Human beings are creative by nature. Our capacity to generate creative ideas is central to technological and cultural progress.

As humans, our primal instinct is to seek, find, improve or create.

Our capacity to learn, adapt and transform our environment is incredible.

In Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Career Together, Pamela Slim writes, “We are made to create. We feel useful when we create. We release our ‘stuckness’ when we create. We reinvent our lives, tell new stories, and rebuild communities when we create. We reclaim our esteem, our muse, and our hope when we create.”

Creativity is complex and comes in all colours, shapes and sizes.

It’s about producing something novel or original, figuring things out, solving problems, whether on paper, on stage, in a laboratory or even in the shower.

What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” and the one that came up with the theory of relativity?

Whether you get fascinated by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” or Pablo Picasso’s “Young Ladies of Avignon,” you’ll probably agree that they are all incredible pieces of art by some of the greatest minds of our time.

Thinking patterns shape our minds. The right ones can change how you live and work.

Recognising the common thinking pattern of creative geniuses and applying their principles, rituals, and processes to your own work will improve how you think and work.

Geniuses know “how” to think, instead of “what” to think

In recent research about creative brains, Roger Beaty, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Psychology and the first author of the study said, “People who are more creative can simultaneously engage brain networks that don’t typically work together.”

The researchers wanted to know whether the brains of people who are consistently more creative would show different activation patterns than other brains.

“People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don’t typically work together and bring these systems online,” Beaty said in a statement.

While the data showed that regions across the brain were involved in creative thought, Beaty said the evidence pointed to three subnetworks:

  1. The default mode network involved in memory and mental simulation
  2. The salience network which detects important information
  3. The executive control network which plays key roles in creative thought

“It’s the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity,” Beaty said.

The good news for people who feel they are not naturally creative is that its’ not clear that learning to synch up our networks can’t be done.

“It’s not something where you have it or you don’t,” Beaty wrote.

“Creativity is complex, and we’re only scratching the surface here.”

Nancy Andreasen, neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist studies “the science of genius” — trying to understand the elements that make up the most creative minds.

In one of her studies, which she wrote about for the Atlantic, Andreasen scanned the brains of 13 of the most famous scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers alive today.

In her findings, she distilled some key patterns in the minds of creative geniuses.

“Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot — nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand,” she writes.

They embrace the messy middle

Creative work takes time. Sometimes it can take years to perfect a piece of art, or build something unique.

That requires patience.

Creative geniuses often work on projects for a long time before they have insight into how to finally solve that problem.

They enjoy the process. It’s part of the discovery.

Ideas can take time to mature.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut,” says Stephen King.

Most well known psychological theories including the Geneplore and the Darwinian theory involve two stages:

Divergent generation of possibilities and exploration and finally the selective retention of the most promising ideas.

Newton developed the concept of gravity (when an apple fell on his head) around 1666.

The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself mathematics.

“In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration  —  a version of the eureka experience  — and production,” writes Nancy Andreasen.

Geniuses are autodidacts

Think of all the geniuses of our time who were high school drop-outs — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg.

They were all self-learners.

They preferred figuring things out, rather than waiting to be taught.

Autodidacts choose their subjects, materials, rhythm and time.

They may or may not have formal education.

That doesn’t stop them from pursuing exactly what they want.

Their personal study may be either a compliment or an alternative to formal education.

“Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own,” says Andreasen.

Creative geniuses are intrinsically motivated toward self-learning to solve problems that fascinate them.

They know how to be self-reliant if the system fails them or provide them with what they need to creatively solve a problem.

They are good at making juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects

Many creative geniuses frequently follow a T-shaped model of learning: they experts in one or two disciplines and have also mastered other complimentary skills that make it easier for them to adapt in any environment.

They frequently make connections between things that are unrelated to their main research. They can force relationships where there is none.

They make connections where ordinary minds see opposites.

Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water.

This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Nikola Tesla forced a connection between the setting sun and a motor that made the AC motor possible by having the motor’s magnetic field rotate inside the motor just as the sun (from our perspective) rotates.

Unless you can make connections between what we know, information alone won’t be useful.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something,” says Steve Jobs.

To truly create something amazing, or contribute to the world, you have to be able to connect countless dots and cross-pollinate existing ideas from a wealth of unrelated disciplines.

In The Art of Scientific Investigation, Cambridge University professor W. I. B. Beveridge wrote that successful scientists “have often been people with wide interests,” which led to their originality:

“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” he says.

Geniuses are good at creating thought bridges, subconscious connections and unexpected integrations between (seemingly) unrelated ideas.

Geniuses think productively, not reproductively

Allow me to explain.

We repeatedly reproduce what we are thought or what we learn when confronted with a problem or a task.

In contrast, when confronted with a problem, a creative person will ask “How many different ways can I look at it?,” “How can I rethink the way I see it?,” and “How many different ways can I solve it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?”

They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that to gain deep knowledge about a problem, you have to learn how to restructure it in many different ways.

He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things.

When a Toyota executive asked employees to brainstorm “ways to increase their productivity,” he didn’t get many answers.

When he rephrased his request as “ways to make their jobs easier,” he could barely keep up with the number of suggestions.

In order to creatively solve a problem, the thinker must abandon the initial obvious approach that stems from past experience and re-conceptualize the problem.

By not settling with one perspective, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, they figure out new problems we tend to ignore and find mind-blowing solutions.

Geniuses are open-minded.

Every problem —  no matter how apparently simple it may be  —  comes with a long list of assumptions.

Most of which could make your problem statement inadequate or even misguided.

To create better, expose your assumptions — especially those that may seem the most obvious and ‘untouchable’.

And start with a blank slate. You will be surprised at the solutions to will come up with if you stay open-minded.

Geniuses are so good, we can’t ignore them

Cal Newport says “Until you become good, you don’t have leverage.”

Truly creative geniuses are always honing their crafts, looking to learn more, improve previous work, or give better performances.

Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record.

Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted.

Picasso made 50,000 works of art in his life. Mozart composed over 600 pieces in his lifetime.

Charles Schulzmade 17,897 Charlie Brown strips before he died.

Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers.

In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Kean Simonton of the University of California, Davis found that the most respected produced not only great works but also more “bad” ones.

Out of their massive quantity of work came quality.

“On average, creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers, they simply produce a greater volume of work which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality,” says Prof. Dean Simonton, a psychologist who’s spent many years studying creative productivity.

Geniuses are so good, we can’t ignore them.

Closing thoughts

Creativity is necessary in our day-to-day lives and careers.

Getting better at what you do comes down to identifying and attacking a problem so that you can move past it.

Everyone is capable of thinking above first level common sense.

You can train your brain to solve problems better, think different and make better connections every day.

You may not be a Picasso, Rembrandt, or Leonardo, but you can always work to increase your own creative capacity.

Genius thinking patterns are within your power — you just have to remember to approach things differently and embrace life-long learning.

Then you’ll be unstoppable!

Originally published on Medium.

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