10 Things You Didn’t Know About Exceptionally Creative People

I recently completed Dr. Keith Sawyer’s book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject or curious about how to enhance their own creativity. (Visit his blog at keithsawyer.wordpress.com) In Zig Zag, Dr. Sawyer outlines a variety of exercises and tactics to help you along the creative process. He also provides valuable insight into the nature of the creative process itself. In his book, I learned some surprising things that exceptionally creative people all have in common. Below I have listed 10 things that you (probably) didn’t know about exceptionally creative people.

exceptional creators

  1. Exceptional creators sleep more hours than the average person. (Harvard researcher Jeffrey Ellenbogen found that after sleep, people are 33% more creative!)
  2. Researchers have found that people who have lived in more than one country (multinationals, biculturals, immigrants ect.) are more creative.
  3. Exceptional creators aren’t born that way. Creativity is close to 80% learned and acquired (according to Hal Gregerson, a professor at INSEAD Business School).
  4. Successful creators are curious by nature. They ask questions and listen closely to the answers, even when the information has no obvious relationship to what they’re working on at the moment. In other words, exceptional creators are experts at “connecting the dots”.
  5. Exceptional creators are masters of the discipline of play, the ability to imagine and envision possible worlds and alternate realities.
  6. Most exceptional creators are working on multiple projects at a time. (They’re using these various areas of focus to make even more connections and thus advance their work!)
  7. Creative people are exceptionally self-aware. They are constantly reflecting on what they’re doing at any given moment and they’re constantly listening to themselves.
  8. Creative people work harder than most other people, usually at researching and acquiring new information. Paradoxically, they also take more time off.
  9. About 25% of the world’s most exceptional creators engaged in the creation of elaborate imaginary worlds as children. (So think twice next time you want to make fun of someone’s “imaginary friend”! 😉
  10. Exceptional creators make a conscious effort to introduce change into their lives, or to put themselves in situations in which they’re more likely to experience the unexpected.

The Intersection of Death and Creativity

As the saying goes, “Genius is sorrow’s child.”

mourning

Psychologists Christopher Long and Dara Greenwood recently investigated the connection between death and creativity. They asked a group of undergraduates to write humorous captions for New Yorker cartoons. Some of the students were first primed with subliminal messages of death. These students produced cartoons judged to be more creative and more humorous. The conclusion is that the inability to acknowledge and mourn loss leads to a shutdown of vital creative impulses. On the flip side, the resolution of loss allows for a fresh start and renewed access to sources of creativity.

Mourning, it seems, is not only vital for our mental health but for our creative lives as well.

This might explain why a disproportionately large number of creative geniuses lost a parent, usually a father, at a young age. A study of some 700 historical figures found that 35% lost a parent by age 15, and nearly half by age 20. The list includes Dante, Bach, Darwin, Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and more. These creative geniuses possessed not only an ability to rebound from suffering but also to transform that suffering into creativity.

Creativity vs. Art

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” – Scott Adams

Creativity by Steve Jobs

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences than other people.” –Steve Jobs

Belief: The Intersection of Creativity and Culture

In Western culture, we consider creativity the province of a select few. But that’s not true of all cultures. In primitive societies, for example, most people participate in creative activities. In more “advanced” ones, creativity becomes something special and therefore an option for fewer and fewer people. In the West, we tend to be concerned solely with the outcome of creativity. The product, so to speak. Asian cultures, on the other hand, are about the process of creativity. They care more about the journey than the destination itself.

How do cultures come to such different approaches towards creativity? 

creation

It might boil down to our beliefs, particularly as they relate to creation. In the west, our story of creation begins with this, “In the beginning God created heaven and Earth.” We take this to mean that God created something from nothing, and thus, we humans tend to approach creation in the same way. This line of thought suggests that the creative act is linear. It says that the creator starts at X and advances until he/she reaches Y.

Chinese beliefs

Contrastingly, in Chinese culture, the universe, the Tao, has no beginning. There has always been something and there will always be. For the Chinese, the creative act is not one of invention but of discovery. Confucius himself said, “I transmit but do not create.”

hindu beliefs

The Hindus hold similar beliefs. In Hindu culture, there is nothing to invent, only old truths to rediscover and combine in new, imaginative ways. For Hindus, the creative genius is like a light bulb illuminating a room. The room has always been there and always will. The creative genius doesn’t create or even discover the room. She illuminates it. And this is not insignificant because without illumination, we would remain ignorant of the room’s existence and of the wonders that lie inside.

light bulb

Personally, I think that our Western version of creation, from the very beginning, has been misconstrued and taken out of context. If you continue reading Genesis, God’s story goes on to say that God always has been and always will be…That we are carefully crafted in His image. Thus, our creation story is closely in line with that of the Chinese or Hindu cultures. It has no beginning and no end. What they call the Universe, we call God. This points us to the rightful conclusion that the creative act is, in fact, non linear. The process of creativity is just as important, if not more so, than the outcome. When we begin to approach creativity in this way, not only does it become more accessible, but also significantly more rewarding.

Is Education an Essential Ingredient to Genius?

Bill gates, Steve Jobs, Woody Allen. All college dropouts. Einstein’s PhD dissertation was rejected twice. Thomas Edison dropped out of school at age fourteen. While some geniuses (Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud, for example) were stellar students, most were not.

In a study of some 300 creative geniuses, Dean Simonton found that the majority made it only halfway through what was considered a modern education at the time. Any more, or less, was detrimental. So while some education is essential to creative genius, it seems that beyond a certain point, more education does not increase the chances of genius but instead lowers it.

The deadening effect of formal education manifests itself surprisingly early. Psychologists have identified the exact year when a child’s creative thinking skills plateau: the fourth grade.

What Distinguishes a Good Work of Art from a Work of Genius?

A good work of art, even a great one, speaks to people of a certain time.

However, a work of genius transcends temporal bounds. It is continuously rediscovered anew by successive generations. In other words, a work of genius isn’t static. It bends (and is bent by) each new audience that encounters it.

For example, the art of the Greeks and the Egyptians, is not art of the past. One could even argue that it is more alive today than ever before. As Pablo Picasso once said, “There is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered art at all.”

Works of genius live in the now.

Make Time to Play

“Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder.” –G.K. Chesterton

boy in train station

Children are naturally creative primarily because they’re curious and playful. The experiment endlessly, let their minds wander freely, and they experience imaginative worlds with such detail that it’s often clever. 

Although the adult world is filled with deadlines and pressure, we have to continue to make time to play. It is our duty and our right to create space in our day for imagination. Perhaps then we will be as clever as children.

Quote about Ideas

taking a shower

“Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes the difference.” – Noah Busnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants

Ideas are like Rabbits

rabbits

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck