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Discover the ten things highly creative people do differently.
Is it possible to make sense of something as elusive as creativity? Based on psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s groundbreaking research and Carolyn Gregoire’s popular article in the Huffington Post, Wired to Create offers a glimpse inside the “messy minds” of highly creative people. Revealing the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, along with engaging examples of artists and innovators throughout history, the book shines a light on the practices and habits of mind that promote creative thinking. Kaufman and Gregoire untangle a series of paradoxes— like mindfulness and daydreaming, seriousness and play, openness and sensitivity, and solitude and collaboration – to show that it is by embracing our own contradictions that we are able to tap into our deepest creativity. Each chapter explores one of the ten attributes and habits of highly creative people:
Imaginative Play * Passion * Daydreaming * Solitude * Intuition * Openness to Experience * Mindfulness * Sensitivity * Turning Adversity into Advantage * Thinking Differently
With insights from the work and lives of Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Edison, Josephine Baker, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, musician Thom Yorke, chess champion Josh Waitzkin, video-game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, and many other creative luminaries, Wired to Create helps us better understand creativity – and shows us how to enrich this essential aspect of our lives.
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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is scientific director of the Imagination Institute and investigates the measurement and development of imagination, creativity and well-being in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written or edited six previous books, including Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. He is also co-founder of The Creativity Post, host of The Psychology Podcast, and he writes the blog Beautiful Minds for Scientific American. Kaufman lives in Philadelphia.
Carolyn Gregoire is a senior writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on psychology, mental health, and neuroscience. She has spoken at TEDx and the Harvard Public Health Forum, and has appeared on MSNBC, the Today show, the History Channel and HuffPost Live. Gregoire lives in New York City.
When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.
—ROBERT HENRI, AMERICAN PAINTER
The creative genius may be at once naive and knowledgeable, being at home equally to primitive symbolism and to rigorous logic. He is both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.
—FRANK X. BARRON, PSYCHOLOGIST AND CREATIVITY RESEARCHER
Several years ago, Scott gave a popular science rapper an extensive battery of personality tests. At the time, this Canadian entertainer, known as Baba Brinkman,1 was starring in an Off-Broadway show called The Rap Guide to Evolution, a hip-hop tribute to Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection. In the show, an animated Brinkman jumps energetically onstage, drops rhymes such as “The weak and the strong, who got it goin’ on? We lived in the dark for so long,” and “Getting pregnant before marriage; it’s such a tragedy. Apparently it’s also a reproductive strategy.” He was one of the most bold and magnetic performers Scott had ever witnessed on the stage.
Brinkman’s test results were perplexing, revealing a personality riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, Scott noticed that Brinkman scored high in “blirtatiousness”—a personality trait characterized by the tendency to say whatever is on one’s mind. But at the same time, Brinkman didn’t seem extraverted offstage.
He then found that while Brinkman scored high in assertiveness—one hallmark of extraverted personalities—he was only slightly above average in enthusiasm, another big marker of extraversion.2 How could this charismatic performer, who seemed so full of energy, be only slightly above average in expressiveness behind the curtain? Scott dug deeper into the data to try to make sense of Brinkman’s puzzling personality.
“I get that remark all the time with people who hang out with me after the show,” Brinkman told Scott. “They say, ‘You’re so quiet, what happened to the guy onstage?’ I get in front of a crowd, I get charged up, and it’s like ‘I’m gonna get everybody into this.’ There has become this huge split, where I’m quite a temperate personality most of the time until I get on a stage and have a job to do, and then it’s like bam.”
As Scott delved deeper into Brinkman’s psyche, further paradoxes emerged. For one, he noticed that Brinkman was low in narcissism—a trait that can be rampant among performers (and often rappers in particular). However, Brinkman did possess some of the individual qualities that together make up narcissism. Brinkman scored high in exhibitionism and superiority—two aspects of narcissism that had likely proved helpful to his career as an entertainer—while scoring low in the exploitativeness and entitlement aspects of narcissism. Brinkman also scored high in several positive characteristics that were undoubtedly beneficial to his career in music: emotional intelligence, social awareness, and the ability to manage stress. Scott noticed too that Brinkman was simultaneously oriented toward short-term romantic affairs while demonstrating a strong ability to sustain relationships.
Brinkman’s personality was a case study in one of the most well-known findings in the history of creativity research: Creative people have messy minds.
Creative people also tend to have messy processes.
· · ·
Picasso went through a rather chaotic process in creating his most famous painting, Guernica.
After being asked to create a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair, the painter found himself spinning his wheels for three months while he searched for creative inspiration. Then, inspiration struck alongside tragedy. In the wake of the Nazis’ bombing of a small Basque town at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces, Picasso set out to illustrate the atrocities of Spain’s bloody civil war.
Just fifteen days after the bombing, Picasso went to work on a series of forty-five numbered sketches. He painstakingly drew numerous versions of each of the figures that would appear in the painting—the bull, the horse, the warrior, the woman crying, the mother with her dead child—before touching a single drop of oil to the eleven- by twenty-five-foot canvas on which he would paint the mural.
For each figure, Picasso sketched a diverse set of variations. These sketches often did not exhibit a clear upward progression. In several cases, the figure he selected to appear in the finished painting ended up being one of the earliest he had sketched. The figure of the mother with her dead child featured in the final work, which depicted the mother holding the child in her arms and weeping, was very similar to the first two versions he sketched. But then, he went on to create two images that were wildly different—instead of the mother holding the child in her arms (as she appears in the painting) the discarded sketches show the mother carrying her child up a ladder. Picasso continued his experimentation with new figures even after moving on to the canvas, which often required him to paint over what was already there. He also explored a number of creative possibilities, such as a bull with a human head, that he ultimately didn’t pursue.
Although Picasso was a seasoned painter who had been creating masterpieces for decades by the time he took on the project, his process in painting Guernica appeared to be more chaotic than controlled, more spontaneous than linear. The surplus of ideas and sketches that Picasso produced did not show a clear progression toward the final painting. The process was characterized by a number of false starts, and as some art historians have noted, many of the sketches he drew appear to be superfluous to the final product.3
Exploration and seemingly blind experimentation were key to Picasso’s creative process. Rather than creating a painting to reflect his own preexisting worldview, he seemed to actively build and reshape that worldview through the creative process. While he may have had a rough intuition, it’s likely that Picasso did not quite know where he was going, creatively, until he arrived there.4
Picasso said of his own creative process, “A painting is not thought out and settled in advance. While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.”
The progression of Picasso’s Guernica sketches offers a fascinating glimpse into his imagination, but it raises as many questions as it offers answers. To what extent did the painter have even the slightest idea what he was doing? And if he didn’t know what he was doing, then how are we to make sense of his creative process—or of the creative process more generally?
Attempting to analyze Picasso’s personality offers little in terms of answers. The painter was a protean shapeshifter as both artist and man; he has been described as a difficult personality,5 who was intensely passionate and deeply cynical; “a towering creative genius one moment . . . a sadistic manipulator the next.”6 Picasso himself hinted at these paradoxes in his life and work when he said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do,” and described the act of creation as one of destruction.7
So how are we to make sense of the complex creative process and personality? It starts with embracing a very messy set of contradictions.
Introduction: Messy Minds
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
The debate over the creation of Guernica reflects a much larger schism in our understanding of the creative mind.
The history of scientific thinking about creativity has been defined by polarization, starting with a popular 1926 theory of the creative process that set the stage for decades’ worth of debate among psychologists.
In his book The Art of Thought, British social psychologist Graham Wallas outlined the popular “four-stage model” of creativity. After observing and studying accounts of eminent inventors and creators, Wallas proposed that the creative process involves the following stages: preparation, during which the creator acquires as much information as possible about a problem; incubation, during which the creator lets the knowledge stew as the unconscious mind takes over and engages in what Einstein referred to as “combinatory play”;1 illumination, during which an insight arises in consciousness—the natural culmination of a “successful train of association”; and a verification stage, during which the creator fleshes out the insights, and communicates their value to others.2
If only the creative process was so tidy. While psychologists continue to vigorously debate its workings, most agree that the traditional four-stage model is far too simplistic.3 In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1950, J. P. Guilford made a bold call for psychologists to take a closer look at creativity. He rejected the four-stage model, calling it “very superficial from a psychological point of view,”4 because it tells us so little about the mental processes occurring during the act of creation.
As psychologists continued to put artists under the microscope to examine the creative process in action, they continued to find it to be far from a clear-cut, step-by-step process.5 Further research showed creative people to engage in rapid switching of thought processes and to exhibit nearly simultaneous coexistence between a number of these processes, from generating new ideas to expanding and working out the ideas, to critical reflection, to taking a distance from one’s work and considering the perspective of the audience.
These processes, of course, differ from one type of artist to another. When creating fiction, writers tend to exhibit a complex process of their own. Research conducted on a group of novelists painted a picture of the fiction-writing process as a “voyage of discovery” that begins with a seed incident—an event or observation that inspires fascination and exploration and becomes the fertile ground on which creative growth occurs. Seed incidents tend to break the mind out of ordinary understanding and create new meanings for the writer, as evidenced by the writers’ descriptions of these events as “touching,” “intriguing,” “puzzling,” “mysterious,” “haunting,” and “overwhelming.” Commenting on a family incident that became the seed for a story, one writer said that the event seemed “full of meanings I couldn’t even begin to grasp.”6
The seed incident is followed by a period of navigation between different creative worlds. At this stage, the writers oscillated between the “writingrealm”—a place of retreat from the world where the writer can plan and reflect on what has been written—and the “fictionworld” of their own making: an imaginative place in which the author engages with fiction characters and events as they unfold. For instance, after one writer began her story with the line “I am a poodle,” she imaginatively transformed herself into a dog, “allowing the sounds and sights and smells of a dog’s world to come to her.” She then switches mental gears, returning to the writingrealm to reflectively evaluate and improve upon what she had written. This fictionworld, which consists of imagination and fantasy, is a distinctly different realm of experience from the writingrealm, where reflective thinking and rational deliberation occur. This constant toggling between imaginative and rational ways of thinking suggests a more complex, less linear account of fiction writing than the four-stage model can accommodate.
Further analyses of creative writers continued to reject a step-by-step account of the creative process, suggesting that writing is likely to be considerably less controlled. Focusing on the contemporary novelist’s search for meaning and struggle to express a specific experience,7 another study emphasized that the writing process often moves forward even without the novelist’s full understanding of where the work is going. As the writer slowly gains a sense of the direction in which he is moving, he can begin to move forward deliberately and with greater clarity. The process reflects what Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson said of creativity and life, “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.”8
Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, who has extensively studied the career trajectories of creative geniuses across the arts, sciences, humanities, and leadership, came to a strikingly similar conclusion. Based on a detailed case study of Thomas Edison’s creative career, Simonton suggested that even at the level of genius, creativity is a “messy business.”9
Even at the level of genius, creativity is a “messy business.”
Given the complex and ever-changing nature of the creative process, it should come as little surprise that creative people tend to have messy minds. Highly creative work blends together different elements and influences in the most novel, or unusual, way, and these wide-ranging states, traits, and behaviors frequently conflict with each other within the mind of the creative person, resulting in a great deal of internal and external tension throughout the creative process.10
One of the most fascinating things about creative work is that it brings together and harmonizes these conflicting elements, which exist to some extent in everyone. Creative people are hubs of diverse interests, influences, behaviors, qualities, and ideas—and through their work, they find a way to bring these many disparate elements together. This is one of the reasons why creativity feels so ineffable—it is so many different things at the same time! After interviewing creative people across various fields for over thirty years, the eminent psychologist of creativity Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed: “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’”11
Case in point: The brilliant journalist David Carr—a creature of many contradictions and a protean shapeshifter if there ever was one—said that he often reflected upon the many “selves” that he had possessed over his lifetime, from drug addict to media celebrity. “I spent time looking into my past to decide which of my selves I made up—the thug or the nice family man—and the answer turned out to be neither,” he reflected. “Whitman was right. We contain multitudes.”
Another prototype of the messy creative mind is the iconic Jazz Age entertainer Josephine Baker. The famous Amer...
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