How to Think and Act Like a Creative Genius

"Without creativity, it would be difficult indeed to distinguish humans from apes."
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Let’s face it – feeling like an ape is no fun. We all want to be more creative. Regardless of our profession or situation, we all strive to enrich our lives and our work through bringing forth unique value to the world.  Many of us envy the world’s greatest innovators, wishing that we could think and act like they do.

But guess what?  We can think and act like they do! 

Thanks to decades of scientific research on eminent creators, we now know the basic underpinnings that make these geniuses so great – and we also know that anyone can adopt these elements into their own ways of thinking and behaving to take their creativity to new heights.

Below, I draw upon the scientific study of history’s most innovative creators and share with you my top 10 big ideas for helping you think and act like a creative genius. 

1. Get Interested – Really Interested.

The spark of the genius’s creative fire is simply being interested in something.  Really interested in something.  Whether their interests are rooted in solving a specific problem, learning more about a field, or they just find something intriguing, all creative geniuses embrace their curiosities in what things are like and how they work.

Without such interest and curiosity, it is hard to become involved in an endeavor deeply enough to work through challenges and break through the status quo.

The first step to thinking and acting like a creative genius is to identify your interests.  What is it that gets you excited?  What are you curious about?  What do you really wish to learn more about?  The answers to these questions will set the foundation for your own personal genius to develop.

2. Embrace Personal Paradox & Complexity

Have you ever taken the Meyers-Briggs personality assessment?  Cool. Now throw out your results immediately and don’t ever classify yourself as an ESTJ again.  Dr. Csikszentmihalyi testifies that if there were one word to describe how the personalities of creative geniuses differ from others, it would be complexity.

By this he means that these creative geniuses demonstrate tendencies of thought and action that in most people are isolated.  These geniuses, rather than having one personality “type,” actually have personalities that are much more paradoxical—instead of being one way or the other, these creative geniuses bring together and express the entire range of traits possible within the human experience.  Embracing a complex and paradoxical personality does not mean being ambivalent. Rather it means having the capability to move from one extreme to the other as the situation requires in order to best achieve one’s goals.

You don’t really have to throw out your Meyers-Briggs results in order to be creative. But don’t limit yourself to one type or another.  Instead, operate like a creative genius and adapt your self-perspective to one who can easily and comfortably shift between opposing personality poles.

Next, I get into some of the specific forms of complexity and paradox that creative geniuses use to their advantage.

3. Use Your Energy Like a Light Switch

Creative geniuses have the ability to channel great amounts of energy and concentration for long, focused hours of creative work. Yet they are not always “on.”

The creative genius balances long periods of focused attention towards his or her work with longer than normal rest periods. They exhibit a high degree of self-awareness in regards to their energy levels, turning themselves “off” by napping or retreating away from the busy world in order to recharge their creative juices.

When the creative genius is not demonstrating single-pointed attention towards the creative process or goal, he or she is most likely to be found in a calm, reflective state; or engaged with a creativity-boosting hobby.

In today’s world of 24/7 emailing and text messaging, this deliberate balance between being “on” or “off” is often lost. Yet, it is a key habit that one must implement if they want to think and act like a creative genius.

4.  View the World Through the Lens of an Expert… But Also Think Like a Beginner

To think like a creative genius, it helps to be intelligent. But the relationship between intelligence and creativity is weaker than you might think. Research shows that beyond an IQ of 120, higher levels of IQ do not quite equate to higher levels of creativity. 

In fact, being overly brilliant can actually be a detriment to creativity. Someone who is extremely intelligent may become complacent and overconfident in his or her mental superiority. This could unfortunately lead to lower levels of curiosity, playfulness, and exploration. They may simply stop learning because they feel they are already mentally superior.

Goethe has said that naiveté is the most important attribute of geniusBalancing a childlike curiosity and playfulness with refined wisdom is what separates the creative genius from the average human being. This balance allows the creative genius to generate lots of diverse, wild, and seemingly unrelated ideas (by using the lens of a beginner) and then to more effectively hone in on a well-defined problem or solution (by adopting the lens of the expert who knows what is most important).

5. Take Your Work Seriously… But Have Fun Doing It!

Creative geniuses most definitely approach their work with a playful attitude, yet this lightness can only take an idea so far. The ability to shift gears when appropriate into hardcore discipline mode is essential in order to draw forth the grit necessary to break through barriers and innovate.

The generating phase of creativity is often facilitated with playfulness, but the other side of the coin (and the one often not duly considered) is the ability to develop and evaluate what one generates. Discipline, brutal self-honesty, and seriousness may be needed in these later phases of the creative process in order to decide how to best apply one’s energy and attention.

6.  Get Out and Socialize… But Stay Home By Yourself As Much as You Can, Too.

Most people view themselves as either an extrovert, someone who loves crowds and small talk, or an introvert, someone who prefers to be a bit more independent.  Creative geniuses, on the other hand, seem to express both traits at the same time, or in equal amounts.

To get really creative and become an expert, one must spend long hours practicing and developing his or her skills, in large part isolated from the happenings of the world.  Yet new research demonstrates that the highest levels of creativity are also associated with getting out into the world, exchanging ideas, and interacting with others.

Many creative geniuses even deliberately structure their time in ways to alternate between solitary, inner-directed reflection and intense social interaction.  They know that they need both to operate at the highest levels of creativity.

7.  Kick Ass and Take Names…But Be Sensitive About It

Creative geniuses to a certain extent are able to escape gender role stereotyping.   Female creative geniuses tend to be more dominant and assertive compared to other females, and male creative geniuses tend to be more sensitive and considerate compared to other males.

In other words, these creative geniuses are confident, self-assertive, and able to metaphorically kick some serious ass, while at the same time being considerate to others and sensitive to the situation.

Not many people can operate with this type of complexity, but seeking out opportunities to develop your emotional and social intelligence is something to consider when desiring to boost your creativity.  One way to boost your emotional and social intelligence is to sign up for data-driven, quantified coaching.

8.  Be a Rebel…But Embrace the Rules

Creative geniuses are typically portrayed as iconoclastic rebels. In reality, however, each and every one of these creative geniuses had to first embrace and learn the rules of their particular domain. Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Each creative genius believes in the importance of their domain of expertise; hence, to a certain extent, each creative genius is also a traditionalist.

Being only traditionalistic leads to more of the status quo, whereas constantly taking wild chances without regard to what has been valued or accomplished in the past almost never leads to innovation.

To harness this paradoxical attribute of creative geniuses, one must know the rules and what has been done before, yet at the same time be willing to bend these rules in order to take the domain and oneself to new creative heights.

9.  Be Passionate…But Objective

Ever watch American Idol?  If so, you know there are quite a few people out there who are extremely passionate, yet lack the self-honesty needed to become superstars (e.g. worst audition ever).  In his interviews with over 90 of the world’s most eminent creators, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi noted that this paradoxical tension between attachment and detachment to one’s work is a primary driver of innovation.

Without the passion, we soon lose interest in difficult tasks (like spending the time necessary to fully develop and evaluate ideas), but without being objective and honest with ourselves, we can never truly learn to work around our personal constraints and fully leverage our strengths.  Being able to detach from their work (and even criticizing and tearing it to shreds), is a critical skill that the creative genius utilizes regularly.

10. Make Plans…But Never Stick to Them

Creative geniuses spend a lot of time planningreflecting, and strategizing about what to do next; however, they also have the uncanny ability to quickly throw these plans out in light of new information or promising opportunities.

Creative geniuses know that creativity isn’t a black-and-white, linear process. Instead the world’s greatest innovations are typically the result of an emergent, zig-and-zag-like process.

Much like how many of the world’s most successful startups “pivot” in order to survive and grow, creative geniuses know that regardless of how much they plan, sticking rigidly to these plans will result in missed opportunities that could have been leveraged towards true innovation.

This is not to say planning isn’t crucial – it just implies that one never has all the information at the beginning of a creative project in order to innovate. If you do have complete information, it is time to re-evaluate what you are doing, because you likely are not really doing anything that creative.

In conclusion, by adopting these 10 big ideas into your daily lives, you will be thinking and acting like a creative genius.  Best of luck on all your creative work, and please feel free to get in touch with me for any creativity coaching needs!

How to Be More Creative: Stop Working and Let Your Ideas Incubate

In 1976, John Reed, then the head of the new Consumer Services Group at CitiGroup, went on vacation to the beach. He needed to get away from the stress and turmoil of his high-impact position, which started in 1974. 

He thought he was taking vacation to rest and recharge, but what happened on this trip to the beach would forever transform the banking industry.

While lounging at the beach, John suddenly was hit with inspiration.  Quickly, he grabbed a pen and some paper and began transcribing his thoughts.

In this brain-dumping of ideas, John outlined a new vision for consumer banking, believing that it would become a core business that could not only help his company grow, but one that would deeply benefit society in general. 

"As you may know, I make a pretty good effort to use my vacation time to do nothing. That turns out to be hard. So from time to time I jot down notes and thoughts relating to different things that are going on. The following comments are not particularly well organized - and are certainly not exhaustive - but do reflect some of my concerns about our common effort in the Consumer Services Group..."
"We are creating something new," he wrote in 1976. "I refer to a fundamentally new business starting with a dedication to the consumer, and to the proposition that we can offer a set of services that will substantially satisfy a family's financial needs under terms and conditions that will earn the shareholders an adequate profit while creating a healthy, positive and straightforward relationship with the customer."
Written on vacation, this document became known in Citicorp annals as the "Memo from the Beach."

In his memo, John outlined the vision that eventually brought consumer banking services and ATMs to the world - a true domain-changing innovation. So what is the lesson here with the John Reed story?

You actually need to stop working and find time to relax to let your most innovative ideas happen.

The workaholic mindset that most us operate with will ruin your creativity if you don't watch out. If you are a manager or supervisor of any sort, running your employees ragged with busy work and no time off is most likely hurting your bottom-line.

Creativity and innovation are not linear and predictable processes - creativity and innovation  happen irrationally, unpredictably, and in a dynamic fashion.

In order to get your best ideas, you need to allow your brain time to decompress by taking breaks from your work.

Relaxation and distancing yourself from your work encourages incubation, a cognitive state where your mind is free to process the enormous amounts of information that you have been feeding it. When the mind is relaxed and free to unconsciously process everything, it can lead to abrupt moments of insight, just as John Reed had while at the beach.

How does incubation work?

Incubation has been scientifically shown to work in terms of eliciting novel insights because:

  • It gives people’s minds a rest
  • It provides an opportunity to become less fixated on incorrect solutions and approaches towards solving a problem
  • It provides time for spreading activation in the unconscious mind, and
  • It provides opportunities for opportunistic assimilation – as you go about your day, you may randomly “notice” something that is related to your problem and use it to your advantage.


What can I do to encourage idea incubation?

I offer 3 things you can do to facilitate incubation and generate better ideas in my free e-book, How to Become a Creative Badass: A 9-Step Guide to Mastering the Creative Process. Get it today and also receive a free copy of John Reed's "Memo at the Beach," the document that revolutionized the banking industry that came about from incubation at the beach.

How to Become a Creative Badass - A 9 Step Guide to Mastering the Creative Process

It's here folks - How to Become a Creative Badass, a guide to mastering the creative process and deliberately developing your own creativity, is now available - for free.  

All you need to do is enter your e-mail address below to receive your copy.  When you do so, you will receive an e-mail with a free download link.  Act now, because this won't be free for long.  

If you...

  • Wish you were more creative
  • Want to learn how to take control of your creativity, and not just hope for spontaneous flashes of it
  • Are curious about how the world's most eminent creators think and act in order to produce their innovative works
  • Need to demonstrate higher levels of creative performance at work in order to get a raise or get promoted
  • Desire to add more creativity, meaning, and fun into your life
  • Love to learn new things, and especially things that you can immediately take action on and implement in your day-to-day life

Then you need to get this (free)book right now.

When you sign up, you will also be placed on the insider e-mail newsletter list.  Each month, you will receive an exclusive letter from me highlighting what is new in the world of creativity & innovation, learning & development, and positive psychology -- and how you can take action to integrate the latest scientific findings in these fields to become happier, more effective, and more creative.


Creativity Is...Having Better Hobbies?


In the pursuit of innovation and making a meaningful dent in this world, most people likely have the perspective that time spent on activities outside of one's calling is just a distraction and utter waste of time.  

But is this really true? 

Could blindly devoting all your time to only one narrow focus actually be hurting your chances of making a real innovative impact on the world?

Well, as it turns out - Yes.

Having hobbies and working on multiple problems at once may be a critical element to experiencing higher levels of creative success.  

It's Not Just About Having Hobbies, It's About Having Better Hobbies

If you are now in a panic because you want to change the world and just realized you have zero hobbies or interesting things going on outside of your work, well you should be.  But before you rush to sign up for League of Legends, one of those drink-tons-of-wine-while-sorta-painting classes,  ballroom dancing, a hiking club, or a weekly improv class, you should first sit back and finish the rest of this article.

You see, not just any hobby will help you unleash your true creative potential.  And if you think quantity equals quality in this scenario, you're dead wrong.

In a study of 40 of the world's most prolific and impactful scientists (including 4 who eventually won Nobel prizes), Robert Root-Bernstein and colleagues uncovered some interesting correlations between how scientists spent their time and their professional impact.  Of course, we know that correlation does not equal causation, but these findings, coupled with the interview data that they also collected, give us an interesting perspective of what it means to spend one's time wisely.

They found that not all hobbies are created equal when it comes to being fruitful for innovation.  Scientists engaged in hobbies that exercised visual thinking, kinesthetic feelings, and verbal and auditory pattern recognition were significantly more likely to have higher professional impact ratios in their field in terms of citations per publication. Interestingly, painting, drawing, and sculpting had the strongest relations with impact. 

What About Exercise and Sports? Those are Hobbies, too....Right?

Your time spent exercising and playing sports is crucial in terms of staying strong, focused, and energized.  But not all forms of athletic activity are equal when it comes to being positively related to professional impact and innovation.  Root-Bernstein et al. found that running, walking, sailing, tennis, and surfing were all positively related to scientific impact. 

I know what you are thinking - walking?!?  I mean, come on...walking?!? Really?  But it's so slow and worthless.  

The reasoning for why these athletic activities were linked to professional impact was that these activities (as opposed to more intense sports such as football, soccer, and basketball) could all be performed through old age.  The most impactful scientists in this study reported that indeed, they felt physical activity was a crucial component of their performance and creativity throughout their lifetime.  Walking, although not as physically challenging as marathon-running, weight-lifting, or crossfit, may have other creativity-inducing benefits besides just helping one stay physically fit.  Ben Greenfield, probably my favorite health and fitness podcaster, recently shared that one life-changing lesson he learned was simply to take more walks.  Motivated by a chapter in Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder,  Ben became inspired by the phrase, "solvitur ambulando- which translates into "it is solved by walking."  One of the best ways to bust out of creative blocks and solve challenging problems is to simply go on more walks.   


Ok, nice!

I will start walking more and also will ask my girlfriend or boyfriend if they want to take up clay-making.

I'm golden then. Watch out world, here I come!

But Wait, Having Creative Impact Is also About Spending Time on Other Problems

Getting some "better" hobbies into your life can definitely help spark your creativity, but if you spend all of your vocational time working on only one main project, and nothing else, you likely will not make as much professional impact in your field or on the world as you hope.

In the same study, the researchers found that many scientists reported that their best ideas came to them while working on different problems, both those related and unrelated to their primary focus.  Perhaps most fruitful for innovation is the link between coming up with ideas while working on different, but related problems and professional impact.  The data from this study indicates that the most successful and innovative scientists work effectively on more than one problem simultaneously, switching between problems as their energy and inspiration moves them.  Often, new insights into problems that may have caused the scientist difficulty in one project spring up while working on their other projects.  This likely happens because new associations and connections are being made between related or unrelated ideas - a critical mechanism of creativity.

The Main Takeaway: It's All about Integration

Before you rush out the door for your walk or call your boss and let her know that you want more problems to work on, let's dig a little deeper into the true meaning and the most critical-to-your-creativity findings of this study conducted by Root-Bernstein et al.

You've probably heard it before, but work-life integration, not work-life balance may be the key to an innovative career. Having the viewpoint that there are two aspects of life - 1) activities related to work, and 2) activities not related to work - can be detrimental to your creative success.  In fact, the scientists with the least professional impact compared to their very successful peers perceived science as one thing, and other aspects of their lives as "totally independent competitors for time and energy."

The key takeaway that I want to leave you with is not to only to take more walks or devote your time to hobbies that stimulate visual thinking, kinesthetic feelings, and pattern recognition.  It's not to take up more hobbies so that you may become more intellectually stimulated.

It's to take a good look at how and why you allocate your time the way you do and really scrutinize whether you are helping or hurting your innovative potential.  

Some of the low-ranking scientists in the aforementioned study actually engaged in as wide a range of activities as the more successful ones.  What was different, however, was how they viewed these activities.  The most innovative scientists viewed their hobbies with a unifying focus - some how and in some way, each and every activity and problem they became involved with was an integral part of their overarching purpose.  Each hobby and activity were not only elements necessary to being "cultured," but were viewed as valuable forms of training for various aspects of their primary work.  Even time spent on problems apparently unrelated to their primary focus were viewed as being of value, as the possibility of extracting new insights from them to help with efforts of solving their original problem were deemed hopeful.

As you reflect on your working habits, your hobbies, and the way you spend your time, ask yourself, "Are all these things connected in some way, or am I just putzing around with a bunch of non-related things?"

Then, take action to engage in better hobbies, to work on a diversity of problems, and to ultimately strive to find some personally meaningful connection between all the things you do.