ he says. ‘People with high openness show high dopamine projections at the potential of acquiring information.’ In other words, the higher you score on the ‘openness’ trait, the better it feels to learn new things.”
Baer and Kaufman then dive into research to connect openness to experience with creativity:
“One theory is that it has to do with “latent inhibition,” or your mind’s tendency to filter out information as irrelevant. In one study, Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson found that college students who were high creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced instead of enhanced latent inhibition. People with high openness tend to have low latent inhibition, and thus more original ideas, or so the argument goes.”
To be creative you need to be open to new experiences, which leave you open to imaginative and occasionally complex possibilities. Kaufman goes as far as to break down openness into four individual factors, including:
How engaged you are using each of these factors reflects how open you are to new experiences.
In research conducted by researchers Paul Silvia, Emily Nusbaum, Christopher Berg, Christopher Martin, and Alejandra O’Connor, an individual’s placidity to thinking correlated high with their ability to generate creative ideas.
The more flexible your thoughts – your ability to be open to new experiences – the more creative you are likely to be.
But how does openness relate to grit?
A better question might be: what about the other critical elements of creativity, like play, flow, curiosity, ability to take initiative, resourcefulness, etc.? Which of those matter the most?
The answer is this: it depends.
To be more precise: the elements of creative thinking that link directly to creative success depend on which part of the process you’re in exactly. One does not trump the other or vice-versa.
Those who have many of the primary attributes of creative capability – openness to experience, curiosity, observant, of average or higher intelligence, initiative, grit, confidence, and resourcefulness – will be most likely to experience creative success.
We can see ample examples of this throughout history: think of any of the creative greats and you’ll undoubtedly be able to identify nearly all of the traits (if not all) in them.
There may be no better example of this point than the great Michelangelo.
Michelangelo is best known for his paintings, but he was also an avid inventor, architect, poet, and engineer. He rarely moved beyond artistic endeavors, but was very open to receiving inspiration in any form. He had remarkable grit, working 40 years on The Pope’s Tomb, never satisfied with the result. While he was highly an introvert, he was amiable and confident.
How is this the case? How is it that one attribute of creative success does not fully overshadow the other, but all work in-sync to produce the most promising results?
You can look at it like a timeline of attributes.
On on end, at the beginning of a project or phase, there are attributes which lead to insights. At this end of the timeline we would see these attributes:
Without one or more of these attributes, the rest of the timeline cannot exist. These matter. But in terms of success, what attribute is required next is universal:
The ability to take initiative – to tinker and explore an idea, or to play with imaginary solutions – is the keystone of creativity.
You must first be open to experiences and be curious about the world around you, once you’ve encountered something that captures your attention, you must take initiative to explore it in detail. Without initiative or drive, all of the openness and exploration in the world won’t matter.
Moving further on the timeline we reach the additional attributes:
At this point in the timeline we have encountered something that has peaked our interest, we have compiled enough information about it and the world to generate ideas, we have taken action in the form of thinking or experimenting, and now we must persevere to explore the idea fully.
This means we must have confidence in our ability to resolve the issue or fully explore the concept. We must be resourceful, utilizing what information and tools we have around us. And most importantly: we must have grit. We must persevere to keep exploring until we are satisfied (or deceased, in the case of Michelangelo.
This timeline of attributes makes sense on nearly all levels of creativity. When many of the elements are missing, we cannot have creative success.
You cannot be successful if you have grit but aren’t open to experiences. Similarly: you cannot be creatively successful if you are curious but do not take initiative.
What matters for creativity is that you have each of these attributes – in some form or another.
The good news is that each of these are attributes you can develop, they are not innate traits like the color of your hair or the size of your feet.
To be creatively successful is to develop these necessary attributes, then utilize them as you progress through your work or career.
Read this next: What causes creativity
More reading on the subject:
In my years of working alongside the most successful artists, writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and educators, one factor that separates them from everyone else is their ability to be decisive.
Decision-making is difficult for many people, particularly these days, when we face more decisions than ever. In the average grocery store, for example, there are nearly 40,000 products we have to walk past just to get to what we need. How do we decide which brands to buy and which to ignore?
In his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin describes the cost of indecision, not only from a productivity level, but also from a neuropsychology one:
“Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload… We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired…Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”
The result of facing countless decisions day-in and day-out is a literal fatigue.
When we encounter the vast array of decisions, and as our mental state begins to grow tired as a result, we lose our ability to think creatively. Attempting to resolve the choice between horse hair paintbrushes or artificial fiber brushes may leave the painter with an inability to even sit in front of the canvas, let alone paint anything worthwhile.
Our mental attention is a finite resource, one that we must work with carefully if we’re to develop our creative ideas and work.
Which is why the best creatives don’t debate decisions. Instead, we decide what might be “good enough” in the moment and make changes as necessary.
Free writing allows the writer to get the story developed without having to build-out the perfect structure – debating between character names, genders, locations, and other details – first. Similarly, the artist who paints with any available color can later go back and try again if the color doesn’t strike her as appropriate.
Often it’s through the act of doing the creative work (of thinking the creative thoughts) that the final work or ideas develop themselves. When we spend time debating or letting our attention jump from one concept to the next unfiltered, we wear ourselves out and wind-up short of where we ideally would be if we had otherwise just been decisive to begin with.
In addition, we can utilize what Levitin describes as layers between us an our decisions: “narrowers” for our attention filter.
This involves collaborating with peers or mentors, who can tell us what tools to use or techniques to deploy when we’re faced with a decision. Or even relying on blogs or websites where those who have come before us can identify solutions to problems we know we’ll encounter while we work.
Ultimately if you want to be more creative, consider the way you think and where you allow your attention to flow. If you find yourself being indecisive, remember that it comes at a cost.
The better alternative is to decide what’s good for now, then adapt as you go.
Read this next: Your decisiveness and ability to create
Photo by Paul Wicks.
Poor ideas are often poor because the circumstances around them haven’t been fully explored.
As a result: we believe the idea itself is bad despite the fact the surrounding circumstances or environment are the factors that are actually bad.
We see examples of this often in history: the invention of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone only came to fruition after many other inventors tried doing something similar. One of the crucial elements their telephone systems lacked which Bell did not was the state of electromagnetic transmitters and receivers.
For example, 42 years before Bell was able to create an electronic, working telephone, Antonio Meucci had already created a working system of communicating between a stage and control room of a theatre using a pipe-telephone system.
In 1854, 22 years before Bell patented his telephone design, inventor Charles Bourseul had already imagined the ideal communication system. Bourseul wrote: “Suppose that a man speaks near a movable disc sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice; that this disc alternately makes and breaks the currents from a battery: you may have at a distance another disc which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations…. It is certain that, in a more or less distant future, speech will be transmitted by electricity.”
Bourseul’s words describe almost perfectly what Bell later ended-up creating.
It’s worth noting that at nearly the exact same time (some argue even before) as Bell’s invention of the telephone, Elisha Gray created the same system but lost the patent to Bell and his team later on.
The telephone, as Meucci, Bourseul, Gray, Bell, and countless others before them envisioned, was absolutely a good idea. But it wasn’t until Gray and Bell had access to the modern technologies that would make the telephone so elegant to design, as well as ideally functional, that the idea came to fruition.
When considering our own ideas, we must consider the circumstances that allow it or hinder it to become a successful reality. When possible: changing the concept to meet what is possible today can turn the idea into more of a worthwhile endeavor.
A simpler example of this point is the concept of a time machine: Building a time machine is a poor idea because it’s not realistically feasible to do today. We simply don’t understand enough about time or space to create any type of machine that would allow us to travel through it.
It’s a fun idea, but certainly not a feasible one, therefore it would be ridiculous to dedicate oneself to working on a time machine today. Or would it?
By looking at the answers as to why an idea isn’t feasible, we can improve the idea itself as well as predict how it might change in the future.
Similar to how Bourseul predicted that the telephone which Bell would create years later would function through electromagnetic pulses.
To put this concept into practice we simply need to look at our own ideas, particularly ones we may have tried working on but failed.
When we look at those ideas and ask “why” they failed, we begin to shine light onto the circumstances that made it so. We may, in our exploration of reasons, realize the idea was actually good and worthwhile, simply unfeasible at the time.
Sometimes the process of asking and answering “why” means the idea evolves into something unexpected. As artists, inventors, and creators, we need to be open to following that rabbit hole wherever it may lead.
To look at our ideas and ask “why might this fail today?” we can either predict how they might succeed in the future, but we can also begin to see where we can make changes to the idea in order for it to succeed today.
When you’re faced with an idea that seems less-than-great, try asking yourself why it feels that way (then keep asking “why”). You’ll wind-up in a place where the idea makes more sense and is feasible.
Read this next: Creativity as intelligence and day dreaming
“How do creative geniuses come up with great ideas? They work and edit and rewrite and retry and pull out their genius through sheer force of will and perseverance. They earn the chance to be lucky because they keep showing up.”
This is a snippet from an answer I posted to Quora:
There are a lot of ways to “become more creative!” Many of these have been explored by researchers, writers, artists, and educators alike.
We know, for example, that being groggy and having your head in the clouds can lead to having more creative insights (Daydream your way to creativity).
Though it’s important to note that the best creative insights that come from daydreaming are often the result of a period of intense focus just before your mind wanders off (Where Do Eureka Moments Come From?).
Another great technique to spark creativity is to circumvent the regular self-editing parts of your brain, either by waking up 30 minutes to an hour earlier than you usually do (How Interrupting Your Sleep Can Silence Your Doubts and Boost Your Creativity) or by trying free writing exercises (The ways writing helps improve your thinking). Anything you can do to get ideas out—onto paper or otherwise—without much internal debate can lead to greater insights, in theory. This makes sense, since the best ideas often come as a result of having many ideas (though we often do realize this, since our minds are editing and filtering the ideas before our consciousness has time to acknowledge them)….
Which brings us to the meat of your question: what’s the best way to become more creative?
Tricky question with a somewhat discouraging answer, unfortunately. But this is true! It seems the absolutely, scientifically-backed, research-tested, personally tried way to become more creative is to…