I’ve been reading a lot of books on creativity lately—most by 20th-century scholars. They offer intriguing insights but are also a tad heady and dry to consume. Wired to Create is not a compendium of sober research. It’s a highly readable, fun peek into creative minds—something to devour in full on a quiet, snowy Sunday. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s inspired by Gregoire’s hit Huff Post article “18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently.”
Gregoire partnered with Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist and the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania to give us a glimpse into the messy minds of creative people. And messy they are, as you know if you are a creative or hang with them. I found this book’s characterization of creative individuals spot-on with what I know and experience in the world.
If you respond well to sound bites and revel in snappy, inspirational quotes, this is the book for you—it’s chock full of great content for speakers and social media mavens. That said, I would be remiss to reduce Wired to Create to a thing of “fluff”—it’s not—it’s thoughtful and research-backed. And unlike the 20th-century tomes on creativity I’m reading now, this book was created with an “everyman” reader in mind: it’s breezy, interesting, and delightfully digestible.
Wired to Create is structured into ten chapters—The Ten Things Highly Creative People Do Differently. Each chapter brings the “thing” to life through storytelling, research insights, and specific examples of creatives who exemplify a characteristic. At the outset, the authors debunk the linear four-stage model of creativity outlined by social psychologist, Graham Wallas (1. Preparation, 2. Incubation, 3. Illumination, and 4. Verification) as too simplistic. Instead, they adopt the perspective of Thomas Edison and others that “even at the level of genius, creativity is a ‘messy business’”—a multifaceted system of characteristics that ultimately converge. Creativity is “whole brain” thinking that isn’t relegated to the left or to the right.
In my experience, creativity has a “multiplier effect.” In other words, injections of new creative inspirations into the messy creative mind stimulates further creativity over time—exponentially more.
1. a phenomenon whereby a given change in a particular input, such as government spending, causes a larger change in an output, such as gross domestic product.
According to the authors, creatives are masters at cultivating a wide array of attributes while effortlessly adapting to changing circumstances. Creatives possess three main personality “super-factors”:
1. Plasticity – the tendency to explore and engage with novel ideas, objects, and scenarios.
2. Divergence – a nonconformist mindset and independent thinking.
3. Convergence – the ability to put in the hard effort necessary to exercise practicality and make ideas tenable.
Individually and together, according to Kaufman and Gregoire, these qualities encourage the development of expression and creativity and come into play during two key phases in the creative process: idea generation and idea selection.
Aside from living comfortably with complexity, what are the Ten Things Highly Creative People Do Differently?
1. Imaginative Play
“Anything that is impractical can be play—it’s doing something other than what is necessary to continue living as an animal.” ~ Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda video game series.
“That is the sound I want to make.” ~ distinguished cellist Jacqueline du Pre’s words at age 4 when she first heard the sound of a cello.
“They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe, American Writer
“Solitude is a condition not of escaping the world but of encountering it.” ~ Martin Heidegger, German Philosopher
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
“Don’t think! The intellect is a great danger to creativity…because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things instead of staying with your own basic truth—who you are, what you are, what you want to be.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Author
6. Openness to Experience
“The best teacher is experience.” ~ Jack Kerouac, American novelist, poet and the Beat Generation poster boy
According to the authors, openness to experience—the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds—is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement. “We need new and unusual experiences to think differently.”
Openness to experience goes hand in hand with integrative complexity, the capacity and desire to recognize new patterns and find links among seemingly pieces of information.
Observation is an important driver of creativity.
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” ~ Henri Matisse on the art of attention.
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To him…a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” ~ Pearl S. Buck, American Writer and Novelist
Sensitivity, intensity, and inner conflict are required for us to transcend to greater levels of growth, self-awareness, and compassion. To become our “higher self” we must rise above our “false self”—”the accumulation of all the voices you have internalized from other people—parents and friends who want you to conform to their ideas of what you should be like and what you should do, as well as societal pressures to adhere to certain values.” ~ Robert Greene, Writer
“It is by going down into the abyss that we discover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” ~ Joseph Campbell, American Mythologist
And my favorite quote from the book by Swiss-American psychiatrist and grief expert, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
9. Turning Adversity into Advantage
“No mud, no lotus” ~ Traditional Buddhist saying
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ~ Viktor Frankl, Austrian Neurologist, Psychiatrist, Author and Holocaust Survivor
10. Thinking Differently
According to one study, artists questioned said that a creative person is “one who takes risks and is willing to follow through on the consequences of those risks.” Businesspeople, meanwhile, responded that a creative person in the business world “is one who steers clear of the pitfalls of conventional ways of thinking.” Although what constitutes creativity differs across domains, creative people are united by their willingness to abide by unconventional ways of thinking and doing things.
“Creative people march to a different drummer—themselves!”
“The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Confused by this? Creativity is held up as a virtue in popular culture, right? Not so fast. Isaac Asimov, writer and professor of biochemistry, unpacks this by explaining, “the fact that we celebrate new and original ideas after they’ve become widely accepted doesn’t mean that we truly embrace creativity.” As a general rule, the authors assert, we don’t like things that challenge our habitual ways of thinking, which makes creative work a dangerous endeavor.
Failure to conform leads to social rejection. But rejection, according to the authors, has a silver lining when it comes to creativity. There are perks of being an outsider, and creativity is one of them. For a entire book dedicated to exploring the ideas and minds of outsiders (largely musicians and comedians), read The Tenacity of the Cockroach (and my review here.)
There’s so much to enjoy about this book, not least of which is the fundamental premise, which I believe with every fiber of my being:
“We are all, in some way, wired to create.”
Pick up this book. And while you’re at it, do something else: pick up another, utterly obscure book on creativity—one not endorsed by the “powers that be,” like this one is. If you haven’t already figured it out, what we (our culture) raises up as a creative work—as worthy, as culturally significant—are the works that have been reviewed and blessed by the experts in the domain. Rightfully so, one can expect that the Nobel Prizes, the Booker Prizes, and even The New York Times Best Sellers would be cherry-picked and promoted by the experts who hold the reins in the field. They’ve earned their stripes. Let’s give them that. But let’s not let them preclude us from looking outside of what has been accepted by the “inner circles”—the oddballs, the indies, the edgy, and the uncomfortable. If you want to be creative—if you want to think differently, if you want to be open to new ideas and experiences, explore the fringes too. Greatness can be found in all of the spaces around us—including those spaces where no spotlight will ever shine.
“Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” ~ Dorothy Parker, Poet