To be creative is to decisively use these six things

“Creativity is a decision that anyone can make but that few people actually do.”

While growing up, I was fortunate to find myself surrounded by designers, writers, educators, and artists. It was incredible to watch them work, to generate shapes and words and entire ideas from seemingly nothing.

As I grew older and began my career in design, I found myself driven toward questions around what it means to be creative and why the same modes of thinking–of generating ideas and concepts from nothing–aren’t typically celebrated in non-artistic or non-entrepreneurial fields.

So I started digging into research not only on creative thinking, but psychology (my minor in college) and psychiatry. I would read endless books, one after the other. I would read stories about and watch interviews with creative greats like Thomas Edison, Archimedes, Alexander Graham Bell, and Steve Jobs.

I would come to learn that creativity isn’t what I had been led to think it was. Creativity isn’t a magical or mystical force, it isn’t a “gift” that some have and others don’t. Creativity is a process of thinking that relies on multiple factors.

This led to a big problem. If creativity is something we’re born with (or not born with) or something a fortunate few stumble onto in their life, then it’s easy to dismiss it as something each of us doesn’t need to pursue. If I don’t feel particularly creative I can simply brush it off as “I’m just not the creative type.”

But the facts from research starting back in the 1950s has shown repeatedly: creativity is a process of thinking.

Creative is something we can influence in our own lives.

In his research paper titled The Nature of Creativity (published in the Creativity Research Journal), researcher Robert J. Sternberg of Tufts University outlines a concise and effective theory definition of creativity. Sternberg calls this theory “The Investment Theory of Creativity.”

Originally published in 1995, the Investment Theory of Creativity states creative people are the ones who pursue new or unfavorable ideas, only to “sell” those same ideas later on once they have had a chance to evolve.

This theory makes a lot of sense, to be creative we must be able to see ideas that are new for what they might become, and we must be capable of turning around or drawing out the evolution of unfavorable ideas as well.

How do we learn to do that?

Sternberg explains that creativity is the result of six distinct resources within the mind and that to be creative we must who actively choose to out those resources to use.

See if you don’t recognize some of these resources Sternberg defines here as being higher-than-expected in your own life or work:

“Creativity requires a confluence of six distinct but interrelated resources: 1. intellectual abilities, 2. knowledge, 3. styles of thinking, 4. personality, 5. motivation, and 6. environment. Although levels of these resources are sources of individual differences, often the decision to use a resource is a more important source of individual differences.”

What Sternberg goes on to explain is that creativity requires a deliberate decision to optimize and utilize these resources in our lives. Creativity is a conscious choice we make, or don’t. All it takes is purposefully deciding to use these resources in your own life.

For example: You can be remarkably intelligent, but if you’re unmotivated or if you live in an environment that discourages creative exploration, you may be able to solve complex problems, but you are unlikely to solve complex problems in areas you have little knowledge in.

Similarly, if you’re weak in one resource but more competent in two others, those resources can make up for the lack in the first. So if you’re not particularly intelligent but you often use a thinking style of dedicating yourself to an idea while also knowing a lot about the subject category, you’re more likely to stumble onto creative output than if you were weak in all of those areas. (Related: the relationship between creativity and intelligence.)

This is great news in our search to understand and utilize creative thinking. The theory means that we are in more control of our creativity than historians and critics would have had us believe!

We can often influence our environment, seeking out one online (for example) that encourages ideation and exploration. We can modify our thinking styles to be more globally-oriented as well: thinking not only about the immediate impact of ideas, but seeing the larger, global impact as well. Knowledge we can also easily gain, by reading, traveling, or conversing with others.

If we are lacking in one resource we can focus our efforts on strengthening it or relying on other resources to make up for it.

To be creative, according to this research, is a conscious choice we must make. As Sternberg states:

“Creativity and simply thinking in novel ways are facilitated when people are willing to put in up-front time to think in new ways.”

The important factor to being creative is not merely dedicating ourselves to thinking in new ways, but in doing so decisively and on both small (or local) and large (or global) scales.

This is where many people drop the ball. They come up with an idea and run with it without giving much additional thought to it. They accept solutions outright and accept the first reasonable conclusion.

And, really, much of our global culture promotes this type of behavior. Think: get rich quick schemes, the drive-thru or microwave meals, television that not only entertains, but does so in a way that means you don’t have to think very much about what it is your eyes are absorbing.

This is what makes us as creatives so damn valuable. We are unique, not because we have an innate gift that is rare to us, but because we are the ones who have decisively (though sometimes unconsciously) decided to use the resources available to us in order to think in new ways. Where others might reject an idea or move onto something else early-on in a process, we are the ones who work through the ideas more and more until we end up in a place where suddenly others want to “buy” the idea.

Sternberg conclues:

“The crowd does not maliciously or willfully reject creative notions. Rather, it does not realize, and often does not want to realize, that the proposed idea represents a valid and advanced way of thinking.”

Robert J. Sternberg (2006) The Nature of Creativity, Creativity Research Journal, 18:1, 87-98, DOI: 10.1207/s15326934crj1801_10

First photo by Freddie Alequin.