The United States prides itself on being a beacon of innovation.
But there has been a substantial dive in the nation’s creativity in the last few decades, according to research by educational psychologist KH Kim, author of the new book The Creativity Challenge. Kim has tested more than 270,000 people, from kindergartners to adults, looking at (among other things) their ability to come up with original ideas, think in a detailed and elaborative way, synthesize information, and be open-minded and curious—what she considers creativity. Her research has found that Americans’ creativity rose from 1966 to 1990, but began significantly declining after then.
And that’s a problem. “America has an increasingly limited number of individuals who are capable of finding and implementing solutions to problems the nation faces today,” she writes. “If this trend isn’t reversed soon, America will be unable to tackle the challenges of the future.”
According to Kim’s research, the cause of the creativity crisis is a “gradual, society-wide shift away from the values that were the foundation of the American Creativity.” In the 20th century, global immigration to America brought different perspectives that helped fuel the country’s creativity, she explains. In turn, the American educational system encouraged creativity with its emphasis on intellectual diversity, curiosity, risk taking, and non-conformity. However, economic realities caused a shift in these values: Starting in the 1980s, cultivating creativity didn’t seem like the path to a stable job, and schools shifted to focus on improving standardized test scores in order to get funding, Kim writes.
The Creativity Challenge addresses how to combat this disheartening trend. Her book is a challenge for all of us—particularly those in leadership positions—to create environments that encourage creativity and all of the benefits it brings.
Eight signs of a creative person
One way to foster creativity is for managers, educators, and parents to understand the kinds of behaviors and attitudes creative people exhibit, and to recognize and support them. In other words, we have to recognize what creativity looks like in the wild—in the people we manage, in our children and students, and even in ourselves. Kim’s book identifies more than twenty behaviors that are common among creative people, based on decades of research that she reviewed. Many of them, particularly the following, can sometimes be misinterpreted as rebelliousness and impracticality.
- Big-picture-thinking: Creative people think abstractly, looking past the concrete details of the current situation and seeking new solutions. However, with their optimism and curiosity, they are sometimes seen as dreamy and unrealistic.
- Spontaneous: Creative individuals tend to be flexible and act fast on new opportunities, approaching them with an open mind and a playful perspective—which can come off as impulsive.
- Playful: Creative people tend to be lighthearted and have a drive to explore the world. On the other hand, this can also be seen as mischievous.
- Resilient: Creative people can pick themselves up after a failure and bounce back from challenges, refocusing on new ways to overcome adversities. Sometimes, this comes across as combative.
- Autonomous: Creative people often strive for independence in their thoughts and actions, relying on intrinsic motivation to pursue their goals. At times, such individuals can seem out of control.
- Defiant: Creative people have a tendency to reject existing norms and authorities in pursuit of their own goals. This allows them to see what others cannot see and develop solutions that push boundaries, which can seem rebellious.
- Risk-taking: Fueled by their optimism, many creative people are willing to forgo security in favor of uncertain rewards. To the average person, this may come across as reckless.
- Daydreaming: By daydreaming, creative individuals are able to envision new perspectives and solutions—but along the way, some of their ideas might seem delusional.
How to support creatives
The most challenging aspect of recognizing creativity is that it takes place behind the scenes: You may see someone daydreaming at work and not know whether they’re procrastinating or laying the groundwork for a creative insight. The process of creativity is somewhat invisible, even though its results are powerful.
With that in mind, Kim offers some suggestions for supporting creativity:
- Offer creatives the resources they need. Innovators are like plants, Kim says; they are hungry for resources so that they can grow and develop. This includes offering them the time and freedom to explore informal activities that might inspire them, from continuing education at work to alternate assignments at school. If an employee wants to spend a work day visiting a new exhibit at a museum, you might let them—perhaps they’ve fallen into a rut and need something to spark their next project idea.
- Foster diversity. Environments that are multicultural and open to diverse languages, ethnicities, and sexualities make room for different perspectives that challenge our pre-existing thought patterns. Leaders should aim to avoid creating a community that is culturally homogenous and conformity-based.
- Encourage mentorship. Kim suggests that mentors are beneficial to individuals’ sense of creativity. “They eventually push mentees toward new opportunities to discover their own uniqueness by taking intellectual risks or defying the crowd,” she writes. Leaders can structure their organizations in a way that encourages more experienced workers or students to mentor others.
With these guidelines in mind, we can work to develop environments that are structured to foster creativity, which in turn will benefit organizations and help society confront today’s challenges with much-needed fresh ideas.
“Human beings have an unprecedented ability and potential to create, and many find that in the act of creating they fulfill their true purpose in life,” writes Kim.