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3 Keys to a More Creative Life

Harnessing the power of creativity every day.

Key points

  • Directed remembering is the ability to channel your memory to make conscious some past experience or knowledge meeting various constraints.
  • Noticing is a process of becoming aware of the similarity between one problem and another. 
  • Contrary recognition engages our imagination and allows us to interpret events in fanciful or imaginative ways.

How often have you heard the following statements? Alternatively, and more specifically, how often have you said these statements yourself?

  • I couldn’t draw a straight line if my life depended on it.
  • If you’re looking for a creative person, you might as well look somewhere else.
  • Me? Creative? No way, José.
  • I’m probably the least creative person you’ll meet.
  • Go see Jack (or Jill) if you want a creative solution.

Creative vs Not Creative?

There is a persuasive tendency for people to downplay their creative talents or place limits on their creative output. Many people believe they aren’t creative simply because they weren’t born with a creative gene or with a “basket” of creative attributes.

Not having those attributes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, their confidence dwindles, erodes, and is washed away. We often fall into the all-too-common perception that we are either creative or we’re not. We belong to either one group or the other. There is no middle ground. We think, “If I wasn’t born creative, I’ll never be creative.”

As you would expect, that’s a myth!

Truth be told, the “I’m creative” and “I’m just not creative” groups are imaginary—we’re not one or the other. In reality, we are all creative individuals as children; it’s just that that creativity has been largely steamrolled into submission as we get older and begin to deal with the realities of everyday living.

Several years ago, David Perkins, a psychologist at Yale University, wrote that creativity is often the product of ordinary cognitive processes that virtually every person uses in the normal course of life. Since that work was published, his conclusions have been substantiated by legions of other psychological experts. Their research also supports a universal contention that the processes of creativity are not that extraordinary.

Source: Rodolpho-Clix/Pexels

Everyday Cognitive Processes

Perkins demonstrated that there are three everyday cognitive processes that are an integral part of creative invention.

One such process is directed remembering. This is the ability to channel your memory in order to make conscious some past experience or knowledge that meets various constraints. For example, think of as many countries as you can that begin with the letter S. Or, what are five similarities between apples and oranges? To do this, you have to engage in the same kind of thinking as do scientists, historians, and mathematicians.

A second relative cognitive process is noticing. This is when we become aware of the similarity between one problem and another. Watch a child construct a tower of wooden blocks. She is aware that some arrangements work better than others (based on her prior experiences with blocks) and will often make corrections based on prior experiences.

Or imagine you are developing a marketing plan for a new product. What elements from past campaigns were sufficiently successful that they could be used again in the current operation? What new elements will need to be developed from scratch?

A third cognitive process consistent with everyday thinking and creative thinking is known as contrary recognition. This is the ability to recognize objects, not for what they are, but as something else, in another important creative process.

For example, you may step outside and notice a cloud that looks just like a particular animal (cow, dog, Jabba the Hutt from the "Star Wars" movies). Or, you may be at a social engagement and see someone who looks just like your brother-in-law or your great-aunt Sophie. This ability engages our imagination and allows us to interpret events in fanciful or imaginative ways.

The conclusion to be drawn from this bank of research is that the same cognitive processes used to create innovative inventions and dynamic new approaches in fields as diverse as medicine, education, architecture, business, agriculture, and engineering are similar to those you and I use, quite frequently, in our everyday lives. The key is to make them a critical part of all our creative efforts.


Anthony D. Fredericks. From Fizzle to Sizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity and How You Can Overcome Them (Indianapolis, IN: Blue River Press, 2022).

David Perkins. The Mind’s Best Work. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).