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The Miracle of Creativity

There’s no scientific method for coming up with brilliant new ideas. But the authors of a new book argue that a set of habits can help foster innovation.

There’s a great cartoon by Sidney Harris that sums up every book I’ve read about creativity. Two scientists are standing in front of a blackboard looking at a mathematical equation. In the middle of the equation are the words, “Then a miracle occurs.” One scientist says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.” As in that equation, there seems to be an essential and impenetrable mystery to the creative process.

In this regard, the most recent addition to the groaning shelf of creativity books, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (Perigee, 2015), by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, is not much different than its predecessors. Kaufman and Gregoire are something of a dream team for such a book: He is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and she is a senior writer at the Huffington Post who specializes in the human mind. Nevertheless, this dynamic duo is unable to fully explain the creation of Picasso’s Guernica, much less Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros

Unlike most creativity authors, however, Kaufman and Gregoire admit that prying open this particular black box may be beyond our ken. They repeatedly call out creativity’s contradictory nuances. For instance, they tell us that mindfulness, as championed by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, is both an important ingredient of creativity and an obstacle in its path. Mindfulness helps when it enables us to be more attentive and observant; it is a hindrance when it interrupts our ability to attain the state of flow, which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has championed. “Creative observation is a skill that requires a balance of paying attention to the world around us and of tuning into our own inner landscape — a balance of mindfulness, a focused, nonjudgmental awareness on the present moment, and mind wandering,” explain Kaufman and Gregoire.   

A call to embrace the messy business of creativity can sometimes make for a bewildering mix of advice. But it also enables the authors to avoid the kind of step-by-step prescriptions that transform the creative process into a rote and often fruitless exercise. Indeed, they say, “this delicate, and sometimes extreme, dance of contradictions may be precisely what gives rise to the intense inner drive to create.” 

Instead of a detailed process, Wired to Create includes ten “habits of mind.” They are labelled: imaginative play, passion, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness, sensitivity, turning adversity to advantage, and thinking differently. It’s less about doing and more about being. The habits support and foster the “fundamental thought processes, creative problem-solving skills, and ways of being” that the authors claim underlay every kind of creativity. 

The habits, Kaufman and Gregoire tell us, are derived from scouring scientific research over the past hundred years and also extracting “common themes from within the minds and lives of eminent creators throughout the course of human history.” In other words, if you’ve read other books on creativity and the human mind, you’ve probably seen some of this stuff before.

“Creativity works in mysterious and often paradoxical ways.”  

It would be nice to report that Wired to Create is the uber-text on creativity. At the start of the book, when the authors devote a chapter to describing the evolutionary development of creativity theory and process, it seems like they might be going for it. But while they also include a bit of practical advice for getting your creative juices flowing for each of the habits of mind (or operationalizing them, if you prefer), they don’t fully deliver on an all-enveloping theory. In the end, Kaufman and Gregoire concede, “Creativity works in mysterious and often paradoxical ways. We human beings are messy creatures, to be sure, and creativity is a process that that reflects our fundamentally and chaotic and multifaceted nature. It is both deliberate and uncontrollable, mindful and mindless, work and play.” 

And then a miracle occurs.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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