Nurturing Creativity 101

Whenever we see creative people, we often think that they are simply born creative. We consider creativity to be an innate, natural trait that some have from birth, while others don’t have at all! We have drawn a bold line between these have’s and have not’s and never once think, that maybe creativity isn’t God-gifted and that it’s possible to nurture and develop creative traits.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire’s Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (2015), attempts to understand what creativity is, and how everyone can work towards developing their creative side. They delve into recent studies in psychology and neuroscience; look into the stories, habits, and practices of creative people to examine what it takes to boost one’s own creativity.

What Makes Creative People Creative?

Truthfully, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact traits that define creativity. Largely, it can be said that creative people have a vivid imagination, sensitivity, are open and intuitive in nature, are passionate, and daydream. However, according to psychologist Frank X. Barron’s 1960 research on famous, creative people, it is difficult to ascertain the one defining source that is the basis of a successful creative mind. His studies showed that having a higher IQ was only one of the many factors that contribute to creativity. 

Creative minds are contradictory and paradoxical. This was proved in a study conducted on a group of writers. While they tested above average for psychopathology and mental illness, they measured above average for overall mental health too. This contradiction is perhaps reflected best by their messy, unstructured work habits.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has noted that creative people seldom layout plans or schedules for their work. Instead, they follow the plan that is imposed on them by their work, proving that they have no rigid work pattern. For example, while Pablo Picasso worked on his masterpiece Guernica, he improvised, reworked, revised, and rethought as he painted, using some of his initial sketches and reworking on some others – only to discard them completely later on. While it led to a lot of ‘waste’ of time and effort, it also led to the masterpiece he created.

Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire
Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Passion To Be Masters

Literature and film have time and again stereotyped creative people as mathematical geniuses, whimsical painters, brilliant writers, etc. While this depiction can seem clichéd, they often reveal one trait that is common – passion. 

This passion is deeply rooted within the personalities of creative minds. It is a product of a crystallizing experience; essentially, a pursuit of creative activity at some point in their life that has affected them deeply enough to become part of them.

Jacqueline du Pré, the renowned cellist, for example, had her calling to playing the cello at the age of four. Though her talent and musical capabilities were evident in her Christmas carol singing and her nursery rhyme recitation, her crystallizing experience was when she first heard a cello. She told her mother, ‘That is the sound I want to make.”

A crystallising experience gives way to a need for mastery. According to psychologist Ellen Winner, this need pushes creative people with great intensity to work towards the goal of mastery. American psychologist Martha J. Morelock studied uncommonly creative children and found that their brains craved engagement with what they were passionate about, which led to an intense focus on the subject. 

Hence the dedication that is required to master the subject comes naturally, and isn’t as exhausting, since creative people need it for the satisfaction of a neurological need.

A study conducted by E. Paul Torrence on creative children found that passions start developing in childhood, are already developed by the time children reach elementary school and increase as they reach adulthood.

 The study also showed that passion, when developed in childhood led to adult creativity. At the same time, academically successful children, without a developed passion weren’t as creative in adulthood.

Perception And Sensitivity

It is seen that highly creative people tend to have a sometimes shy, sensitive personality. This nature counterbalances their public personas. For example, a rock star that exudes oodles of charisma and confidence during a performance in front of the crowd might actually be sensitive by nature and be a quiet individual, once alone. 

Psychologist Jennifer Grimes proved this, when she interviewed heavy metal musicians at a concert and found that they all had heightened, nuanced and rich perceptions of aural stimuli, partially stemming from their biological make–up. They were able to identify multiple layers to even simple sounds such as a bell.

Such increased and predisposed sensitivity, according to psychologist Jerome Kagan, is found in 10-20% of infants who have hyperactive nervous systems. This sensitivity encourages creativity, making sensitive people more receptive to sensations and attentive to patterns and details. Psychologist Elaine Aron found that such sensitive people have a higher ability to process more information, fuelling creative output.

At the same time, these sensitive individuals are lesser adept at filtering out unnecessary information from their surroundings. Essentially, unlike less sensitive people, sounds such as honking cars or footsteps easily distract sensitive people.

Predisposition To New Experiences

According to the author, the drive to explore, learn, and engage with the unfamiliar is a better indicator of creative success than divergent thinking, IQ, or any other psychological trait is. The longing for new experiences is neurologically wired into human nature.

The need to explore the unfamiliar, physically and mentally, is called psychological plasticity, with dopamine at the crux. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness. Yet, one does not need to experience a happy or pleasant feeling to experience the rush of dopamine. Even simply thinking of a pleasant event can activate dopamine in the body. Additionally, people who have a higher level of dopamine in their bodies are known to experience vivid dreams, and vivid dreamers are known to be more receptive to new experiences.

The unfamiliar and unknown also exposes people to new people, new ideas, and new connections. In his analysis, Dean Keith Simonton in 1997 showed that often, periods of creative achievements in different countries were preceded by periods of immigration. New places, new environment, exposure to new cultures and people, brought about opportunities and a conducive environment for creativity to grow and flourish.

This proves that creativity is fuelled by the predisposition of individuals towards new experiences. And in turn, new experiences are vital for the nourishment of imagination, and for creative ideas to develop.

Intuitive Thinking And Daydreaming

Daydreaming is actually a way the conscious connects with the unconscious mind and discovers feelings and hidden thoughts. Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst often sought to daydream when he would experience emotional challenges. He would let his mind wander allowing a connection to be formed between his conscious and unconscious mind. This process called active imagination, helped him develop new ideas, solve problems and gain new perspectives.

Apart from daydreaming, dual-process theories of cognition are another way to actively involve the unconscious mind. In this process, there are two types of thinking – 

  • Type 1 – This type of thinking doesn’t require inputs from the conscious mind and is automatic and quick processes, such as implicit learning and mental shortcuts, or emotion and intuition.
  • Type 2 – This includes deliberate, slow, and conscious cognitive efforts. Rationality, cause-and-effect thinking, and reflection are examples that are often referred to as ‘intelligence’.

While traditionally both the thinking types were believed to work separately, Kaufman proposed in 2009 that both work simultaneously as a dual-process. Both, type 1 and 2 thinking can be seen in intelligent behaviors, with type 1 processes working in the background. Therefore, when the conscious mind isn’t actively solving a problem, intuition steps in, resulting in sudden revelations akin to Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’! 

Embracing Solitude To Fuel Creativity

People fulfill the need for solitude and space by going on solitary walks. In fact some of the world’s greatest thinkers – from Charles Darwin and Immanuel Kant to Virginia Woolf and William Wordsworth – all indulged in walking to achieve solitude and to promote thinking.

The Buddhist monk Mathieu Richard wrote, ‘the outside silence opens the doors of the inner silence’.  Solitary walking has the ability to activate the unconscious and the lack of distractions gives way to ideas, images, and new connections that encourage creativity.

However, walking isn’t the only way to embracing solitude and fuelling creativity. Ingmar Bergman, the filmmaker moved to a remote Swedish island called Faro in the Baltic Sea in pursuit of solitude. He grappled to come to terms with the difficulty of living alone. He later channeled this struggle into his films.

The 16th Century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne believed that in order to be able to discover one’s inner voice and develop a unique perspective, it is crucial to remove oneself from the distractions of society and that one has to devote a sliver of life for oneself and indulge in reflection and personal relaxation.

Turning The Tough Into Creative Growth

The image of depressed, brooding, suffering artists, though a cliché, has its roots in reality. It is true that artists need to have a ‘suffering’ in order to achieve personal growth. 

Researchers Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi named it ‘post-traumatic growth’. There are more than 300 studies that prove posttraumatic growth and about 70% of the participants studied have had some positive psychological growth post-trauma. This phenomenon works because, in the wake of trauma, people tend to question established beliefs of who they are. Trauma forces people to reconstruct their world views completely, and lead to personal growth, despite being a very difficult process.

Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, transformed his suffering in the concentration camps by finding meaning amidst the horrors thus leading to personal growth. Finding meaning within trauma can make it more bearable. For creative artists, therefore, creative growth often stems from finding meaning in adversity and tough times.

Marie Forgeard, a psychologist, interviewed more than 300 people whether they felt more creative after their life’s most stressful experiences, and found a link between increased creativity and adverse experiences. The study revealed that the more adverse or traumatic the experiences were, creativity increase was correspondingly higher, suggesting that creativity could be part of the natural healing process of the mind.

For example, Paul Klee the painter started to work harder after discovering he had a terminal disease. Over the next year, he creates more than 1200 works of art, though his disease crippled his hands gradually. Some of these works were artistically groundbreaking.

Thus, while people seek creativity in adversity, tough times in life give people the opportunity to recreate themselves.

Increased Attentiveness Leads To Increased Creativity

In today’s world where smartphones and devices take up more than eleven hours of the day of an average American, attentiveness is hard to come by. Yet, mindfulness or the state of being aware of the present can be achieved via meditation.

Apple’s Steve Jobs meditated under Shunryu Suzuki, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He found that his creativity was a result of the meditation that created a space in his head where intuition could thrive.

Meditation, however, isn’t limited to sitting crossed-legged in an upright posture. It can be achieved in many ways. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, meditation is about living in the present, from one moment to the next, and making life really matter. ‘Why does one need meditation?’ is a more important question than figuring how to meditate. 

Focus-attention meditation – the most common form – where one focuses attention on either the breath or the heartbeat is undoubtedly beneficial. However, it might not be the best form for everyone. According to psychologist Jonathan Schooler, focused-attention meditation could actually impede creative thinking.

Another form – open-minded meditation – actually encourages the mind to wander and acknowledge any thoughts that could appear. This form de-emphasizes focus on any one thought or idea and thus could boost creativity.

Lorenza Colzato, the cognitive psychologist conducted tests to prove the benefits of open-minded meditation. She made a group of open-minded meditators and focussed-attention meditators take two tests. While one test measured convergent thinking – one’s ability to give a single correct answer, the other measured divergent thinking – one’s ability to give multiple solutions to a problem. The open-minded meditation group, unsurprisingly, scored higher on the divergent thinking test.

Breaking Habits Of Thought And Behaviour

While it is beneficial to have a structured routine in the day, it has been proved that breaking or varying one’s daily routine or habits can boost creativity. Something as simple as having tea instead of the daily morning coffee, or reading a book rather than binge-watching Netflix can help break ‘ functional fixedness’ –a psychological term for the mind perceiving things in a set, single manner.

Changing habits and challenging routines can be difficult. About 80% of adults find thinking differently exhausting and an unattainable goal. However, with breaking routine the effect lies in the effort.

According to Hal Gregersen and Jeff Dyer, business professors, innovators put in 50% more effort and time into thinking differently, and it is the effort that yields results. Therefore, breaking habits or deviating from them is about forming new habits – a habit to be open to a different way of doing things and to new experiences.

One of the ways to work towards creating this new habit is to change the way one sees success. Often, when people visualize success in the future they tend to get complacent. According to the science of motivation specialist Gabriel Oettingen, enjoying future success in the present decreases one’s motivation to actually achieve success. Achieving success then becomes even harder.

Contrarily, visualizing both, the goal and the obstacles, or a process called mental contrasting is a better approach. For example, a person who wishes to lose weight should first visualize the goal and what achieving it might feel like. Next, the person should contrast it with the current situation and factor in any obstacles, such as food cravings, that could hinder the process. This method helps in visualizing obstacles that could arise and make the mind ready to strategize solutions for the obstacles.

Risking Failure and Avoiding Conventional Thinking

New methods of thinking require some amount of risk-taking. That said, it is a known fact that humans are, by nature, averse to risk-taking, creating routines, and resist creativity in others. Therefore, creativity is challenging, especially when unconventionality and risking failure is inevitable.

16th Century philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, Giordano Bruno is an extreme example. He was denounced as a heretic and exiled from Italy because his theory that the universe is infinite challenged the scientific belief of that time, that the earth is the center of the universe. However, he stuck to his theory, believed that the majority thought had no bearing on the actual truth, and thus, was burned at the stake.

However, today, Bruno’s theory stands true and he is noted as a genius. Yet not all of his ideas were brilliant. This because, according to Dean Keith Simonson, the creativity of geniuses differs in quality. While some ideas a fantastic, others are utter failures. Yet what distinguishes them is their willingness to fail and face social rejection, all while having high productivity. They consider it a part and parcel of achieving success.

Professor Sharon Kim of the John Hopkins University conducted an experiment where she placed students into two groups, where one group was given tasks needing an independent mindset and the second group was given tasks that needed a group-oriented mindset.

She then asked all the students to draw an ‘unearthly’ creature from another planet. The first group, which had been given differentiation mindset tasks that made them feel unique, drew creatures that were stranger and more creative than the second group. This was because they were not afraid of the social consequences of depicting something that was original and bizarre.


Creativity isn’t an innate virtue, and neither does it arise out of a single set of experiences. the habits of creative minds are often paradoxical and contradictory. Creative people are intuitive by nature and have a vivid imagination. They are passionate and sensitive individuals. Additionally, creative people have a predisposition to new experiences and are solitary.

Everyone can nurture their own creativity. One can use helpful strategies such as pursuing solitude to enhance creative thinking, finding meaning in adversity and trauma to cultivate it as a factor to increase creativity, paying attention to the present and to one’s conscious thought processes.

Finally, in order to increase creativity, one has to be willing to break routine, avoid conventional thinking, and be willing to risk failure.