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How to be Creative

Can creativity be taught?

Can people learn or be taught to be more creative? Creativity is valued in many areas of human activity, including scientific discovery, technological invention, artistic imagination, and social innovation. I know of no studies that show that creativity is teachable, but history provides some interesting suggestions about the habits of highly creative scientists.

In an article called "How to be a Successful Scientist", I compiled a set of suggestions about what contributed to the great success of leading scientific researchers. (The article can be found on the Web, and is reprinted in my book Hot Thought.) My sources were a group of psychologists, philosophers and historians at a conference on scientific thinking, as well as writings by three important scientists: Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Peter Medawar, and James Watson. Here is the resulting list, organized into 6 categories.

1. Make new connections.
Broaden yourself to more than one field.
Read widely.
Use analogies to link things together.
Work on different projects at the same time.
Use visual as well as verbal representations.
Don't work on what everyone else is doing.
Use multiple methods.
Seek novel mechanisms.
Find new ways of making problems soluble, e.g. by new techniques.

2. Expect the unexpected.
Take anomalies seriously.
Learn from failures.
Recover from failures.
Avoid excessive attachment to your own ideas.
Be willing to recognize and admit mistakes.

3. Be persistent.
Focus on key problems.
Be systematic and keep records.
Confirm early, disconfirm late.
Concentrate tenaciously on a subject.

4. Get excited.
Pursue projects that are fun.
Play with ideas and things.
Ask interesting questions.
Take risks.
Have a devotion for truth and a passion for reputation.
Have an inclination toward originality and a taste for research.
Have a desire for the gratification of discovery.
Have a strong desire to comprehend.
Never do anything that bores you.

5. Be sociable.
Find smart collaborators.
Organize good teams.
Study how others are successful.
Listen to people with experience.
Foster different cognitive styles.
Communicate your work to others.
Marry for psychological compatibility.
Tell close colleagues everything you know.
Communicate research results effectively.
Learn from winners.
Have people to fall back on when you get into trouble.

6. Use the world.
Find rich environments.
Build instruments.
Seek inspiration in nature.
Have good laboratory facilities and use them.
Observe and reflect intensely.
Perform experiments that rigorously test hypotheses.

Although this list was derived from reflection on scientific practice, almost all the suggestions are potentially relevant to enhancing creativity in other domains, including technology, the arts, and improving social institutions. Try them out!

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