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?
Let’s look at the research.
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.
What is openness to experiences?
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:
- Explicit Cognitive Ability, viewed as traditional IQ intelligence. 2. Intellectual Engagement, a natural drive to engage ideas. 3. Affective Engagement, using emotions to drive decisions. And 4. Aesthetic Engagement, a preference for aesthetics.
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?
What really matters most for creative success?
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.
The Timeline of Necessary Creative 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:
- Openness to experience
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:
- Initiative, or drive
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.
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