At the heart of creativity: curiosity and uncertainty

If you want to be more creative, pursue your curiosity.

Developing that curiosity may be what sets apart the greatest thinkers and artists – the likes of Picasso, Einstein, Edison, Curie, etc. – apart from… well, everyone else.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” – Einstein

Why curiosity, and exactly how certain can we be that it’s one of the primary driving forces behind creative thinking?

Among the multitude of domains that entail creativity – everything from painting and poetry, to neuroscience and ecology – there are many different ways in which creativity plays-out. Within those domains there are additional factors at play for every organization and individual, factors which influence whether planning a brainstorming session or simply experimenting would be more beneficial from a creative standpoint.

One factor that dots nearly every one of those domains of creativity is curiosity.

Specifically: each encounter with creativity is one with uncertainty, and the experience entails tackling that uncertainty with an almost insatiable curiosity.

No matter what realm you work in: creativity will involve facing an uncertain moment (or, more likely: moments). Will your writing be effective? Will the experiment work? Will this color clash with this one? What happens when you combine this with that?

Over at Quora, my favorite cognitive scientist Joel Chan explains:

“Creativity is not safe. Safe is applying the well-worn rules of Newtonian mechanics to predict the motion of a ball dropping from your hand, or “solving for x”, or spelling a word. Safe is doing something we know already works. But putting something new into the world (whether it’s entirely new to everyone, or just to you) doesn’t afford you the kind of certainty that applying known solution-guaranteed procedures gives you. It might fail. But it might not, and instead it just might change everything. But there’s no way to know beforehand without putting it out into the world.”

Remaining passionate curious about the world, and pursuing answers in the face of uncertainty, is the single trait all domains interfacing with creativity share.

How do we boost our curiosity?

Apart from asking a lot of questions and surrounding ourselves with new stimulus, one way is to exercise regularly.

In his book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance Jonathan Fields gives us a number of ways for embracing uncertainty and fueling our creativity, including exercise:

“Studies now prove that aerobic exercise both increases the size of the prefrontal cortex and facilitates interaction between it and the amygdala…This is vitally important to creators because the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps tamp down the amygdala’s fear and anxiety signals. For artists, entrepreneurs, and any other driven creators, exercise is a powerful tool in the quest to help transform the persistent uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that accompany the quest to create from a source of suffering into something less toxic.”

Other methods for boosting our curiosity and ability to manage uncertainty (to increase our creativity) is to place ourselves in situations where uncertainty is common.

This makes sense, as situations where we encounter uncertainty allow us to build a tolerance to it (or, in situations where that’s not the case, find ways of dealing with it).

Traveling to new places (even if it’s just across the street), reading new books or other materials, joining conversations with people we’ve only just met, experimenting with ideas, etc. are all ways to empower our curiosity and increase the likelihood of us stumbling on creative solutions.

Start involving yourself in new situations, where you’ll be faced with uncertainty, if you want to be more creative today.

Read this next: What neuroscience teaches us about creativity

Photo by Ben Raynal.