Do You Have These 11 Traits of Highly Creative People?

Abstract Chaos

Would you like to be more creative in your copy and content? It’s really not as hard or mysterious as you might think.

One roadblock that prevents many people from boosting their creativity is the notion that creativity is linked to intelligence. Another roadblock is the idea that creative people are born that way.

So if you’re not super smart or born with the creative “gift,” the natural reaction is to shrug your shoulders and give up. That’s probably a bad move.

Research shows that once you get slightly above an average I.Q., intelligence and creativity are not related. So you could be a genius and display little creativity or have fairly average intelligence and wield amazing creative powers.

And to a large degree, creativity is a learned behavior. It’s a matter of how you approach things, how you act or react to new circumstances, your proclivity to look at things in different ways, your willingness to question, experiment, and take chances. In other words, creativity is not “what you are” as much as “what you do.”

Think of creativity as a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. To increase your creativity, you simply need to “act” like a creative person. Not surprisingly, people recognized as creative tend to share common traits.

Highly creative people:

  1. Have the COURAGE to try new things and risk failure. Every big breakthrough starts as a harebrained idea. This doesn’t mean you should constantly go off the deep end, just that you should balance your routine portfolio of solutions with an investment in the new and untried. Over time, the risk is usually worth the reward.
  2. Use INTUITION as well as logic to make decisions and produce ideas. When Matt Drudge designed his Web site, he listened to his gut instead of the Internet gurus. He kept it simple, small, fast, and some would say ugly and primitive. But it works for him, making The Drudge Report one of the most recognizable and popular sites in the world.
  3. Like to PLAY, since humor and fun are the ultimate creative act. Which is to say you just have to lighten up. We all have goals, and quotas, and deadlines, but it’s not life and death. When you enjoy yourself, your brain relaxes and is able to produce more and better ideas. One of those ideas may be just what you’re looking for.
  4. Are EXPRESSIVE and willing to share what they feel and think, to be themselves. Blogging is the ideal arena for injecting your personality into your work. People are emotional creatures and respond better to people who appear real, honest, and open. Not only is it more interesting, it can also be more persuasive.
  5. Can FIND ORDER in confusion and discover hidden meaning in information. Research and critical thinking are key tools for the creative person. Information is to the brain what food is to the stomach. So-called “writer’s block” or creative burnout almost always results from a lack of fresh information and having nothing meaningful to say.
  6. Are MOTIVATED BY A TASK rather than by external rewards. You must like the challenge of writing, explaining, teaching, and persuading. Sure, you can make money along the way, but if you’re in it just for the money, you’re not going to be a fountain of new ideas.
  7. Have a need to FIND SOLUTIONS to challenging problems. Even the most creative writers won’t have a solution for everything. If they claim to, they’ve stopped thinking. Highly creative people are those whose eyes light up at a question they can’t answer. That’s the opportunity to learn something new and produce remarkably creative content.
  8. Will CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS and ask hard questions to discover what is real. Writing, blogging, or business rules aren’t really rules, only rules of thumb. If you want to wield true creative power, you will always take what others advise with a grain of salt. (That includes all of us gurus who love to don our pointy wizard hats and pontificate on the secrets of success.) If you don’t know something from personal knowledge or experience, you don’t know it at all.
  9. Can MAKE CONNECTIONS between old ideas to produce new insights. Combine the little doodles you make on a white board with online video and you get CommonCraft, a new approach to explaining things to people in a way they can easily understand. Sometimes the best solutions are simply two old ideas jammed together.
  10. Will PUSH THE ENVELOPE in order to expand the boundaries of what is possible. There was a time when no one thought you could make money on the Internet. Now it’s a huge, multi-national business platform. Instead of dividing the world into the possible and impossible, it’s better to merely divide it into the tried and the untried. What have you not tried yet?
  11. Are willing to TEST new ideas and compete with others based on results. Isn’t that what they mean by the “market of ideas”? Isn’t that what business competition is about? If you’re afraid of being wrong or losing, your creativity will suffer.

These are certainly uncommon traits for most people. But they’re not difficult. Watch how the creative people you know solve problems and deal with projects. You may choose one particularly creative person you admire and, when faced with a problem, ask yourself, “What would so-and-so do in this situation?”

As you begin to “act” like a creative person, you’ll find yourself actually becoming more and more creative. And likely, more and more successful.

About the Author: Dean Rieck is a highly creative and successful direct marketing copywriter. For more copywriting and selling tips, sign up for Dean’s free direct response newsletter or visit the Direct Creative Blog.

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  1. Paul Foreman :

    Excellent post Dean

    I think fear of failure holds many people back; that plus being too hard on yourself and expecting to succeed first time round. If you welcome failure as a learning curve it becomes part of the journey towards success.

    Robin Sharma said “There are no mistakes; only lessons” – brilliant advice.

    When I look at the word fail I like to imagine the “L” as an “L” plate – the “L” standing for lesson

    I feel creative people keep trying and work through failure which is great because as you mention in the post anyone can be creative because anyone can fail regardless of ability :)

  2. Wow, I would say, based on your list, I’m pretty creative. I just need to kick it up a notch. :)

  3. I love illustrator Keri Smith’s new book, “How To Be An Explorer Of the World: Portable Life Museum.” It’s been helping me to cultivate all of these traits and more … it’s great for kick-starting the right brain hemisphere! :)

  4. Dangerous topic. I like to separate the social construct (extrinsic) called creativity from the intrinsic traits. You’ve conflated the two in your list and added a few that are not central to creativity itself (like courage).

    Extrinsic stuff has been most studied by positive psychologist Mihalyi Czikzentmihalyi (“Flow,” “Creativity”). In “Creativity” he defines it as the triangular relationship between a symbolic domain, a field of peers (the “in-group” of tastemakers) and the individual. The psychometrics of creativity are NOT comparable to those of IQ type things, so the comparison/correlation is kinda meaningless. There is far less consensus on what social creativity “is” and therefore contention over what is the right way to measure it (divergent thinking test, certain types of completion tests..).

    I don’t like this vein of thinking because it is too practical and doesn’t get at the fundamentals of creativity.

    On the intrinsic front, the best thinking I’ve seen is the beautiful little book (originally a TV series) by John Berger, Ways of Seeing. You mention it, but I am surprised you don’t list it explicitly in your 11. It would be my 1-liner definition, “seeing the world differently.” My blog tag-line, “experiments in refactored perception” is a tech-geeky way of saying that.

    There is neuroscientific evidence that this kind of intrinsic creativity actually comes from different wiring. Try “Iconoclast” by Gregory Burns. It’s as if your brain sees blue where others see green.

    Your list of 11 is useful but IMO doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

    Venkat

  5. So much to be a creative person, I like to last one the most, since I’m a person who like to test things around, the hardest for me will be finding solution and making connection.

    Almost everyday there’s always a problem, and searching solution to solve is just to stress for me, and making connection is another problem, is just that creativity doesn’t just come when you think of it, sometime it just come when you never realise it.

  6. This is a great post Dean. I like how you point out that going with your gut feeling is important. We can see this with Set Godin’s blog. It’s minimalist and small, but super successful.

    I think too that being motivated by the task rather than the rewards helps a lot too. If you think the rewards are far off you may lose your motivation to be creative.

    I am becoming more bold on my blog by slowly pushing the envelope too. Let’s all push the envelope a bit more!

  7. @venkat Fear is one of the main barriers to creativity, so in that sense, courage is absolutely central, and rightfully listed as number one.

  8. If someone is not as outgoing as others does it limit their overall potential? Engineers can be very good at building websites and many of the items you list here but tend to keep to themselves.

  9. Thanks for the great article!

    I used to think being creative is being like those people in the creative arts – freedom of expression, originality, etc.

    But I realized that’s only one aspect of creativity. As long as I can take an idea and add something to it, so that it becomes new or better, I’m being creative.

    Your list just sums up the many ways one can be creative. Thanks again, Dean!

  10. @Brian On a side note, have you stopped LateralThinking.com or has it merged or been moved?

  11. I agree with Brian that courage is a fundamental principle of creativity. But for me the nature of courage here isn’t an act, so much as an orientation.

    It reminds me of a story my brother tells me about his last training jump as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He literally landed on an ambulance – or rather, he hit the back of it. When I asked him why he didn’t simply steer to one side or another, he told me it was because he kept staring at that ambulance and thinking “Don’t hit the ambulance. Don’t hit the ambulance… ”

    The moral: we all tend to head where we focus the most attention – right or wrong. So, allowing too much focus on fear and anxiety can challenge our ability to accept risk and be creative.

    To counter Venkat’s point, if I understood it correctly, I don’t think we can entirely separate intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Not to get all Zen on everyone, but I don’t see the world as it truly is, but rather as I am. So, changing my ways of seeing begins by changing myself – beginning with where I orient my attention.

    In that respect, I think #3, Play, is one of the most effective ways to counter fear and “refactor my perception.” When I allow my creativity to stem from a sense of play, I seem to leave less room for fear and anxiety.

    Can’t say I understand the mechanics of this. Can’t say I care to.

  12. I’ve got all these trades in spades and I can tell you from 15+ years of being a designer: they do not make your life easier or more successful. In the real 9-to-5 world, creatives work with clients and account directors who rarely possessive the above traits, and just want to live in their safety zone. Those people care most about protecting their paycheck by not “rocking the boat’ (as they perceive it). Any idea that threatens that isn’t going to see the light of day. The only way my best ideas get pushed through is when I have an executive champion with some vision.

    Having said that, I would rather be me than them even if it is a more difficult path. And there is one more trait that a true creative has: resilience.

  13. In the real 9-to-5 world, creatives work with clients and account directors…

    Really? All “creatives”?

    And here I thought I did neither. And I thought I had a lot of “creative” friends who do neither as well.

    Wow. Thanks for letting us know. ;)

  14. Gordie, I think you mean Lateral Action, and it’s still going strong. There’s a link to it in Item 10 of the post.

  15. @ Brian Thanks for that. I got the name confused. This post made me recall that site (LateralAction.com). Cheers!

  16. In the real 9-to-5 world

    Well THERE’S your problem…

  17. @Venkat, you sort of make me laugh with “I don’t like this vein of thinking because it is too practical.”

    I agree with Brian, courage needs to be #1. Fear of looking silly, feeling silly, or just moving outside our comfort zones is the biggest barrier to creativity that I see.

    @Kristian, it’s certainly true that the life of a creative as an employee in a corporate/agency setting is tough. And I think resilience is a terrific trait for anyone to have. But I think what Brian may be getting at is that the B.S. you describe is an artifact of the corporate setting (which includes agencies, since your clients are corporations), not an artifact of creativity. Trust me, I have a lot of empathy with the frustrations you describe, I battled them myself for many years.

  18. Courage is crucially important, but the reason I don’t think it belongs in this discussion is that it applies to everything, creative or not. Andy DuFrense needed courage to keep digging his tunnel for 20 years to get out of Shawshank. Any project of any significance has a Godin-like dip where courage is key.

    So it is kinda tautological in any attempt to have impact. But I don’t like the idea of reducing creativity ONLY to stuff that has impact. You can be creative all by yourself, daydreaming on an island, by seeing shapes in clouds that nobody else can see. Needs no courage, just one of your other points: a sense of play and different wiring behind your eyes.

    Venkat

  19. I spent most of my life not trying anything new because of fear of failure, so I can definitely relate to #1. And I always assumed you had to be well above average intelligence to be highly creative, so often I never bothered even trying to be creative. It is nice to see that it is not the case. So, no more excuses for me, eh?

  20. Hey Brandon, thanks for the comment. Did you know I grew up in Cypress?

  21. Excellent post!

    I think too many people are really just afraid of what other people will think and let that take over their lives. You MUST be unique and different, otherwise what makes you better than the next person?

    Anyways, I truly believe in these and this may just be the ultimate list when it comes to being creative.

    -Mike

  22. I just typed this comment with my nose!

  23. @Venkat, I don’t, from my own experience, actually think that’s true. Daydreaming and creativity are related, but people who do creative work know that the more work you do, the more ideas (and better ideas) show up. The ideas you get by just looking at clouds are not, typically, particularly interesting. And doing the work requires courage.

    That’s been my experience, anyway.

  24. it makes my thinking smart!

  25. It’s like Napoleon Hill says, “As you think, you shall become.” Difficult to put into practice at first, but highly effective in the long run.

    My favorite traits are express yourself, challenge assumptions, and find solutions. Within these there is an absolutely endless amount of potential to write and create. Great stuff, Dean.

  26. Oh dear, I must only be mildly creative. I agree that the fear of failing holds alot of people back. It is something that has hindered me–this is definitely an area I need to work on.

  27. Courage is definitely the fuel behind creative people. You could probably say courage is the fuel behind the ten other traits as well. This is a really good post, a great read for interns, like ourselves.

  28. A critical one missing is to dream when tired or distracted. All great ideas come from the unconscious mind and as it happens to be unconscious so it can’t talk to us directly. We need to get out of our own way and let it get on with doing what it does best without constant analysis at the puny conscious level.

    That is the reason so many great ideas come when people are exercising, half asleep, lying in bed ill (Einstein got his idea for relativity when ill).

    As for courage. To say it is THE major thing is simply not true. It depends heavily on the individual involved. You can only demonstrate courage if you are scared.

  29. I think your #1 trait is the most important, courage. Without courage you cannot be a creative person because everyone around you is typically a negative Ned, therefore, you have to have the balls to stand up to them and ignore their lack of understanding, be confident in your offering, and move forward anyway.

    Good list!

  30. @Sonia I agree that ideas beget ideas in a positive-feedback cascade, and that execution pours more fuel on the fire (nothing catalyses creativity better than finishing something you’ve had on your mind… the empty space attracts more ideas).

    But that positive feedback cascade doesn’t need courage. Some of the most creative processes of this sort are things I’ve seen children do without thought, at play. Yes, without additional disciplined work and application of skills, you may not have anything worth selling, but I argue that creativity is the raw thing, not the marketed thing. The proof of this is the number of idiots who courageously and impeccably execute stupid and unoriginal ideas.

    At the risk of appearing unredeemably schmalzy, you cannot deny that this little french girl telling a winnie the pooh story is creative. But I don’t think what she’s doing takes any particular courage. Little kid Winnie the Pooh story

  31. @Tim Brownson I think you mean being brave or bravery = doing what needs to be done even when scared. Courage = to be without fear. Or is it the other way around. Hmmm

  32. Another great post. Number 5, finding order in chaos/confusion, was something I’d never thought of before.

  33. “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” ~Mark Twain

  34. Great content, ( as always)
    The problem with being “the creative” is you are often also the lone ranger. I talk about this in my blog post : Want to add value to your bottom-line quickly?…Hire a Heretic! http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/want-to-add-value-to-your-bottom-line-quicklyhire-a-heretic/
    “A heretic is someone who will not take the easy road agreeing with key influencers throughout your organization.”

    Mark Allen Roberts

  35. “Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself. And your way leads past yourself and your seven devils. You will be a heretic to yourself and a witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and a villain. You must wish to consume yourself in your own flame: how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!”

    Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

  36. Cool post. No matter how complicated Venkat tries to make it, courage is the very first element in overcoming that creative block. Courage is the very first step to overcoming ANYTHING that you THINK you cannot do. The rest builds on that and is mere logistics. I can quote a few cliches and famous people to back this (my opinion) but I will refrain…
    I came, I saw, I loooved it.

  37. Hi Dean. Thanks for the article. I have a question..

    Variables are applicable on an individual basis. I’m curious, When you say, “research shows”, could you be more specific? Re/sources? Thanks.

  38. Love this post. Like a lot of topics that are presented here, though, it’s impossible to cover the bigger picture without expanding it into a book. As someone who’s been in the creative biz for over two decades — which enables me to endorse everything in Dean’s post — there’s also a dark side to creativity that, if left unmanged, actually gets in the way. And thus, merits mention here.

    Perhaps this would be better titled, “11 Traits of Highly Effective Creative People.” Because a lot of creative people flame out and disappear. Creativity without effectivness is like fuel without an engine… it’ll evaporate before it ignites.

    Not trying to rain on this motivational parade, not in the least. But allow me to make just one point before we return to basking in the warmth of it all: creativity demands structure and context for optimal effectiveness. That’s why not all the best ads are funny, not all the finest novels are thrillers, and why not all the best music is freeform jazz.

    Bloggers know this. A blog, no matter how creative, without the inherent discipline of blogging, is just a diary entry.

    Perhaps better put, creativity is a subtext of discipline. The word alone brings layers of implication to the subject of creativity. In athletics there are wildly talented, gifted performers who quickly take a back seat to slower, less gifted veterans of the game. The reason is discipline. So it is with creativity.

    Let us celebrate the 11 things that mark the best of us creatively. All true. If we can just add one more — the best creativity sometimes knows that less is more, that limits are sometimes there for a reason, and that discipline trumps anarchy in the real world of creating for money.

  39. Are left handers creatives, like Leonardo da Vinci and me?

  40. Excuse my levity. I meant to say, thanks Dean, for a truly excellent post. I’d like to add this inspirational quote:
    “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

    Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
    Steve Jobs, Apple CEO

  41. Love this post, Dean! I really like the question, “What have you not tried yet?” Great article, thanks!

  42. “Highly creative people are those whose eyes light up at a question they can’t answer. That’s the opportunity to learn something new and produce ”

    I won’t claim to be ‘highly creative’ (how ’bout moderately creative) but that’s my favorite quote in this post & it sorta-kinda-maybe-describes me. Love diggin’ into ‘what if’ & ‘how to’ – it’s part of how I make a living & plays a role in my ‘creative’ life as well. Actually – all 11 were pretty damn good.

  43. After read this post…
    I realize that I still far behind to be a ‘creative’ people…
    Still lot things to be learn and improve…
    Thanks for the great articles…

  44. Great post Dean, most people still think the outer game of money splashed round equals creativity. It only equals Fail!

    Keep up the great work .. very insightful .. and thanks BTW.

  45. Way to go on the retweet action for this, Dean. Very nice!

  46. Nice post! Would you agree that even the most creative people never have all of the characteristics; and some days have more of some and less of others? Except Thomas Edison — seems like he had all of them all of the time.

  47. i’m interested in the 6th point, motivated by task,…that’s wrong with me…i just did my job for money n no more…thanks for this advice

  48. These traits remind me of Twyla Tharp’s excellent book, The Creative Habit.

    She alludes to a lot of this stuff too and how everyone can pretty much become more creative by opening themselves up like this.

  49. Great post! It’s true that you come up with better ideas when your brain relaxes. I find that sleeping with a notebook next to my bed helps cause your best ideas can come at anytime!

  50. Great list, all of which come naturally to the creatively inclined. Everything can be more finely tuned into as well, great for focusing on your strengths and weaknesses.

  51. Brian, no, I did not know you grew up in Cypress. What a small world! Do you ever come back to visit? It’s changed so much in just the 7 years we’ve lived here. We really love living here.

  52. This is really a great post. I think we can all be our own worst enemy at times, and find ourselves doubting our talent or skills. It was great to read this and say, “hey, that sounds like me…I am creative!”

    I believe following your intuition and having the courage to share it is key. There are always going to be those people that will try to crush your idea as silly or nonsense. But what I have found is that those people will come back a month later preaching exactly what I had said as the newest thing! Don’t be afraid to express your ideas in your writing…chances are YOU have the next big thing.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  53. Brandon, my parents are still there… same house for 33 years.

  54. It is true to say that some people are naturally creative, but” creative” says it all, one can learn to be creative, and really in every quater of our lifes, we are all creative in whatever we do, the day is our canvas and we are the paint, it just begs the question, “what will you do with your daily art?” Much love x

  55. some of these I have and most of these I don’t have…anyways a great refreshing post…

  56. Game changers, world dominators, etc. Good post and great list of ways to be different.

  57. Great post as so many points people can relate to.

    Fear is always a factor that holds people back with the fear of being new, the fear of something new and the fear of embarassment of trying something new as we live in a world that different can and is many times ridiculed.

    Great post and useful for those that struggle with being creative.

  58. The answer is ‘Yes’ – I do have all of these traits.
    Just kidding.
    Great summation of Creativity… love it!

  59. I would love to believe I do.
    And I know I have most of those, but sometimes,
    every once in a while-we tend to forget couple
    of things on that list and make the same mistakes
    twice.

    Igor

  60. Happy to report I have all of those traits! :-> I’s creative.

  61. I have a couple friends who truly believe they lack creativity mainly due to lack of confidence. These same friends happen to have gorgeous tattoos or decorate their homes with a really cool style. They are creative, they just don’t think they are.

    I’ve never been afraid to try, so I’ve been able to LEARN how to paint, draw and design. In the beginning, I sucked. But, because I knew I could learn to do better, I acquired the skills necessary to develop new talents.

    I strongly believe creativity can be learned and cultivated. Excellent post!

  62. I think the biggest part of the challenge is letting go enough to just be yourself in print for all to see. Once we allow or own creativity to surface it tends to unfold naturally.

  63. I would rather spend half my life trying to prove that I am creative than to give up and admit defeat before I can ever see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

  64. well cant agree more with the list. you said it all. being creative is pushing yourself to your limits and try new things always. even in what field you are in. I agree witn Aaron, just keep the faith and we will finish the race. :)

  65. Creativity can be learned but no body can really teach it. I haven’t always thought of myself as a creative person but I guess after reading this it’s safe to say alot of that was that my confidence has been shaken by people who think they know what every version of good creativity looks like. After getting away from them I’m starting to realize that the full extent of my creativiy has yet to be explored and tested. The reality is that some of these are traits that I have right now and others are dorment for any number of reasons. While I was in school it seems that system was looking to stamp a great deal of my creative ablity out of me, even some of my art teachers tried to ironicly enough unteach creativity.

    As an adult, I am reclaiming the creative traits that people tried to stamp out, and with the wisdom of an adult and the knoweldge of just how wrong people were to try and kill my creativity I am suceeding with reawakening creativity in so many ways. And I’m just getting started.

  66. Wow – Thank you! I’m a life long creative – award winning songwriter, pianist and lately public speaker to corporations about innovation and creativity. I see myself in this list, but better yet; I see a great guideline I can share with clients and friends. Anything that helps demystify creativity as this does is quite valuable. Glad to have stumbled upon this old post.