3 Insights From a New Book About Creativity

Artist and Easel
Photo: Jason Langer/Corbis

Despite the apparent difficulty of understanding the workings of the creative mind, it’s a burgeoning area of scientific study that has exploded in the last 15 years after being mostly ignored for decades. (From the 1960s to the 1990s, just 9,000 papers were published on the subject of the psychology of creativity. From 1999 to 2009, 10,000 were published.) The fascinating new book Wired to Create, co-authored by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and science writer Carolyn Gregoire, offers a synthesis of the current state of knowledge and is packed with insights about creativity. 

Here are a few of the most surprising and useful findings, which suggest any of us could become more creative in our own chosen activities with just a few simple habit changes and shifts in attitude.

The key to creativity is openness. According to one well-known test administered by psychologists in the 1960s, writers tend to score really high on tests measuring psychopathology. However, those same writers also scored unusually high on tests measuring mental health. This paradoxical finding may be at least partially explained by one facet of personality that is highly correlated with creativity: openness. “Being open to and curious about the full spectrum of life — both the good and the bad, the dark and the light — may be what leads writers to score high on some characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness,” write Kaufman and Gregoire, “at the same time that it leads them to become more grounded and self-aware.”

People who say they’re only motivated by deadlines are probably not very creative. Research has shown that people who strongly agree with statements like “I work most creatively when I have deadlines” also tend to score higher in stress and lower in “creative potential”; they also, perhaps unsurprisingly, score lower in intrinsic motivation and higher in extrinsic motivation. That means they have a hard time forcing themselves to get something done, and are more likely to get to work when being nudged along by someone or something else — like a deadline.

In contrast, the authors write, people who “derive enjoyment from the act of creating and feel in control of their creative process tend to show greater creativity than those who are focused exclusively on the outcome of their work.” Creative work is best approached with a focus on the process itself, and the joy of making something, rather than a laser focus on the results.

It’s better to think of your creative work as something you are, not something you do. You probably already know that “follow your passion” is not very helpful advice. But there may be a way to think about that cliché that turns it into something more useful. Kaufman and Gregoire summarize some fascinating research on the idea of “harmonious passion,” which is the idea that you’ve folded some creative pursuit — dancing, drawing, writing, whatever — into your identity. It’s become a part of who you understand yourself to be.

Obsessive passion,” on the other hand, is marked by anxiety and self-consciousness; it means you derive your self-worth from your ability to best a rival on some creative task, for example. It goes back to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, in other words. Are you doing this for you, or to impress those around you?

Despite all the stress and tears those with obsessive passion pour into their work, it seems that those who are harmoniously passionate about their creative work are more likely to achieve the high goals they’ve set for themselves. You do it because you love it, and the accomplishments come along almost as a by-product of your love for the work. Even more important, research has also shown that “when we feel our work is both emotionally interesting and personally meaningful, accomplishing a task is significantly less mentally taxing.” Lighten up, in other words, and you’ll be rewarded by both getting more work done and enjoying the work you’re doing — which, in turn, will help you get that much more done. 

3 Insights From a New Book About Creativity