Creativity isn’t mysterious or unique. It is a trait that every person has to some degree. Creativity has little to do with IQ. It is simply the deliberate use of our ordinary thinking processes. These thinking approaches can be taught and therefore any person can move from their present level of creative ability to a much higher one.
Creativity can also be unlearned. In 1968, George Land studied the creativity of a group of 1600 children over time by administering a test used by NASA to select innovative engineers and scientists. 98% of children at 5 years old would have been selected. At 10 years old, only 30% of these same children would have been chosen. At 15 years old, the percentage dropped to a mere 12%. The same test was given to 280,000 adults and only 2% would have been selected. What is going on?
The power of place and the impact of one’s environment – in part 3 of this series – will highlight some of the reasons that creativity is affected. Let’s first look, however, at the characteristics of creative people to understand their dominant attributes. Researchers have determined that broad interests, attraction to complexity, curiosity, intuition, tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance, self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and freedom from stimulus contribute to creative thinking.
Tolerance of Ambiguity
The tolerance of ambiguity is the most important personal quality of a creative person, according to professors and researchers John Dacey and Kathleen Lennon. Ambiguity is the ability to see a situation or issue in various shades of gray, instead of in black and white, remain open-minded about the approach or solution, and sometimes even enjoy the process. A creative person would take a longer time to respond emotionally—boredom, excitement, fear, terror—to a situation than the average person. This tendency to find the unknown or unfamiliar interesting or exciting rather than stress producing, increases their ability to think and react creatively.
Perseverance and Delay of Gratification
This ability to be comfortable in the unknown is helped by being perseverant and being able to delay gratification. Creative people can maintain a clear sense of purpose through obstacles and frustration that other might find overwhelming. Their self-confidence allows them to be able to go against what others are doing to continue on the path they believe is correct. In order to reap higher pleasures and gains in the long run, they can tolerate long time frames and delay the gratification of the reward.
In the 1970’s a Stanford psychology professor, Walter Mischel, observed the effects on nursery school students when told they could have two of a chosen treat, such as a marshmallow, rather than only one if they waited some undetermined time. The children who could only wait 30 seconds before eating the marshmallow were found years later to have more behavioral problems and average SAT scores that were 210 points less than the students who could wait the entire 15 minutes. When Mischel taught the children a creative thinking technique to imagine that the marshmallow is only a picture surrounded by an imaginary frame, he dramatically improved their self-control and increased the time that they could delay gratification.
Freedom from Stimulus
Although this sounds complicated, it simply means the ability to break free from assumptions about a specific situation. Creative thinkers are rule breakers. They do things that others say can’t be done. Neuroscientists have determined that the brains of creative thinkers are wired to be open to novel encounters and seeing things in a different way, instead of taking the neural path of least resistance. When the stated rules of a situation interfere with a developing creative idea, the creative person will simply ignore or bend the rules to suit their needs. Additionally when faced with an ambiguous situation or when there are no rules, they do not assume that any rules exist. People who are less creative will make-up non-existent rules in order to eliminate the fear of being wrong. Fear greatly restricts creative thinking.
Motivation encompasses what to do, whether to do it, how to do it and when to do it, according to Teresa Amabile, a leading creativity researcher. People become motivated to work on something when they find it interesting, involving, exciting, satisfying, and personally challenging. Creative people are driven by curiosity and the enjoyment of searching for new insights. Their work becomes a labor of love and is self-motivating. Job satisfaction studies show that people will be most creative and most satisfied in their jobs and perform better when they are primarily intrinsically motivated.
It used to be thought that external forces could not positively or negatively impact intrinsic motivation. However recent research by Amabile shows that people’s perceptions and emotions can affect their motivation.
Many techniques can be learned to increase creative ability, forming new neural pathways in our brain. The pressures or support of place and the environment (the second “P”)—work, family, school, peers—however, will have a large impact on the ability of the individual to practice creative thinking strategies until they become second nature. More on these outside influences will be discussed in part 3 of this series.
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