There is a special aura to the label “creativity” in our culture that puts it above other positive qualities like “diligence” or “determination.” In parlance, “creative” people are the dreamers, innovators, artists, pioneers, geniuses, and prodigies–and implicitly but emphatically not hardworking, boring drudges. But how we conceptualize creativity says a lot more about our culture than the true nature of the force that begets great works of art, science, design, and literature.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of creativity and highly creative individuals. Growing up, I was surrounded by musicians and dancers; in college I majored in art history; and in my current life as an editor, I work with authors and writers. In each of these stages I’ve witnessed incredibly creative people and people who are substantially less so. Exhibit A: a baby-faced twenty-two-year-old recent college grad landing his first book deal, seemingly out of nowhere. Exhibit B: an author who is behind his manuscript deadline–by more than twenty-five years. (True story. You can’t make up something like that.) What I’ve learned from observing these people in real life, and studying the famous one-name figures, is that creativity is not a struck-by-lightening gift. Creativity is like your muscles: the more you use it, the better it is able to perform. Everyone has muscles; and while not all who train will become Olympic athletes, exercise will improve fitness level for anyone. Likewise, not everyone who exercises their creative muscles will become a Leonardo da Vinci, a Tchaikovsky, or a Jane Austen. But absolutely everyone can gain from becoming more creative–not just the typical “artists” like painters, photographers, designers, writers, musicians, actors, and dancers, but even scientists, executives, entrepreneurs, educators, doctors…and anyone else who faces new problems that need to be solved. So without further ado, here are the 5 characteristics of highly creative people.
1. They think inside the box: This was one of the most important lessons I learned in college (um, sorry Mom and Dad; also, insert joke about art history majors here). We were studying Celtic manuscript illuminations when the professor pointed out the impossibility of coming up with such a design without first determining its limitations. The artist/monk did not just start drawing on the page and let his imagination take its course: he purposely confined himself to a box, then divided it further into smaller boxes–and only within such limitations, could he have accomplished something so breathtaking as a whole. This can be applied to pretty much any discipline; for instance, imagine the difficulty in writing anything useful, let alone beautiful, if you were to abandon the rules of syntax and grammar. Thinking inside the box goes against what we’re continuously told about creativity, but it gives us direction and focus.
2. They ritualize their creative work: More boxed-in stuff. What you need to get over your writer’s block isn’t packing your bags and jumping on the next flight out. Rather, it’s making a habit of your creativity so that it becomes a natural part of your daily life. Charles Dickens’s son wrote that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.” Dickens woke at 7 am, breakfasted at 8, and wrote in his study from 9 til 2, averaging 2,000 words a day…meaning he could pump out an average novel of 80,000 words in just 40 days. But my personal favorite is Twyla Tharp, who gets up at 5:30 am and works out for two hours before she even has coffee, let alone breakfast. Her schedule is filled with exercise, rehearsals, business calls and correspondence. “A dancer’s life is all about repetition,” she says in her 2003 book, The Creative Habit–“It’s actively anti-social. On the other hand, it is pro-creative.”
3. They know originality is overrated: The most highly “original” people in history got there by relentlessly learning, copying, and mastering other people’s work. The Impressionist painters–the first true modernists–trained in highly mimetic Academic style before attempting anything like their own style. Even the most seminal artists and creatives build upon the work of previous generations, and to do that they prioritize learning and modifying over making up something completely new. Don’t be afraid of appearing unoriginal–studying and internalizing others will ultimately make it easier for you to discover who you really are.
4. They master a theme: #3 is about learning from others, #4 is about learning from yourself. Did you create a good painting/poem/photo/sculpture/song? Good–now go back and create another one on the same theme, but with a twist. Practice variations on a theme ad nauseum until you truly master it. This is the way all the greats from Bach to Monet to Picasso worked.
5. They’re not afraid of failure: The biggest cause of paralysis isn’t the absence of inspiration, but fear of failure. Don’t expect everything you do to be a legacy onto future generations; just create for the sake of creating, not accomplishment.
More tips: 6 Ways to Boost Your Career in 10 Minutes
Photo: Neil Alderney via Flickr