Creativity may be wildly complex to describe, but when we look over the past few decades of research and historical examples of it at work, some surprisingly powerful insights popup.
One such area: creative development.
In-fact: developing creativity has been a primary topic for psychologists since the early 1970s. Partly because it’s difficult to encourage creative development without hindering it or messing up the process of evaluation.
We have to be careful in talking about developing creativity then, because any misstep or misinterpretation can yield the exact opposite results we are hoping for.
For example: I recall reading a story of a school classroom where the teacher wanted to develop the student’s creativity. In hopes of having the children freely express themselves, she gave them each crayons and coloring books for an afternoon of drawing.
Many of the students expressed their creativity by drawing additional characters and objects on the coloring book pages or by using unique color combinations. One student, however, had to be told explicitly to stop drawing inside the lines.
There was no indication that drawing inside the lines was in any way uncreative, the teacher simply wanted the student to appear creative, and drawing inside the lines seemed too uncreative. Yet, by intervening and requiring that the student draw outside the lines, the teacher squashed the possibility for the student to be creative simply by being unique (a very definition of creativity). Drawing outside the lines couldn’t be creative, as it was now an established requirement.
So developing creativity can be difficult, even when we’re the ones doing it to ourselves. Fortunately, after many decades of research, we have enough insight to outline the best possible ways for doing exactly what the teacher in that classroom hoped, but ultimately failed, to do.
Enter the psychology of development
Some of the most notable research on the topic of creative knowledge comes from psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis.
In his 1999 research paper “Creativity as Blind Variation and Selective Retention” Simonton writes on the topic of talent development:
“Any developmental factor that enhances the capacity of an individual to generate numerous and diverse variations should have a positive impact on the development of creative potential.”
The easiest ” and, as Simonton states, most obvious ” way to develop creativity is to gain expertise. This is obvious because expertise exposes us to a lot of the fundamental possibilities in a specific area, which gives us plenty of ammunition for creativity later on.
Expertise however does take a long time (about a decade of work, according to cited research). More importantly: creative expertise has specific, delicate requirements in order to develop properly.
Simonton writes: “The expertise must be organized in a way that it favors the production of multiple perspectives, and that expertise must be possessed by an individual willing to develop divergent variations.”
He then gives us examples from his research on how we can best develop our own creative expertise.
1. Have a lot of varied interests
It seems counter-intuitive on the face, but countless examples throughout history show that the best way to have creative expertise in any one area is to have a bit of experience in a lot of other areas as well.
Simonton points to the fact that having a variety of interests and experiences allows us to fill our minds with ideas that, when combined subconsciously, are more likely to yield stronger ideas. Those stronger ideas would not be possible if we simply stuck to one expertise or interest. He writes:
Many of the most innovative ideas in a domain often have received their initial training in other fields. This [diverse knowledge] allows the innovators to proliferate variations that would be excluded a priori by those who received their training totally within the discipline.
We only have to look to the famed painter Leonardo da Vinci to see that this is the case.
Da Vinci wasn’t merely an exceptional painter, his historic work in the areas of sculpture, architecture, engineering, geology, music, botany, and writing (amongst others) influenced history. His numerous interests gave him ideas and insights in every other area of interest he had, ensuring that there was always something he was working on or learning that could, in turn, help solve or complete another problem or project.
We know this as a fact due to the countless journals he kept where writings about grocery lists included sketches, and where ideas for inventions were matched with architectural notes.
Simonton mentions this point as well: It is characteristic of highly creative individuals that they tend to work simultaneously on a large number of loosely interconnected problems….Hence, while the creator is incubating on one problem, he or she will be constantly but haphazardly bombarded with priming input from other projects.
If you want to develop your creative expertise, work to develop in other areas of interest at the same time.
2. Gain multiple perspectives
Some of the greatest minds in the world understand that the world is not merely as we see it. Steve Jobs even said that once you understand this simple idea, you’ll never be the same.
In order to value multiple perspectives we must avoid institutionalized thinking and have more of an open mind about our work.
“Even though formal education may be necessary to provide the minimal expertise for achievements as a creative individual, such training can go too far as well, restricting the diversity of perspectives required for true creative success.”
Simonton doesn’t give us an exact alternative to formal education or training here, but we can guess what possibilities may be.
Making an effort to learn things on your own, with at least some guidance or insight provided by a diverse community or group, will enable you to see and hear different perspectives while learning how they impact your creativity.
This, combined with a variety of interests, is a key to developing creativity.
To improve your creative expertise, join a local community or group where you can work at your own pace but utilize the wisdom of the crowd to do so.
3. Set and regularly reset your goals
Creativity is a moving target, due to knowledge growth, adaptation in culture, technological advancement, shifts in perspective, and so on.
Researchers like Simonton know this. Even in his writings Simonton states that becoming a known expert in the area of creativity is difficult to do, simply for the reason that the definition of creativity is constantly evolving. While a creative idea may be successful one day, it could become a flop the very next. One idea today might seem impossible, but within a few years that same idea could be expected.
A good example of this is the iPhone. If you were to somehow go back in time to 1999 (when Simonton’s most prominent work was published, coincidentally), then ask people (even Steve Jobs himself) what they thought of the idea for a phone that had no buttons and could browse the Internet, they would have laughed at you. There’s no way those who lived in 1999 could envision the technology we have available to us today, in 2014.
This means that developing our own creativity requires us to set goals for evaluating our ideas and work, then regularly evaluating and moving those goals. As Simonton explains:
“If the standards of creative success are sufficiently simple and well defined, and if disciplinary evaluations are consistent, stable, and precise, then certainly persons might become sufficiently expert.”
Expertise takes time. If you haven’t been cultivating your creative abilities for years already, you’ve got a long way to go.
Fortunately there are things you can do, beginning today, to ensure you’re developing your expertise the right way.
By having a lot of varied interests, by participating in a broader community that helps you see the power of multiple perspectives, and by setting and regularly evaluating your creative goals, you’ll be on your way.