Contrary to popular thought, creativity is a learned process, rather than a fixed personality trait.
Certain conscious behaviors and methodical mindsets can increase our ability to approach and solve problems with divergent thinking and improve our creative dexterity. These five research-backed strategies can benefit anyone who feels stuck in a creative rut and is looking for a way out.
1. Stop typecasting yourself. Use a growth mindset instead.
When children are very young, they begin to unconsciously construct narratives around their perceived personalities that will eventually become calcified aspects of their identities.
For instance, if we notice Jane enjoys talking more than listening, we might label her as “chatty” or “extroverted.” Jane’s parents and teachers will continue to reinforce this specific vision of Jane’s extroversion, and eventually, Jane will come to believe that being a talkative, poor listener is a static part of who she is. She won’t give herself the chance to truly develop her listening skills, and she’ll continue to perform this seemingly fixed personality into adulthood.
Pigeonholing personalities isn’t anyone’s fault. In fact, it’s just the way we’re wired to make ourselves feel more comfortable and at ease with the world. But leaning on the idea that our strengths and traits are permanently anchored to our identities is detrimental to creativity. If we think we’re not capable of creative thinking, we won’t allow ourselves the time and practice needed to build creative skills. Cultivating a more creative mind requires shrugging off these rigid expectations and treating ourselves instead as constant works in progress.
That’s where a growth mindset comes in. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck writes:
“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”
When you aren’t fixated on results or limited by assumptions of what you’re supposed to be good or bad at, you can approach problems in unconventional ways without the fear of not living up to expectations.
2. Pretend it’s someone else’s problem.
When a friend or colleague asks for your input on a problem they’re facing, it turns out you’re actually likely to approach the problem more creatively than you would if the problem was your own.
This is what Cornell researchers Evan Polman and Kyle J. Emich assert in their article Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. As part of their psychological study, they divided participants into two groups. Both groups were tasked with drawing an alien — one group was told that they were drawing the alien for a story that they would later write themselves, and the other group was told the alien would be for a story someone else would write.
The participants who thought they were designing an alien for someone else produced much more creative aliens. In this case, creativity was judged by how divergent from animals existing on Earth the aliens were: Did the artists step outside of their knowledge of what existing creatures look like to create something with characteristics not found on Earth?
When you’re trapped in your own perspective, you rely only on your own expertise and experiences to approach situations. When you tackle problems on behalf of someone else, you’re more likely to step outside of your usual structured approach and view things in a new way.
So how can you actually put this theory of psychological distance in action? When you find yourself suffering from a creative block, try to detach from your existing knowledge of a situation and pretend you’re working on the problem for someone else. If you don’t attach your whole identity to the task at hand, you’ll be able to think more abstractly and avoid falling back on solutions you’ve already tried before.
3. Expose yourself to more diversity of any kind.
Think of each of your life experiences like a dot that gets stored in your mind. When two of these dots connect, they form a new idea. The more unique dots you have floating around, the more opportunity you have to spontaneously connect two seemingly unrelated things to create something new and unexpected.
This is the case for surrounding yourself with a high volume of diverse people, places, and things throughout your life, increasing the probability for unexpected connections and innovation.
A 2006 study led by Standford professor Marguerite Rigoglioso found that people working in groups with members from different political, economic, and racial backgrounds were more effective creative problem solvers than those working in homogenous groups.
And it wasn’t just that they had different opinions to bring to the table — the study found that when people were asked to work with people who were different than them, they were forced to think about their own opinions from a different perspective, and they had to be prepared to intellectually defend themselves in a new way.
In homogenous groups, members assumed that everyone shared their opinions, so they didn’t expend much effort defending themselves or looking for holes in their own arguments. This ultimately led to much fewer creative outcomes in the homogenous groups.
An easy way to increase the diversity to which you’re exposed on a daily basis is to take up a hobby that challenges you to step outside of your area of expertise, or make some connections with people who don’t work in your field.
If you spend all day working with people who validate your existing mindset without challenging you or forcing you to look at your opinions from a new angle, you’re likely to get stuck in a cycle of the same ideas. Getting an outsider’s perspective can produce valuable creative insights.
4. Impose restrictions.
While it may seem counterintuitive, introducing a set of boundaries to your next creative endeavor may actually lead to more surprising and out-of-the-box ideas. When you’re required to play by a pre-defined set of rules, your mind is forced out of its comfort zone and pushed to adapt in new ways.
This phenomenon was confirmed by a study from the University of Amsterdam, which found that people exposed to narrowly-defined and restrictive challenges were put in a better mindset for divergent thinking. For the study, the participants were broken up into two groups: One group was presented with a computer game maze with virtually no challenges or obstacles, while the other group was given a complex maze that required much more advanced problem-solving skills to escape.
After the maze challenge, both groups were given the same word association test as a way to test their creative problem-solving ability. The group that had just completed the maze with more restrictions was significantly more successful at coming up with creative word associations as they had been forced into a creative mindset by the rule-heavy puzzle.
“Tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at ‘the big picture,’ and make connections between things that are not obviously connected,” wrote Matthew May in the Harvard Business Review.
If you find yourself stuck on your next project, consider warming up with a restrictive challenge. Give yourself some clear rules and see what you’re capable of.
5. Consider alternatives to problems that have already been solved.
When the Wright Brothers set out to design a practical flying machine that could take off in most weather conditions, they focused on three-axis controls and a powerful motor. Their idea obviously really took off, but was it the only way of solving the problem?
Counterfactual thinking is essentially the exercise of discovering alternative solutions to problems that already seem to have obvious answers. Usually once a solution to a particular problem has been found, we assume that the book is closed on the subject. Counterfactual thinking asks the question “what could have been instead?”
Through their research on the subject, professors Kai Epstude and Neal J. Roese were able to prove that this approach to problem solving significantly “enhances performance in creative idea generation tasks.” They found that additive counterfactual thinking — where a person imagines an alternative solution to a problem by incorporating additional elements — leads to more creative responses.
Asking questions that start to deconstruct assumed truths puts your brain in a mindset to break out of your usual patterns and come up with something new. Although it might seem uncomfortable or even silly at first, try to push through it. You’re basically giving your brain permission to question foundational knowledge — which won’t feel natural — but the shove into uncharted territory will spark innovative new insights.
To add a dose of counterfactual thinking to your own life, consider formulating alternative solutions to famous works in your field. If you’re stuck on a logo design, try sketching out an alternative to a famous logo, such as McDonald’s golden arches, as an exercise to get yourself in a more creative frame of mind. Then, consider the implications for the brand.