Learning Brilliance: What Makes Some More Creative?

Twentieth century dogma posited that our brains are hardwired for life. But that myth has been dispelled with the advent of invasive modern diagnostic technologies such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Electroencephalography. We now know the brain can change its physical structure and neural processing well into our advanced years. Just over a decade ago, the terms neurogenesis and neuroplasticity were coined to describe this phenomenon.

While neuroscience endeavours to answer the question of why some are smarter than others,  perhaps a much simpler way to discover how to increase your effectiveness as a problem solver is just to examine how creative people live their lives. What is it that they tend to do differently than those whom we would describe as uncreative?

Science tells us that as much as thinking influences our behaviour  so too does behaviour determine our thinking. The Harvard Business Review reported not long ago that the one thing, above all else, that separates a creative from a non-creative person is the belief that one is indeed creative. Like taking placebos, if you believe something will work, you act accordingly. In other words, aspirations and expectations are largely self-fulfilling prophecies.

So, if you were to start acting creatively, you would likely become more creative. Here then, for your contemplation, is a partial list of behaviours that distinguish brilliant minds from those seemingly not so inclined:

Creative people take an investigative approach to life. They are fascinated by complexities and contradictions and deal with emergent circumstances opportunistically. They look at relationships and seek to connect the dots in ways others don’t. They purposefully engage in possibility thinking. Like Picasso, who once said “the act of creation begins with an act of destruction,” they shake up conventional patterns and connections to elicit and examine fresher combinations. Their insatiable intellectual curiosity separates them from non-creatives.

They freely question the status quo. For creative thinkers, an opinion is a temporary point of view; thus they have little difficulty revising their concepts when new information demonstrates invalid assumptions. This is why they can say “I don’t know” unapologetically. They don’t imprison themselves in the pretense of knowing everything, even when they are presumed to know. They deal with information gaps by asking others to help fill them. Nothing is more stimulating than an intense conversation with those who see the world differently than do they. They don’t claim to be experts, so they don’t pretend to be experts. Not having to defend their ego grants them the freedom to create.

Creative people are seriously prone to reflection  – they daydream a lot and don’t see it as a waste of time. We spend a third of our waking hours daydreaming. This is the mind’s default mode when we are at our most creative. In this alpha state, the mind is calm but aware. Daydreaming increases the chances for seminal insights by recombining information in novel ways. Our best ideas often come “out of the blue” when the mind is focused on other things. This is likely why creatives enjoy solitude so much – they like being alone with their inner voice.

Many creative people record their thoughts, observations and insights  in logs and journals. Something important happens when you put pen to paper. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once observed that “The very process of writing brings a crystallization of thought … it distils insights into words, imprints the brain, reinforces learning and makes expression visible.” Creatives see notebooks as repositories for their own nuggets and pearls.

Creatives embrace failure,  seeing it as an opportunity to discover new things about themselves and the world around them. They realize all learning is error-driven and that failure is the fuel for ideas and growth. This is likely why we accept the notion that necessity is the mother of invention. And why creative people expose themselves to new realities and challenging experiences. When events don’t meet their expectations, they maintain a positive frame of mind, seldom getting frustrated. They adapt to change as it unfolds, then recalibrate their beliefs about themselves and what they have yet to accomplish.

Virtually every creative genius our society has spawned has suffered major setbacks.  This illustrious group includes the likes of J.K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, once said, “I have failed over and over again, and that is why I succeed.” Einstein would concur.

Creative people realize they will occasionally be laughed at.  The British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, observed that every great movement must experience three distinct phases – first ridicule, then discussion and finally adoption. Creatives understand the antidote to fear is courage – the courage to make mistakes, ask “dumb” questions, rock the boat, look foolish and be wrong. In other words, they have a high level of risk intelligence and fully embrace the probability of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Walt Disney understood this dictum when he advised that “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”

They are intrinsically motivated. The greatest satisfaction comes from the desire to be different – to control their own destiny – and to make a genuine difference. Creatives are energized by the challenge more so than external rewards or even recognition. Though appreciated, these are unnecessary to their quest.

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink tells us we need three things to reach a state of “flow” – that place where we are most happy, focused, productive and creative. These things are autonomy (the need to direct our own lives), mastery (the urge to get better at something that matters) and purpose (the yearning to be part of something bigger). Creative people view these drivers as the principles that govern every day of their lives.

The bottom line, simply put, is that by behaving differently, creative people think differently. They cherish the sheer pleasure of playing with ideas. They see the world through the lens of opportunity rather than problems to be solved. They simplify everything for, like Da Vinci, they know “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” They are mindful – able to focus clearly on what’s new and different rather than accepting or regurgitating the conventional tried and true.

To become more creative, you could emulate these behaviours. That stated, many of them are skills based. In August 2011, the Harvard Business Review reported the following: “The idea that people can simply decide to think differently from the way they have in past is delusional. They need tools that bring a new dimension of insight.” So, if you can’t will yourself to think differently, you can train yourself to do so. The right tools always make for a job easier done. And, as you think brilliantly, so shall you be.

This article was written for and published in The Bottom Line, May 2014.