The legendary writers Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O'Connor walked into a frat house.
No, it's not the beginning of a joke but the (incredible) description of a 1960s research study conducted by Frank X. Barron at the University of California, Berkeley, to determine what separated highly creative writers, architects, scientists, mathematicians, and entrepreneurs from others in their fields. Barron observed the group for several days, noting their conversations and evaluating them via tests and questionnaires. In the end, Barron concluded that creative genius was distinct from IQ, and was instead informed by the interplay of many previously less considered factors.
In his book Wired to Create, Scott Barry Kaufman wrote, "The findings [of the study] demonstrated that creativity is not merely expertise or knowledge but is instead informed by a whole suite of intellectual, emotional, motivational, and ethical characteristics. The common strands that seemed to transcend all creative fields was an openness to one's inner life, a preference for complexity and ambiguity, an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray, the ability to extract order from chaos, independence, unconventionality, and a willingness to take risks."
In a recent interview about the book, Kaufman shared several insights about some of the common traits and behaviors of highly creative people. Here are a few that stood out:
1. They embrace play as an everyday practice.
Children play without thinking. They can turn even the most mundane task into a game, and the most boring environment into a playscape. However, as we grow older we often lose touch with that inner drive to play, and it's easy to dig into deep ruts of rote behavior. Kaufman noted that creativity requires play, and that highly creative people take their play very seriously. "As adults, cultivating a childlike sense of play can revolutionize the way we work." Not every project is going to feel like playground fun time, but by playing just a little bit at your work you open up new frames to look through, and new ways of approaching problems. When you turn your work into a game, it also becomes more enticing and fun.
How can you embrace play, or approach a problem you're working on in a more gamelike fashion?
2. They get alone with their thoughts.
One of the insights from Barron's research was that highly creative people tend to be especially in touch with their inner life. They are able to notice nuances in their emotions and in how they respond to stimuli in their environment, and emotional patterns that may be invisible to others. As Kaufman wrote in the book, "As artists and as human beings, time alone to work, develop personal interests, and exercise creativity is imperative.... And while the artist's work may be inspired by experience and interaction with others, it is in the reflection of solitude when ideas are crystallized and insights formed." This means that solitude is critically important if you want to do your best creative work, whether that means meditation, journaling, or just a long solo walk in the park.
When do you get alone with your thoughts, uninterrupted and in solitude?
3. They go back to the drawing board.
It's possible to get so fixated on the task in front of you that you forget the true objective. This means that it's easy to lose sight of the value you're creating because you are too concerned about the process, or the plan. Kaufman suggests that we need to be open to deviating from the plan, even though it might mean having to completely rethink the work. This means seeing adversity not as a permanent roadblock, but as a potential opportunity for growth. "If you're looking for a creative boost, treat all of life's meaningful moments--the good and the bad--as potential sources of inspiration and motivation."
Is there any place in your work where you are fixated on a process at the expense of the outcome? How can you go back to the drawing board and try a new approach?
As Kaufman argued, "We are all, in some way, wired to create." However, your habits will often determine whether that creativity produces value, or simply withers from a lack of intentional use. By instilling a handful of practices, you can increase your chances of having creative breakthroughs when you need them most, and in so doing, you will be emulating many of the greatest creative minds of history.