Nautilus

To Be More Creative, Cheer Up

I pour a cup of coffee, sharpen my pencil, and get ready to create. I’ve dusted off a half-conceived novel outline I abandoned three years ago, but this time I’m not waiting for my muse to intervene. Instead I hit the play button on the Creative Thinker’s Toolkit, an audio lecture series from The Great Courses that I’ve downloaded on my computer.

Gerard Puccio, a psychologist who heads the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, and the voice of the toolkit, tells me to engage in “forced relationships.” Choose a random object, he instructs. I scan my office and settle on a bag of Skittles left over from Halloween. Next, he says, describe the object’s attributes. “Sweet, round, colorful, chewy,” I write. I start to draw more fruitful connections. The word “small” leads me to think about making the main character isolated, reacting against a life that has become too constrained.

I’m intrigued. Is creativity a skill I can beef up like a weak muscle? Absolutely, says Mark Runco, a cognitive psychologist who studies creativity at the University of Georgia, Athens. “Everybody has creative potential, and most of us have quite a bit of room for growth,” he says. “That doesn’t mean anybody can be Picasso or Einstein, but it does mean we can all learn to be more creative.”

After all, creativity may be the key to Homo sapiens’ success. As a society, we dreamed up stone tools, the combustion engine, and all the things in the SkyMall catalog. “Our species is not fast. We’re not terribly strong. We can’t camouflage ourselves,” Puccio told me when we spoke on the phone. “What we do have is the ability to imagine and create new possibilities.”

Creativity is certainly a buzzword these days. Amazon lists more than 6,000 self-help titles devoted to the subject. A handful of universities now offer master’s degrees in creativity, and a growing number of schools offer an undergraduate minor in creative thinking.

“We’ve moved beyond the industrial economy and the

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