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Are you a creative person?
Often, we treat creativity like a gene inherited by a special few who work in artsy fields like film, music, design, or fashion. When non-artists compare themselves to these talented folks, they often come up feeling short.
But it’s time to reconsider.
Simply put, to be creative is to use our imaginations, which most of us do every single day. At work, we use creative shortcuts to manage our time and productivity, design engaging presentations, and strategize plans for the future. At home, we are creative every time we try a new hobby, cook a new meal, or improvise dance moves to our favorite songs.
The reality is that all of us have the potential to be creative. It’s not a job title; it’s a skill, one that can be strengthened and tapped into when we need it.
I’ve spent the majority of my career studying human behavior, observing how people think, and why they make the personal and professional choices they do. Over the years, I’ve learned that creativity is a powerful tool that can make our lives and our work more fulfilling. Those who practice creativity have an easier time breaking through limiting beliefs and cognitive biases (“It’s impossible;” “There’s no way;” “I can’t.”) and generating new approaches to challenging problems.
Especially for people just entering the workforce, or currently searching for a job — sharpening your creative abilities can give you a big leg up. LinkedIn has highlighted creativity as the most sought-after soft skill by employers for the past three years in a row. This makes sense given the positive relationship between creativity and adaptability, another valued skill in our fast-paced, digital world.
The good news is that we’re all wired with the raw ingredients to ignite creativity, and the sooner you start, the better.
Here are a few science-backed ways to help you begin.
Practice divergent thinking.
Remember that famous poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood? Well, that’s kind of what happens in our minds when we practice divergent thinking. Coined by the American psychologist J. P. Guilford in the 1950s, divergent thinking is defined as “cognition that leads in various directions.” It has been historically tied to creative problem-solving.
Divergent thinking is often triggered when we participate in open-ended activities — such as journaling, free writing, or improvisation games — that allow our thoughts to shoot off in several different directions. Some of those paths lead to original ideas and others don’t. But, in the end, we are still able to come up with multiple solutions to a problem, as opposed to just one solution that is driven by our (inevitably) biased assumptions. Basically, it helps us get out of our own heads and consider new points of view.
How can you practice divergent thinking?
[Here are the first two recommendations.]
Disrupt functional fixedness
First, you need to understand something psychologists call functional fixedness: our tendency to see things exactly as they appear. It’s a cognitive bias that limits us to believing an object can only be used in the most obvious and traditional way. For example, we know that a stapler is used to attach loose sheets together, but we rarely consider that it can double as a paper weight. We know that socks are meant to keep our feet warm, but few of us realize they can be recycled into dust rags, or even bird feeders.
Functional fixedness limits our ability to think divergently, or “outside of the box.” To overcome it, try playing a game: Take two or three mundane office or household items (a sock, a paperclip, or a stapler) and brainstorm as many alternative uses as you can for each.
Try out the Torrance Test
James Kaufmann, an American psychologist known for his research on creativity, suggests this method. In one version of this test, you’re presented with incomplete figures that look more like half-shapes and lines on a blank sheet of paper. Then, you’re given a pen, and asked to complete the drawings. It’s an exercise that’s easy to replicate on your own (or you can find some free templates through a simple Google search) and an excellent way to exercise your creative muscles.
The better you become at training your mind to think divergently, the more useful you will find it in real-life situations. For instance, in 2020, while we were stuck indoors, many people adapted household items like water containers and benches into gym training equipment. Workers around the world have gotten creative as well, propping up their phones and computers with music stands, shoe boxes, or binder clips to join remote meetings or online classes.
Of course, training your brain to be adaptable in this way is just a starting point. With a little practice, you will be able to apply similar methods to solve less tangible problems, such as how to network virtually, approach a challenging conversation, or even pitch yourself for a new role. The more creative you are, the more pathways to success you can imagine, and the easier it will be to meet your goals.
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