In Creative people’s brains really do work differently by from Quartz Magazine, Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman, authors of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, pose an interesting hypothesis.
They note the work of 1960s psychologist and creativity researcher Frank X. Barron, who invited a group of high-profile creators—writers Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O’Connor, along with leading architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, and mathematicians—to spend several days living in a former frat house on the University of California at Berkeley campus. Contrary to conventional thought at the time, Barron concluded that intelligence had only a modest role in creative thinking. IQ alone could not explain the creative spark.
Instead, his study showed that creativity is informed by intellectual, emotional, motivational and moral elements. The common traits he observed included an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks.
The Quartz piece quotes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who spent more than 30 years of observing creative people: “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’”
One of several conclusions? Even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.
But perhaps the superpower is not only a high tolerance but a high comfort level with mess—and perhaps that’s the key. The Quartz piece brings to mind faculty lead Rajiv Ball’s The Paradoxes of Creative Leadership, in which he cites the built-in tensions inherent to creative leadership:
Passion and purpose can be all consuming, leaving scarce time for free exploration; by contrast, an explorative mindset requires ring-fencing time for exploration of and play with the outside world. The paradox is having a sense of a path from within and being open to new discoveries from without, knowing what to go for and why, while remaining curious and critical.
That’s one of several paradoxes within creativity, as noted by Ball—there’s the need to show and tell people where to go, while also giving people the space to let a new vision emerge. There’s having your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground: to be a simultaneous dreamer and realist.
“Creative leaders are great at asking questions, and that includes a constant examination of where their own gaps may be,” says Ball. “It’s really quite brilliant to recognize that you have discomfort with uncertainty, for example, and to then seek out others into your team who are likely to help you when you know you need to move forward.”
Of all the questions to ask, Ball highlights the one than creative leaders tend to ask most often—the iterative why, asked five times to reach the root cause of a problem. Each repeat forms the context for the next, and that’s how we mine for more perspective and develop the very tolerance that Gregoire and Kaufman might say is nature more than nurture. Could this be a way to amplify any inherent chemistries or tolerances we may already have? In our mindset, can we favour the built-in tensions that drive creativity?
What Gregoire and Kaufman call ‘juggling contradictory modes of thought’ could be a close cousin of Ball’s mandate of regularly getting outside the conventional line of sight. Whether you’d say that a creative mindset is nature, nurture, or both, a room full of people who are warm to new ideas would agree—openness, complexity, ambiguity, and independence is best done with company.