There are a surprising number of blog posts about the characteristics of creative people. However, most of these seem to focus either on an idealised vision of an artist or the blog-writers idealised self image! Here is my take on the characteristics of highly creative people. However, what I have done is look at how creative people think — based on my understanding of the latest research — and applied it behaviour.
It is also worth bearing in mind that creativity is not all about positives. There are good and bad creative people. Moreover, there seem to be some characteristics of creative people, such as dishonesty, that are not very nice. More controversially, some research has shown a correlation between creativity and mental illness. Though, as I noted in a recent issue of Report 103, there is apparently some doubt about how true that is.
The characteristics of highly creative people are, I believe, the result of two specific behaviours of such people. Let’s look at those behaviours and how they affect broader behaviour.
Behaviour One: Make More Use of Their Mental Raw Material
It seems that when highly creative people are trying to solve a problem or achieve a goal, particularly when the goal is related to their area of creative strength, they use much more of their brains than do ordinary people or, indeed, even themselves when not focused on a creative task. If the average person is asked to draw a picture of a cat, she will most likely think about the physical appearance of a cat and replicate it as best she can with pen and paper. The creative artist, on the other hand, will think in much more depth. She’ll think not only about the cat, but the placement of the cat; what the cat is doing; the lighting; the kind of lines to use and much more. She may decide to humanise the cat and give it emotions. Perhaps she’ll decide to draw a sexy cat with a human body wearing an evening gown. Maybe she’ll simply draw a blur representing a cat in motion.
By using much more of her brain to achieve her goal, the highly creative person in effect provides herself with more raw material from which to construct ideas than the average person. The average person thinks only about drawings of cats and the basic characteristics of cats. This limits the level of creativity she can achieve. The highly creative person thinks about much more — all the while retaining some connection to cats. It is not surprising that, with so much raw material, she is able to be more creative in the realisation of her ideas.
They Think Before They Act
It takes time to run through all that raw material in the brain. This is why creative people tend to think before they act. The play with the issue in their minds for a time, looking at a range of possibilities before choosing a direction. I see this when I work with creative people. When you give an average person a creative challenge, she tends immediately to try and come up with ideas. But because her mind is too focused on the issues of the challenge, her ideas are limited in scope as well. They are conventional, obvious ideas. The highly creative person, on the other hand, tends to turn the problem around in her head. She asks questions, thinks about it in various scenarios and brings seemingly unrelated information into her problem solving.
For example, if you ask an averagely creative person to come up with ideas for things you could do with a big box (for example, the kind of box a new washing machine might be packaged in), she will immediately think of boxes and their usual uses: storage, children’s toys, perhaps protection against the elements.
A highly creative person, would go further. She might think about using a box as a children’s toy (as would most people), but she would also think about the kind of games children might play in a box. She might imagine climbing into the box and then wonder what it would be like. She might think about tearing apart the box and what to do with the pieces – perhaps using them for kindling for a fire or raw material for a sculpture. She might invert the box in her mind and climb on top of it. What would happen if she did that, she might wonder. All of these thoughts enable her to come up with many more ideas than the averagely creative person. But these thoughts all come from her mind. She is simply using more of her mind and its memories, thoughts and notions in order to construct ideas.
Incidentally, the highly creative person does not focus on her left brain or right brain for a simple reason: it’s a myth1. Creative people use a lot of their brains, not one hemisphere or the other!
Curiosity Is Creative Play
Highly creative people are often cited as being very curious. This fits with the way their brains work. Rather than simply collect information, their brains play with it. One person might see a horse standing in a field and think it is a magnificent looking animal. Another, more curiously creative person, might wonder what the horse thinks about all day in the field. She might wonder how the horse can cope for long hours of inactivity without a book to read. Or she might notice that the horse tends to hang out by the fence that borders another field where another horse is resident. The creative person might wonder how two animals that do not have spoken or written language might bond and what kinds of friendships horses might have.
It is by often asking these questions, wondering and being curious that creative people come up with spontaneous ideas. For instance, it is by asking what use could be made of not very sticky glue that some people discovered Post-Its. Pablo Picasso wondered how he could depict three dimensional reality, as viewed from different perspectives, on a two dimensional canvas and came up with cubism.
Behaviour Two: Less Intellectual Regulation
The dorsolateral prefrontal region of the brain is responsible for, among other things, intellectual regulation2. It includes the brain’s censorship bureau; the bit of the brain that prevents us from saying or doing inappropriate things. It allows us to control impulses and to choose appropriate courses of behaviour according to circumstances. It seems that in highly creative people, this part of the brain becomes much less active than normal during the period of creation. This makes sense. If you can reduce the level of thought regulation when generating creative work (whether ideas, music, artwork), then fewer ideas will be filtered out as inappropriate and more will be developed and shared.
In averagely creative people, on the other hand, the dorsolateral prefrontal region remains more active all the time. It filters out crazy thoughts, it prevents the person from saying, doing or even thinking too much about outrageous ideas. It ensures that averagely creative people think and behave conventionally. And for many people, this is preferred. Most people desire to fit into society and succeed according to existing rules. It is only creative misfits who want to succeed by doing things their own way, by ignoring convention, by having the audacity to believe they know better than convention.
For many people, this is a good thing. Sharing stupid ideas is embarrassing. People might laugh at the individual who shares seemingly stupid ideas. People might question her competence. Moreover, the averagely creative individual may wonder why she should bother with creative ideas when more conventional solutions work well enough. No one is going to be laughed at or reprimanded for coming up with a conventional idea that is in keeping with the norms of the local culture (whether it is society, a school or a workplace). However, sharing a radical idea that might be stupid could well result in ridicule. Acting on an idea which could fail miserably could get you in trouble.
In short, it is safer to be conventional and incremental in your creativity than it is to be unconventional and radical in your creativity — at least for most people. Highly creative people are different. Their brains are programmed to worry less about fitting in with conventions and staying within norms. It is not that highly creative people are not afraid of ridicule or criticism (indeed, many artists are highly sensitive). Rather, it never occurs to them that others might ridicule their ideas.
Creative People Are Not as Rebellious as You Think
This leads to the myth that creative people are rebellious. I do not believe this is entirely true. But where most people, thanks to their active dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes, regulate their thinking and behaviour to fit with conventional behaviour, creative people are not so handicapped. Instead, they follow their own rules or systems for evaluating ideas and deciding whether to move forward with those ideas. These rule systems are often logical, at least to the creative thinker. But, because they are not about conforming to social norms, it makes the creative thinker seem rebellious. An artist, for example, will not make a name for herself by studiously copying current trends. Rather, she will become famous by being unique. So, if she makes decisions based on what is commonplace, ordinary and conforming in the art world, she will never make a name for herself. However, if she purposely veers from what is popular in order to carve out her own, unique style — she may become famous. She may make a name for herself.
Creative People Are Logical
Another common fallacy about creative people is that they are not logical; that they are driven purely by feeling and emotion. I do not believe this is true. Rather, as noted, creative people are not handicapped by a need to conform to social norms. They are not compelled to be a part of popular culture. Rather, they are driven by a logic that suits their needs and is logical to them. That logic may be based in part on emotions and feelings — especially in some artists. But it is a logic nevertheless. All people need to make decisions and decisions are based on some kind of logic. The creative artist is no exception. If anything, by not feeling compelled to fit the demands of popular culture, the creative artist needs to be even more logical than the average person who assumes that if everyone wears and buys a particular style jacket, then it is safe to buy and wear such a jacket.
Creative People Tend to Be Less Honest
Another apparent consequence of having a relaxed dorsolateral prefrontal region, combined with a brain that is adept at building ideas, appears to be a reduced need to be honest. Research by Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely3confirms that, in general, highly creative people are less honest than averagely creative people. The reason for this seems to be that creative people can use their creativity to justify their actions in ways that less creative people cannot do. A lot of people, especially highly creative people as well as those who believe themselves to be very creative, will balk at this and claim that they are very honest. And it is true that they believe that. That is because their creativity is successful in convincing them that their behaviour is justified.
Creative People Are Introverts, Extroverts, Collaborators, Independent, Big, Small, Fat, Skinny…
I have seen some bloggers claim that creative people are introverts; others that creative people are extroverts. I have heard that creative work better in groups and that they work better individually. However, I have never seen these assumptions supported in any way. The truth is, creativity seems to have little to do with how well one functions socially, one’s weight (though I would assume that being in good health would help the brain function better) or other personal characteristics. The truth is, creative people come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colours and personalities. What truly distinguishes them from others is that they use more of their brains to generate ideas — which provides them with more raw material for building unique ideas — and less of their brains to regulate the development and sharing of those unusual ideas.
What Do You Think?
What do you think? Is this a fair portrayal of the characteristics of creative people? If not, why not? Have I missed anything? I’d love for you to share your thoughts!
References 1. Christian Jarrett (June 2012) “Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die”; Psychology Today; 2. Simon Ross (2008) “Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex”; Psychlopedia; 3. Francesca Gino, Dan Ariely (2011) “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can be More Dishonest”;Harvard Business School Working Paper
Wait! Before you go…
Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:
- Daily — RSS Feed — Email — Twitter — Facebook — Linkedin Today
- Weekly — Email Newsletter — Free Magazine — Linkedin Group
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.