10 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently (Do They Apply to You?)

In their attempts to isolate the “special sauce” of creative genius, scientists have put creative people under the microscope — and what they’ve uncovered is a tangle of seeming contradictions.

Research has shown that creativity is both spontaneous and controlled, and that the creative process involves a delicate balance of effort and ease, seriousness and play, daydreaming and mindfulness, solitude and collaboration.

We can even see evidence of this messiness on a neurological level. Contrary to the what the right-left brain myth would have us believe, scientists have found that creativity draws on a wide range of whole-brained processes.

But for all these complexities, there are some habits of mind that all highly creative people share – and that anyone can cultivate in themselves. Here are the 10 things highly creative people do differently.

[Making Time for Play Is Important for Adults Too: Here’s Why]Write to Create Scott Barry Kaufman Carolyn Gregoire

1. They play.

Play isn’t just for children. Creative people maintain a spirit of play throughout life, and tend to approach their creative work with an open, playful mind.

Science has now confirmed that hybrid forms of work and play may actually provide the most optimal context for learning and creativity.

Cultivating a childlike sense of play breathes life and energy into creative work, and finding play in work both gives us a certain lightness and flexibility when generating new ideas and also helps motivate us to work steadily towards a goal without becoming stressed or depleted.

2. They make time for solitude.

Time for solitary rest and reflection truly feeds the creative mind. In the stillness of solitude – away from the distractions of everyday life and social interactions — the mind is able to finally settle down, opening up to our rich storehouse of memories, ideas, emotions and intuitions. In solitude, creative people are also able reconnect with themselves and their own unique perspective, which can then be expressed through their work.

[I’m on a Solo Journey & Experiencing Incredible Bliss]

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude,” American existentialist psychologist Rollo May said. “One must overcome the fear of being alone.”

3. They find their true passions.

Successful artists and innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated, meaning that they’re driven by a deep love of what they do, rather than a desire for external reward or recognition.

In the words of psychologist E. Paul Torrance, they “fall in love with a dream” — and that dream becomes a strong source of creative energy, drive and fulfillment. Once they become inspired by a dream, they motivate themselves to do the hard work necessary to make that dream a reality.

4. They daydream.

It’s often when the mind is wandering that we stumble upon our best ideas and most imaginative visions. Far from being idle, daydreaming is actually a very active mental state when the mind is busy consolidating memories, imagining the future, finding meaning and making new connections.

[How to Turn Your Passion Into a Career]

We tend to find the solutions that we’ve been searching for not when we’re sitting in front of the computer on a deadline, but when the mind is occupied elsewhere, perhaps when we’re walking the dog or enjoying a hot shower. That’s because daydreaming can act as a sort of “creative incubation” period, allowing ideas to simmer and insights to bubble up to the surface of consciousness.

5. They pay attention.

Paying attention to what’s around us is the very essence of mindfulness — and it’s also the crucial fodder for creative inspiration. If we don’t bother to actively notice new things, how will we come up with new ideas and insights?

Creative people are intensely observant, and in particular, they tend to be keen observers of human nature. These observations are often the raw material for great works of art. As Henry James said, a writer is someone on whom “nothing is lost.”

[4 Ways Your Inner Voice Is Speaking to You]

6. They harness their intuition.

Cognitive scientists have found that creative thinking draws on spontaneous, intuitive mental processes as much as it does deliberate, controlled ones.

Great ideas often arise seemingly out of nowhere, surfacing mysteriously as a sort of gift from the subconscious mind. Indeed, many painters and writers say that they do their best work when they let the analytical mind take a back seat, and simply allow the ideas to reveal themselves.

7. They’re open to new experiences.

Openness to experience is the number-one quality predicting creative achievement in the arts and sciences. New experiences and perspectives can help us break out of habitual ways of thinking, paving the way for new perspectives and insights.

This drive to exploration of one’s inner and outer world can take on many forms, including intellectual curiosity, appreciation of beauty, openness to fantasy and thrill-seeking.

[Why Some People Always Change Their Mind + 4 Steps to Expand Your World View]

8. They’re highly sensitive.

Being highly sensitive can make life more difficult, but for creative people, sensitivity is also a gift. Highly creative people are often very sensitive to sensory input and experience life with great intensity and depth of emotion, which can can give rise to the motivation to create as a way to make meaning of one’s experiences.

Highly sensitive people can be particularly insightful, noticing things that others typically don’t and weaving those insights into their work. If we think of creativity as “connecting the dots” in some new way, highly sensitive people experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection.

9. They turn adversity into advantage.

Many of the most iconic works of art through history have been inspired by gut-wrenching pain and heartbreak. Psychologists studying post-traumatic growth have found that many people are able to find substantial creative growth in the wake of hardships and early-life trauma.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

Anything that causes us to think differently can be conducive to creativity, including the painful experience of having our worldview shattered and being forced to see things in a new light. Of course, trauma is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for creativity. But many creative people do turn life’s challenges into an opportunity to find meaning and give expression to that meaning.

10. They think differently.

Creative people march to the beat of their own drum, and they’re not afraid to defy the crowd. If there’s one thing that defines truly original thinkers, it’s the ability to see possibilities where others don’t – and the courage to share their visions with the world.


{Image credit: Pixabay}

About the Author

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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the development and measurement of intelligence, creativity, and personality. He has written or edited six previous books, including Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. He writes the blog Beautiful Minds for Scientific American, and regularly gives keynotes and workshops on the development of intelligence, creativity, and human potential.Carolyn Gregoire is a New York-based journalist and author. She is currently a Senior Writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on psychology, neuroscience, mental health and wellness. She has discussed her work on MSNBC, The TODAY Show, and The History Channel, and has spoken at TEDxYouth and the Harvard Public Health Forum. Her writing has also appeared in BlackBook Magazine, Huffington Magazine, UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and The Mind Unleashed.

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