Seven Lessons for a Creative Life

E. Paul Torrance is called the father of creativity. He wrote and researched tirelessly over 40 years and was published more than 1,800 times. His research includes the longest longitudinal study on creativity (50 years!), which followed elementary students through their adulthood, assessing their creative thinking and achievement along the way.

In 2002, Torrance wrote The Manifesto, which at the time comprised the gleanings of 40 years of his research. From his work, he zeroed in on seven lessons he learned from the creative people he studied. He wrote these lessons as a Manifesto for Children, especially those who struggled in school but had specific gifts, but said he realized while doing it, that they were really for himself also. I think we can all learn from them.

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  1. Don’t be afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity.

We are told implicitly and explicitly from a very young age to keep our options open. We cover topics in school in breadth, but rarely in depth. When kids focus on something they love with intensity, we often consider this a flaw and worry that they are spending too much time on it. But high creative achievement comes from a deep understanding of a topic or field, and spending time on something you love increases the amount of time you spend in flow, which increases your life satisfaction (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Plus, almost anything that you can spend time pursuing with intensity will provide knowledge and skills that can be applied to other areas.

  1. Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, exploit, and enjoy your greatest strengths.

Are you using your greatest strengths to your fullest potential? Were you given time to discover and develop them? In school, we need to be good at everything, and often when we’re not, all effort is put into our weaknesses to improve them. When we do that, we ignore this vital lesson – to know and use our strengths. How much more fulfilling would school be if students got to revel in their strengths more and spend less time feeling inadequate because of their weaknesses? How many of us might be better equipped to choose a life that perfectly fits who we are? Each individual’s combination of strengths is valuable. Finding a way to exploit what you can uniquely offer the world is exactly how creative achievement is built.

  1. Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others and to walk away from the games they impose on you. Free yourself to play your own game.

Many of us live our lives according to the expectations of others. Children are rewarded and punished extensively to fuel someone else’s expectations – a teacher, a parent, a coach. Many studies have shown, however, that extrinsic motivators make a person less likely to want to engage in a behavior for its own sake – that is, it harms their intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Many more studies have shown that learning and creativity both need intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1975; Hennessey, 2015). If we allow children to practice making decisions (and mistakes) and creating for themselves, they can learn to visualize the future for themselves and build the desire to achieve it. As adults, allowing others to impose expectations on us can also harm our ability to create a strong vision for ourselves – a first step in the creative process.

  1. Find a great teacher or mentor who will help you.

It is a skill all its own to be able to seek out mentors and elicit their help, and a skill that many of us don’t learn until later in life, if at all. Get good at sending cold emails, connecting with people that have the same passion, and asking good questions of those you admire. So many of the great creative achievers had someone that let them stand on their shoulders.

  1. Don’t waste energy trying to be well-rounded.

When Torrance was studying highly creative children, he also discovered some children that were both highly creative and had learning disabilities. Our modern education system highly values well-roundedness; we aren’t even supposed to decide what career we want until our second year of college after we take “gen-ed” classes to ensure our well-roundedness. But this value can hurt those who are very talented, but struggle in some areas. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to have varied interests and skills. In fact, Torrance did find that diversity of experience was related to high creative achievement. This just serves to assure those who have specific passions and talents that they need not worry so much about rounding themselves out while they dive deeply into something they love. For creative achievement, you don’t have to be really good at everything; just be really good at what you’re good at.

  1. Do what you love and can do well.

More than intelligence and even creative ability, what Torrance found predicted high creative achievement in life, along with persistence and a sense of mission and purpose, was love and enjoyment of one’s work. Children don’t need this lesson as much as adults do. It is easy when we are young to focus on what we love, if we are given time to do it; what’s hard is continuing to do it when we feel the weight of adulthood and its responsibility on our shoulders. It is important to know, however, that this is a key not just to creativity, but happiness and satisfaction as well. It’s worth it. Start small if you must. Spend at least a little time every week focusing on something you love and are good at.

  1. Learn the skills of interdependence.

We all need each other. We need to understand how to work together and how to add value to each other. No scientific discovery was made without building upon knowledge that came before. This is especially important because if we have the courage to focus on our strengths, we must also depend on others to give of their strengths that are different from ours.

So many of these seven lessons are obscured by the culture we are immersed in at school or work, but the good news is that it’s never too late. Maybe you never learned these lessons as a child, but you can start practicing them now. We are all creative and can be more creative!

 

 

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiements examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hennessey, B. A. (2015). If I were secretary of education: A focus on intrinsic motivation and creativity in the classroom. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9(2), 187-192. doi:10.1037/aca0000012

Torrance, E. P. (2002). The Manifesto: A guide to developing a creative career. Westport, US: Greenwood Press.

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