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But out of limitations comes creativity

Debbie Allen

Defining what actually makes someone creative has shown itself to be one of the ‘Holy Grails’ for psychologists. In many cases creative geniuses just do not know what makes them so creative and so can’t share their wisdom with others. This represented a challenge to psychologists who, as a result, set about resolving the mystery of creativity by tackling it from a different angle. If creative people find it so difficult to show what makes them creative perhaps replicating the circumstances and situations (factors) where creativity is shown might let ‘lesser mortals’ produce those factors and thereby boost their own creativity. After several years of research the factors that most benefit creativity have been identified. Over the next two posts I will name what those six factors are and briefly explain how they can be used to boost creativity. Please do try them out for yourselves and let me know what happens. Here, are the first three, with the next post containing the remaining three:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Constraint
  3. Emotion
1. Knowledge

I wrote about this in last week’s post so I’m not going to say very much here. The important thing to remember, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, is that too much knowledge can invoke a tendency to go down the same, ‘tried and trusted route’ when creativity is desired. Over-reliance on the same-each-time method of problem-solving results in a lack of creative flexibility. Put simply: ‘When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail’.

Possible solution

Try something different, however counter-intuitive it is to you. You may well have to ‘fight’ your training and all your knowledge acquired; perhaps even your colleagues! Alexander Pope (in his Essay on Criticism, 1709) wrote that ‘a little knowledge was a dangerous thing’; a lot of knowledge can be your worst enemy too. If your knowledge is getting you nowhere think ‘outside the box’ – and every other cliché you can think of that exists! – when stuck. Perhaps ask yourself, “If I didn’t know what I know what might I suggest?” or “What might [name of person] suggest in this situation?”. You might be quite surprised with the outcome.

2. Constraint

Some constraints have been shown to actually boost creativity. (See also the quotation that heads this post from Debbie Allen.) The constraints that we impose on ourselves can in fact be the very catalyst that we need for creativity.

Possible solutions

There are several strategies that can be employed here. One is to do with the art of questioning. There are several powerful questions that can ask yourself. One such question to ask yourself is: ‘What would happen if…?’ The intention here is to impose restrictions and create a more restrictive boundary. When you have fewer choices you’re compelled to be more creative with what you’ve got. So, discard something that’s ‘needed’. You might find that not only are you more creative at finding a solution but that it wan’t ‘needed’ anyway.

There are other questions too.

Some of the most creative solutions come about when we ask, ‘What if…?’ This is known by psychologists as a ‘counterfactual’ question: an alternative to the reality if nothing was to change in what I was doing. Psychologists such as Ruth M.J. Byrne (2005) have argued that cognitive processes underlying alternatives to reality are similar to those that underlie the cognitive processes of the present reality. Therefore, there is great power in such questioning when a ‘dead end’ is faced. Powerchange has developed a powerful tool called ‘Questions that Change Your Mind’. Effective coaching is all about asking powerful questions and waiting for the answer. If you want to know more please contact me.

Another strategy is to give yourself time too to fully grasp the problem, whatever it is. ‘Gut-feeling’, instinctive-behaving people might not agree with this, as their gut feelings have served them well. If this has been the case: great! If it hasn’t there may well be an opportunity to try something new. Getzels J.W. & Csikszentmihalyi (1976) published a paper called Problem Solving Strategies that Distinguish Creative Arts . They discovered that artists who spent longer analysing the challenge they faced to come up with original, more creative, solutions actually produced more original solutions compared with others who didn’t do this strategy and somewhat ‘rushed in’.

Finally, use the Doublethink strategy, as well as pay due diligence to problems to overcome and how you’re going to do that. You can read all about Doublethink in a former post that I made by clicking here.

3. Emotion

Using emotion to increase creativity on face value seems like a good idea. When our mood is happy and we’re ‘full of the joys of spring’ then surely ‘creative juices would be flowing’ and solutions left, right and centre would be found? True. However, what’s it like to hear that, counter-intuitively, sad moods can also help us? Read on…

Possible solutions

I want a broad approach. I want to see an overview. What should I do?

In this instance creativity comes from, perhaps not surprisingly, happy moods. They help create a more ‘cavalier’ approach to creativity and support us in generating an effective overview of the situation. By ‘cavalier’ I mean more likely to discard ‘in the way’ ideas – and be more open to include suggestions from others as well. Further, “Let’s give it a go!” tends to be more of the mantra uttered by people, as well as the asking of, “What if…?” counterfactual questions.

I need to critique this article and I’m having trouble concentrating and finding ways through this. What can I do?

While happy moods might obviously lend themselves to creativity there are times and places where a more melancholic atmosphere may be conducive to problem solving. Karen Gasper (2003) wrote a paper called When Necessity is The Mother of Invention: Mood and Problem Solving. In her research she noticed that sad moods helped people notice failings and errors in their work and were also more likely to correct them; they became more critical. (She also noticed that when the atmosphere was happy errors were more likely to be unnoticed, and uncorrected if they were!).

Therefore, do you want a broad approach to a problem? The solution may well be to generate a happy atmosphere. Do you want to proof-read a document or find a creative solution in your written content to express yourself more coherently? If so a more reflective, melancholic atmosphere may well be the answer to generate a creative analysis.

Be aware though of very high (extreme anger) and very low (depression) arousal emotions. One makes us want to sort the world out; the other, cower from it. An excess of either emotional stimulation is not conducive to creativity because the key emotional influence (whether happy or sad) and their respective benefits is that we need to be transported into an active mood state. Emotionally stretched to extreme through either our heightened state or emotionally numb state is not what we want; here the mood state generated in both cases is passive; we do nothing. There are other undesired knock-on effects too.

So, these are three of the six principal factors that boost creativity. Next post, I will share and discuss the remaining three factors.