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How to Be Creative

In the first of a two-part series, clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 6 tips to set the stage for creativity, with habits and mindsets that fertilize the ground from which creative ideas sprout.  Next week, we’ll talk about what to do when a creative block strikes.   

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
February 14, 2014
Episode #006

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It’s hard to define creativity, but, like jazz or porn, you know it when you see it.  Today, we'll discuss 6 tips--habits and mindsets on which to hang your creative thinking cap.  The idea for these podcasts comes from Savvy Psychologist listener Ty C. of New York City.

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The elusive nature of creativity doesn’t stop psychologists from trying to measure and study it.  The historical measure of creativity is a test of divergent thinking developed by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967 called the Alternative Uses Task.  In the test, you get two minutes to think of possible uses for a commonplace object.  For example, let’s try a newspaper: go!  Packing material. Gift wrap. Stuff it inside wet shoes.  Firestarter.  Emergency potholder!  Make a piñata! You get the picture.

The test, which is somewhat narrow, has recently lost favor with creativity researchers, but it does highlight several factors of creativity, such as fluency, or how many ideas a creative brain can come up with, flexibility, or how diverse one’s ideas are, originality, or whether an idea is novel, and elaboration, or how deeply an idea had been thought out. 

The ability to engage in divergent thinking—or as Steve Jobs might have said, the ability to think different—is a necessary, but not sufficient, trait for creativity.

But is it a trait?  Are we born creative?  It wasn’t until the Renaissance that artists and poets were seen as thinking up their own work; before, creation was the realm of the gods.  Humankind could discover or imitate, but not create.  Even today, creativity has a mystical aura.  While research is getting there, nailing down whether creativity is a personality trait, a temporary state, or even a distinct process is still up for debate.

Until then, it is up to us to create an environment that nurtures our creativity, so we can stretch to the top of our genetic or divinely inspired range.

But how do we do this?  Here are 6 habits and mindsets to get your brain’s broth a-boiling:

Tip #1: Gather information persistently.

Creativity often looks like plucking brilliance from thin air, but geniuses don’t create in a vacuum.  Whether you’re a writer, scientist, dancer, architect, or programmer, creativity often means standing on the shoulders of giants.  If you want to be a writer, read.  If you want be an artist, look at art.  This works best if you start as a kid, but rest assured you can start at any age.  After all, most kids don’t think much beyond wanting to be a firefighting dinosaur. 

If what goes in is constantly piquing your mind with ideas, what emerges will be, we hope, extraordinary.  However, just taking in information is a bit vague.  Have a project in mind.  What are you trying to do?  Make your project the lens through which you see the world, and let the work begin.

Tip #2: Get to work.

Don’t wait for your creative idea to emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  A zillion quotes from creative luminaries echo the same sentiment: get to work.  This is the unglamorous side of creativity.  But when you work consistently, you keep the pot boiling.  If you work intermittently, it goes cold, making it much more likely to get blocked or even forget what you’re trying to do.   So don’t wait to be in the mood to work.  Don’t wait until you are inspired.  Think of it as a practice.  Work your shift.  Put in your time.

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