"If you can just release yourself from the anxiety and burden that might be associated with the word 'creativity,' because you've fallen for the myth that it only belongs to the special, the tormented and the professional... you'll see, in fact, that you are an enormously creative person," bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert has insisted.

Sounds great, but how do you actually do it?

Shutting down anxiety as most of us know from experience, is incredibly difficult. But entrepreneur and Harvard professor Srini Pillay claims science has discovered a way. But prepare to pause you skepticism for a second -- his idea sounds pretty outlandish at first.

Playing mental dress up makes you more creative.

When psychologists want to measure a person's creativity they generally use some variation of this standard test: present study subjects with some everyday item, a brick or a pair of pants, say, and ask them to come up with as many creative uses for that object as possible. The more you dream up, the more creative you are.

You might think that how well people do on this simple test would be pretty consistent over time -- take it on Monday and again on Wednesday and you would perform equally well both times -- but last year educational psychologists Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar discovered a way to make a person significantly more creative in a matter of minutes, Pillay reports in a recent HBR blogs post.

All they did was ask people to pretend they were an "eccentric poet" rather than a "rigid librarian" before completing the task. By donning a mental mask far from their day-to-day identity (other outlandish identities work equally well), the study participants were instantly able to come up with more uses for that brick or pair of pants.

That proves Gilbert is right. There really is no such thing as an uncreative person. Our level of creativity is contextual to a great extent, depending on our mental framework, situation, and perspective. But it also offers entrepreneurs a handy trick to try when they're really in need of some fresh ideas.

"When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person's perspective," Pillay suggests.

A deeper dive into the science

Looking for more information on this branch of psychological research? New York Magazine's Science of Us blog followed up Pillay's post with a deeper dive into the relevant science. The piece digs into why modern offices are often so hostile to creativity (short answer: they discourage the downtime that's essential for incubating ideas) and why "psychological halloweenism" just might be an ideal solution.

Published on: Jun 12, 2017