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Why Creativity Takes Courage

New research shows how creative courage can be nurtured.

Nikita Kachanovsky/Unsplash
Thinking outside the box takes courage
Source: Nikita Kachanovsky/Unsplash

We are more likely to have courage to share original ideas when we receive implicit and explicit messages of support at school and work. This is the finding of new research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence presented this week at the convention of the American Psychological Association and the Emotional Intelligence conference. One study shows that whether high-school students dare to be creative comes in significant part from the climate at school (e.g., students witnessing positive relationships among adults, seeing respect for diversity, having their voice at school). Another study shows a similar effect at work: Professional adults are more likely to be creative when their organizations support and reward creativity and the employees are able to voice concerns and opinions in their jobs.

Henri Matisse famously said that creativity takes courage. What does that mean? How does creative courage influence what people do? When facing an open-ended project, one confronts a decision how to approach the work. Is attempting to be creative worth it? Or are the costs too high? What risk does one dare to take?

To understand the process behind this decision, we set out to measure attitudes toward creativity – thoughts and feelings one goes through when facing creative work. We asked groups of high school and college students questions about their expectations of what could happen if they shared original ideas, questions about reactions of others who can judge their ideas, and questions about their own feelings about creative work. As we analyzed the responses, we found three distinct factors describing how students approach creative work.

The first factor of attitudes toward creativity is a concern about how one’s ideas would be received. Students were particularly worried about the negative social consequences of sharing their original ideas. Would their classmates think their ideas were silly? Would they laugh at them? Could teachers think students’ ideas are challenging or disrespectful?

The second factor of attitudes toward creativity is a preference to stick with the tried and true. This is an attitude that it is better to be safe than original or creative. This attitude is only too familiar to school teachers and university professors when students ask what they need to do, and what exact steps to follow, on a research assignment. The teachers and professors want students to think deeply, make connections, and be creative, but students are not always ready to do that and are looking for a convenient formula or a checklist.

The third factor is crucial for daring to be creative. It is an attitude that creativity is important for one’s identity. Creative thinking and sharing creative ideas are considered meaningful and valuable. People holding this attitude are more likely to be motivated by personal growth than by wanting to show off their competence. Furthermore, people holding this attitude are more open to experiences, which is the trait that most consistently predicts creativity across domains, from the arts and sciences to technology and entrepreneurship.

Many (perhaps most) educators and organizational leaders acknowledge the importance of creativity. The World Economic Forum listed several creativity-related skills in their list of top-10 competencies. And these skills have only been climbing up the list in their importance. With increasing automation, having skills for creativity and innovation will become key to thriving in the new economy. As we imagine a world in which creativity is as valued as learning one’s multiplication tables or Excel skills and the decision to be creative has less risk and more reward associated with it, what do we need to know about developing environments that support such attitudes of courage?

Jessica Hoffmann and colleagues at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence set out to identify how the educational system can nurture the attitudes of creative courage. They focused on how school climate – the quality and character of school life – as well as emotions typically experienced at school predict student attitudes toward creativity. School climate includes facets of physical and psychological safety, the extent to which students have a voice in decisions, quality of relationships among students, relationships between students and adults, and relationships among adults (which are a model of adult relationships for students), respect for diversity, and the overall look and feel of the school.

Students’ ratings of their school climate across all of its facets predicted attitudes toward creativity. In particular, negative school climate – more frequent gossiping, rumors, and teasing at school – was associated with more intense anticipation of negative consequences for students’ reputation among peers and teachers. Higher quality of instruction, more positive relationships among adults at school, giving students voice, and respect for diversity were associated with greater value students put on creativity. Moreover, students’ feelings of being content and motivated predicted their attitudes toward creativity even one year later.

In my own lab, we asked a similar question about what enables creative behavior, but this time in professional adults. In a national study of professional adults across industries, we investigated whether aspects of work climate predict employees’ creativity and innovation in their jobs. People tend to be more creative in jobs that require creativity – such as in research and development or design. However, it is possible to be creative and innovate in a broad range of jobs – such as when creating a more efficient way of completing tasks or a new work process – and we tested what are the aspects of the job environments that help employee creativity.

Almost half of all employees in the survey shared that they can almost never, rarely, or only sometimes have a voice in their jobs. That is, they are not likely to be able to develop and make recommendations about issues that concern their organizations or encourage others to do so. This aspect of work climate strongly predicts how often workers show creativity and innovation in what they do – whether they suggest new ideas and contribute to creative projects at work. Similarly, creativity is predicted by the extent the organization values, encourages, and rewards creativity.

The lessons of this research are clear: If educators want to prepare students for the jobs of the future and if organizational leaders want to benefit from employee creativity and innovation, they need to invest in developing a climate that provides opportunities to voice concerns and suggestions, a climate that respects diversity, and a climate that values building relationships. The relationships that serve as models – those among teachers and other adults at school or among leaders in an organization – will be especially important in setting the tone for the institution.

The challenge for the future is shifting, on a societal and individual level, the attitudes towards creativity from those of apprehension to those of curiosity and courage. Individuals will need to gain experience of sharing ideas in a supportive environment and acquire the skills to push through discomfort because of uncertainty inherent in attempting something original. And educational institutions and work organizations will need to create broader cultural support for creativity and innovation.


Hoffmann, J. D. (2020, August). Students’ emotions and their attitudes toward creativity: The role of positive school climate. Symposium presented at the Annual convention of the American Psychological Association (virtual).

Ivcevic, Z. (2020, August). Emotions inspire and fuel creativity. Paper presented at the Emotional Intelligence Conference (virtual).

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