3 Clues to the Mystery of Creativity

Millennial girl student engaged in creative thinking

By Robin Landa, Professor, Kean University USA

Mystery surrounds many things. Take the Jersey Devil, for example, a ghastly flying horse with glowing red eyes, supposedly born to a “witch” named Mother Leeds in colonial New Jersey. The Jersey Devil disappeared into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and, according to legend, has haunted that special area ever since.

In The Secret History of the Jersey Devil, professors Brian Regal and Frank Esposito, my colleagues at Kean University, elucidate–everything you think you know about the Jersey Devil is wrong.

Regal and Esposito explain that the namesake of New Jersey’s hockey team’s origins was not a product of witchcraft or a misbegotten union between a woman and the devil, but of political fights and “religious upheavals of colonial America. A product of innuendo and rumor, as well as scandal and media hype, the Jersey Devil enjoys a rich history involving land grabs, astrological predictions, mermaids and dinosaur bones, sideshows, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, a cross-dressing royal governor, and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.”

Mystery shrouds the notion of creativity, as well. If you believe that creativity is an inborn golden nugget of genius that only the talented few possess, then everything you think you know about creativity is wrong. Sure, some people are predisposed to thinking creatively. Is it nature, nurture, or a combination thereof? I won’t answer that fully here but what I will tell you from my own research as a professor of design and advertising and my teaching is that the people who exhibit creative thinking are also those who are prone to practicing extreme curiosity, noticing possibilities, and are intentional observers, mindful listeners, and open to multiple perspectives.

The secret? Some might be prone to these behaviors but anyone can acquire them and nurture creativity. No mystery there. Here’s how.

Let someone else take you there. Many years ago, my then beau Gary, wanted to go hiking in the Cascade Range but my ideal vacation would have been museum hopping or tangoing in Buenos Aires. After much apprehension, I agreed to hike. All I can say is the views from Mount Rainier are spectacular. If you’re heading to a museum with a friend, allow your friend to suggest which exhibits to see. Or if you’re selecting music, a film or book, try a new genre. If you never read the science or tech section of the news, please give it a read. Be open to new experiences.

Ask, “What if…?” Think, “I wonder what would happen if…” or “If only we could…” Imagine “what if…” scenarios that are beyond your realm of experience. If you think about the great science fiction writers, you’ll realize that they are posing these kinds of speculative questions in order to imagine other worlds and technology that we don’t yet have.

Intentionally observe. What do observational comedian Michelle Buteau, inventor George de Mestral and Dr. Alexander Fleming have in common? Mindful observation. Buteau’s humor allows you to look at the ordinary things in life in a new way. She takes something familiar but notices things we haven’t. Tip: Listen to observational comedians’ acts or read their writing.

If you paid attention to your elementary school science teacher, you might recall the surprising story of the discovery of penicillin—one that surprised Alexander Fleming himself. When Fleming, a physician and scientist, returned from vacation to his untidy laboratory, he observed something that others might have missed—a mold (called Penicillium) had contaminated one of his Petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus aureus (a bacteria). Fleming examined the mold and set a goal—to determine why it prevented the normal growth of the staphylococci. He went on to experiment and research.

When you’re observant, what you see, hear, notice, or investigate might trigger a significant thought. Take George de Mestral. You might not recognize his name, but you’ve heard of Velcro, a combination of “velvet” and “crochet” (which means “hook” in French). While walking in the woods, de Mestral noticed that his pants and his Irish Pointer’s hair were covered in burs from a burdock plant. Curious, he studied the burs under a microscope to realize that they bind themselves to almost any fabric, even to dog hair. “His idea was to take the hooks he had seen in the burs and combine them with simple loops of fabric. The tiny hooks would catch in the loops, and things would just, well, come together.

Like observational comedians, you might be good at recognizing a phenomenon in the environment or in people’s behaviors. You can recognize a characteristic of human behavior because you’re observant and always seeking to understand human behavior. A prepared mind recognizes this kind of phenomenon.

Respectfully wander through the New Jersey Pine Barrens’ forests to find a surprising variety of scenery, habitats and species in this island of biodiversity, but you won’t encounter the Jersey Devil. Now you know that there is a fascinating secret history of the Jersey Devil and a precious ecosystem in the great state of New Jersey. What’s more, creativity still might hold mystery for some, but you know it’s yours for the taking.

About the Author

Robin Landa is a distinguished professor at Kean University USA and a globally recognized ideation expert. She is a well-known “creativity guru” and a best-selling author of books on creativity, design, and advertising, including Strategic Creativity: A Business Field Guide to Advertising, Branding, and Design and The New Art of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential. She has won numerous awards and The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.”