Turns out creativity can be learned and here’s how you do it

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It’s hard to appreciate creativity as a discipline. 

On balance, we associate imagination with genre fiction and the musings of children.  In actuality,  you don’t need to be an artist to employ unconventional approaches to daily tasks. 

With the help of a new paper published in the Journal of Research in Personality, we explore the value of creative thinking.

The authors essentially define “creativity” as emotion-driven research. Sometimes relying on our feelings can illuminate inspired solutions to practical problems.

“Aproova Mehta disliked everything about grocery shopping; he used these feelings as an impetus to create Instacart and solve the grocery shopping problem for himself and thousands of others,” the authors wrote. “Tristan Walker was frustrated by the lack of shaving products for coarse or curly hair. The frustration of waking up with razor bumps was an inspiration to create a line of beauty products that creatively solved the problem neglected by the industry of the day. Creativity training programs can learn from them and more purposefully incorporate the teaching of emotional intelligence skills.”

Few would argue about the utility of the creative process. A much larger majority likely wonders if it can be taught to us plebs. 

With that in mind, the researchers conducted two studies devised around various creative thinking tasks.

In the first study, college students were asked to come up with different uses for a brick and a knife.

Each participant was scored via the total number of ideas they generated (referred to as fluency) and the originality of these ideas. 

“Ideas considered original depart from the customary use of the object, such as a brick is a building material. A more original response could be to use a brick to mash garlic,” the authors explained.

In the second study, high school students were instructed to come up with different ways that they could improve their schools. These participants were also scored by the sum of their ideas in addition to each idea’s originality. 

The collective results from both studies debunked a common assumption.

It is widely believed that quality ideas tend to come from a large number of ideas. This was sometimes found to be the case, but not on principle. In fact, submitting to the notion that ten awful thoughts will invariably lead to one good one bears the potential to stifle a good idea’s development. 

In other words, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks is a fine approach, but predetermining the items worth throwing in the first place might be a better one. 

“Both studies found that some people come up with many ideas, but they are not very creative, others come up with average ideas in number and creativity, and some come up with not many ideas, but those they have are creative,” the authors said in a media release. “Indeed, stars of generating many ideas tend to think of ideas of only average creativity. People who thought of most creative ideas had either only somewhat above average number of ideas or even slightly below average number of ideas.”

Emotions seem to be the key. Our emotions not only tell us information about ourselves, but they also tell us things about our environment. Whether in the service of art, commerce or recreation, creativity is best facilitated by aspirations and questions.  

The researchers reviewed meta-analysis to support this theory. In one preceding study, children were encouraged to use emotion-laden memories to explore ideas for art portraying different themes — happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and calm. 

The participants were subsequently asked to come up with various ideas before starting their art piece.

After the exercise, children were consistently able to reformulate everyday problems and conceive of  unusual  but effective ways to solve these problems. These findings were replicated with college students observing art pieces. 

“A participant might find an abstract sculpture confusing. Instead of walking by it, they were challenged to attend to this feeling and relate it to their everyday experiences. They might connect confusion in front of a sculpture to their confusion in work meetings when they do not ask clarifying questions for a fear of a negative reaction by coworkers. Attention to emotion helps identify a real-life problem (getting most out of work meetings), as well as offering clues toward creative solutions (find allies with whom to ask questions),” the authors concluded. 

 CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com