Notions of creativity tend to fall into one of two camps: Either you’re the wide-open brainstorm type, or you require pressure from deadlines, supply shortages, or other exterior factors to make your creativity tick.
Jeni Britton Bauer—founder of the beloved Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams brand—operates by a process she calls “thinking inside the box.” Variables like produce farmers’ strawberry outputs and shipping logistics provide the framework within which she creates and delivers flavors like brown butter almond brittle from Ohio to the United Arab Emirates.
On the other hand, Fuseproject founder and principal designer Yves Behar thinks broadly about what’s possible in solving a creative problem before settling on a course of action. “For me, creativity is unlocked by thinking about the possibilities. It can be a ‘what if’ question I am asking myself, or a simply a problem that I keep coming back to. The range of creative puzzles I try to solve are vast.”
Research on the semi-mysterious topic of creativity suggests that the right path to creativity isn’t black and white.
Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, says a little bit of both methods of operation are best for triggering creative breakthroughs and high productivity. In other words, artists and scientists alike should have an idea of where they want to go at the outset of a project, but they should also be open to changes or ideas that come up along the way.
In fact, that openness paired with grit—the ability to overcome obstacles and stick to a task, a trait often cited by psychologist Angela Duckworth—is the most formidable combination in a creative mind, he says.
“Even when [creative people] have setbacks, they don’t get discouraged,” Kaufman says. “They’re very resilient. But at the same time, they often don’t start with a clear vision or idea of what the end product is going to look like. They use a lot of trial and error. You see that very clearly in the deep analyses of Picasso’s paintings or Shakespeare’s sonnets or Beethoven’s sonatas.”
The fact that creators don’t stick to the same formula every time means that a masterpiece could be followed by an abominable piece of music, he says. “The creative person is able to produce utter crap as well as the best thing of their generation.”
That’s not to say that creative spurts are purely random, either. Computer scientist and associate professor at the University of Central Florida Ken Stanley says that interests and decisions are all based on subconscious calculations of our previous experiences.
“When people explore, they’re doing things that are anything but random. When you’re facing a choice between taking one path or another, and you choose one of those things, it’s not completely random,” Stanley says. “It’s based on intuition in the sense that there’s something interesting about if I take this path versus that path. And that intuition is drawing on your entire lifetime of experience, even if we can’t initially articulate why it is or where it’s leading. And it’s those intuitions that are the most important, I think, in terms of making these kinds of leaps and discoveries.”
Years ago, Stanley created an algorithm that mimics neural networks. Using that framework, other programmers built apps that evolve images or fragments of images to create new ones. Eventually, Stanley built his own image-evolving site called Picbreeder, which allows users to select an image, then it generates more images based on their selection, and so forth, until a totally new image is pieced together. No resulting image is totally random, since each piece is based on the user’s previous selections.
The point is that a person’s previous experiences are layered into their creative decisions in the future, he says.
Jimmy Smith, executive chairman and chief creative officer of Amusement Park Brands, says that in his early conversations with LeBron James while working on a campaign for Nike, James said, “God just blessed me.” That triggered a long-forgotten memory of a scene from Blues Brothers with James Brown in church. And that sparked more memories of Smith’s own church experiences.
“He triggered something–some information that I had in my brain beforehand. Now if I hadn’t been an avid moviegoer as well as churchgoer, I wouldn’t have had that,” Smith says. “It’s never random.”
Kaufman says novel changes in a person’s everyday experience can boost creative thinking. “Any unexpected or new experience definitely can jog that emotional complexity and ambiguity,” he says. He’s also working on research that shows how triggering a variety of emotions—layering something funny after something sad—can rev up creativity, too.
But those are just tactics. Working intentionally on becoming more creative means knowing what works for you.
“There are no hard and fast rules to this,” says Kaufman.
So what kind of creator are you?