Scott Barry Kaufman and Sarah Lewis on the Art and Science of Creativity

“Creativity is applicable to lives that aren’t even necessarily lived with invention or artistry. It’s about becoming your best self.”

Scott Barry Kaufman and Sarah Lewis approach the concept of creativity in distinct ways. Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist, studies the science and psychology behind creativity—and proposes new ways to measure it—in his book Wired to Create. Sarah Lewis, Harvard professor of Art History, Architecture, and American and African American Studies, based her book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, on extensive research about specific artists’ lifestyles and careers. They recently got on the phone to discuss what makes an artist an artist, and what some of the world’s most brilliant creative minds–from Einstein to Cézanne—have in common.

Scott Barry Kaufman: At the Imagination Institute [a nonprofit research organization in the Positive Psychology Center at the University Pennsylvannia],  we’re working on lots of new measures to test for creativity and imagination and to try to develop and cultivate it. Part of what I do is study the measurement of it, see if we can capture slices of creativity and imagination in real time. A lot of creativity is trial and error and failing, so how do you measure that?

Sarah Lewis: It’s interesting because we approach creativity in different ways. My approach is not analytical. It’s not with an aim to be able to measure creativity, so I’m intrigued by your work. My sort of methodology is to use historic and contemporary stories to look at different traits that seem central to the process of creativity. One of the most counter-intuitive traits is the ability to handle failure and the ability to innovate because of failure. I don’t measure it, but I certainly am intrigued by it.

Scott: I’m sure you came across the equal-odds rule in your work. The more that you produce something, regardless of its quality, you increase the chances that you’ll eventually produce that one masterpiece. You’re literally increasing your odds of succeeding every time you fail, is what that is, statistically.

It’s interesting because with those artists who make the history books, we tend to focus on their masterpieces, but we don’t focus on their failures or all the pieces of work that did not gain great popularity.

Sarah: How in your mind does that differ from the 10,000-hour rule or K. Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice?

Scott: Well the thing about deliberate practice is that he doesn’t put anything in his model that requires failure. What if you spent 10,000 hours and you do it so well that in the 10,000 hours you’ve practiced, you’ve made progress but there’s none of that required suffering?

That model doesn’t help you develop the capacity to recover from extreme setbacks. It’s a method of saying this is what quality practice looks like, and that certainly has value –it’s certainly important for creativity to learn and master the right way. But it’s not all about that, right?

You talk a lot about mastery in your book, and mastery requiring endurance. I think that’s different, that goes beyond just the 10,000 hours.

My advice is to see competition not as a playing field in which you’re in competition with others, but in which you’re in competition with yourself, ultimately. The journey of mastery is ever onward. It’s always a matter of besting yourself.

Sarah: It does. Mastery really is the main subject of The Rise. I often say that the opposite of failure isn’t success, it’s actually mastery. One of the irreplaceable gains that comes from, say, deliberate practice that includes failure, and really all sorts of scenarios that we might like to avoid in our lives, is that these situations oftentimes result in what we would call mastery, a kind of iconic level of achievement. With that relationship in mind, it just seemed to me that we should better explore the lives of those who have walked this path; look at the life stories of artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, athletes and explorers to really understand this phenomenon.

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The reason why endurance comes up as a central trait of mastery is largely because of the level of fortitude and tenacity that you see arise in people after a “near win.” A near win is slightly different from failure, it’s coming just shy of your goal but not reaching it. It requires a level of endurance that, to take a very commonplace example, Thomas Edison had. To be able to say to his assistants when he was trying to invent the incandescent light bulb, “I have not failed, I’ve just tried 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

That kind of endurance, the ability to consistently experiment and innovate despite seeming failure, has become an essential trait for mastery. It’s what makes certain artists’ creative lives continue until the very end of their time on the planet. They have a vision that they want to complete, like when Michelangelo said, “Lord, grant that I desire more than I can accomplish.” Michelangelo’s main hope wasn’t simply to get more commissions but to have the endurance to be able to continue on that journey.

Scott: When you talk about near win, I think of that study about silver and gold medal winners and how those who won bronze were happier than silver winners.

Sarah: My advice is to see competition not as a playing field in which you’re in competition with others, but in which you’re in competition with yourself. The journey of mastery is ever onward. It’s always a matter of besting yourself. Think of it the way Duke Ellington did when he was asked about his favorite music. He said, “Oh, always the next one. Always the one that’s yet to come.”

The Olympic medalist example, though, is fantastic. Bronze medalists tend to look happy even though they’re in third place, often times happier than silver medalists who objectively did better than the bronze. The silver medalists often look frustrated with themselves because the mind dwells on what might have been, just might have been.

Most people are not Olympians, and neither are we. The Olympic journey that we’re all a part of is trying to best ourselves on any given day. Trying to become a better version of who we are. That’s why the topic of creativity is so applicable to lives that aren’t even necessarily lived with invention or artistry. It’s about becoming your best self.

Scott: You definitely speak my language when you start evoking images of self-actualization as opposed to competition. I do appreciate that way of thinking about it.

I wrote this article for Scientific American called, “Creativity Is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice.” Creativity is not mere mastery in my opinion, even though it draws very much on mastery.

Creativity to me is forging new paths and not being scared of going into uncharted territory, even if you might fail. Whereas the deliberate practice approach is learning something that has already existed, and to me that’s not quite the same thing as creativity.

Sarah: What you’re speaking about goes to the central function of risk taking for creativity. We can’t speak about innovation without risk taking. I feel as if in writing The Rise, I was a researcher/storyteller. That was my function. I created a network of stories and looked at the lives of different individuals from whom we could learn a great deal, but I don’t look at the science of creativity, so I’m interested to learn your perspective on it.

Scott: I try not to have a perspective, but I try to look at as many patterns that the data is showing and then say, “Well, what’s the most reasonable conclusion from all these data points?” It’s not that much different from what you’re doing too. You read stories. I think stories are a very undervalued form of data.

We’re both researchers. I think we can agree on that for sure. And you don’t want to invalidate personal experience. I try to look at qualitative data as well as quantitative and in Wired to Create, we have the stories first illustrating what then the science says. A lot of the science does support the importance of perseverance. Angela Duckworth and I did a study together where we looked at the predictors of lifelong creative achievement in adults, and we found that perseverance was indeed one of the best predictors. We found curiosity was also a very important predictor.

I found something called openness to experience in a lot of my studies. In fact, that’s the number one trait that I’ve studied in the past ten years, which actually has its roots in Carl Rogers’s writing, the humanistic psychologist and psychotherapist in the 50’s and 60’s. He talked about the importance of personal growth, of being open to your own experiences, trusting that they’re valid, that you can trust your instincts.

Have you ever been around someone and you’re just like, “I don’t get a good feeling about this person?” A big part of being open is not judging someone, but also taking in the totality of your experience of them, and valuing that. That’s a form of openness to experience, trusting all the range of your emotions, but also being open to new ideas, being open to fantasy, your imagination. We found that these different forms of openness to experience are an extraordinarily important predictor of creativity, in addition to perseverance.

Sarah: The idea of openness to experience is something I resonate with personally and something I write about, in the guise of looking at those private domains of creativity and what you might call the kind of “messy minds” that you see at work.

I love the “messy minds” term that you use in Wired to Create. It struck me because I’d often look at this image that I include in The Rise of Albert Einstein’s desk on the last day of his life. He has a desk that emblematizes the productivity of messy minds. The display of paper suggesting the energy to complete what he was at work on, the swivel chair, deep impress of his back having sat there for a while, the messy chalkboard. But again, he had this beautiful term to describe his office, where he hatched his most beautiful ideas: “the worldly cloister.” It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but it speaks to this idea of openness to experience; worldly, putting everything in, but still needing to protect that space in order to innovate. I wonder if when you talk about messy minds, you look at this paradox too.

Whenever we see a work of art, regardless of the medium, we are seeing the solution to a given problem that the artist has identified

Scott: Our behaviors are manifestations, to a large degree, of our stable personality traits, or relatively stable, and who we are, and we do find among creative people that they have a lot more variability in their cognitive functions. People who don’t tend to achieve a lot creatively in their lives, they don’t do a lot of novel and meaningful things in their work. They may be great workers, but they’re not constantly producing things that are novel, surprising and meaningful.

You find that amongst people who don’t consistently produce those things, they’re actually much more even-keeled in their personality. They’re more confident. “Yep. I’m an introvert,” or, “Yep,  I’m neurotic,” or, “Yep. I’m this,” but when you talk to creative people and you interview them, people who are creating these great things, they’re much messier than that. It depends on the day you catch them, you know? If you called them on a week where they’ve been in a flow and they’ve been working on something intensely and absorbed, they’d say, “I’m an extreme introvert,” but then if you catch them after they finished their work and they’re celebrating, they’re like, “Yeah. I’m a big extrovert.” It’s like there’s this constant battle within.

Creative people aren’t a different species of person. I want to make that very clear. We all have these constant battles within ourselves of all these different drives that can take us and pull us in different directions. But it seems like those fundamental inner tensions excite creative people because it gives them a puzzle to solve or something to find meaning in, so they actually enjoy the struggle.

I’d go further and say that the struggle is something that creative people embrace because it’s a way of making meaning, which excites them. Frank Barron found that in his famous Institute of Personality Assessment and Research studies at UC Berkeley in the 60’s, one of the things that characterized the creative people that came to him was that when they showed them Rorschach tests that were really ambiguous, the creative people in the sample got excited. It stimulated them. Whereas other people were really uncomfortable with it.

Sarah: Being able to withstand uncertainty is certainly a central trait for creative individuals. You see that tension a great deal, but also, I think it’s important to underscore that whenever we see a work of art, regardless of the medium, we are seeing the solution to a given problem that the artist has identified, right? John Baldessari has a well-known painting titled “Solving each problem as it arises.”

It can be subject matter of a religious nature, a scene in a foreign country, whatever the subject, the professional artist makes exhaustive studies of it. When he feels that he has interpreted the subject to the extent of his capabilities he may have a one-man exhibition whose theme is the solution of the problem. It is surprising how few people who view the paintings realize this.

I liken the work of the artist studio to the laboratory, to the field of exploration. It’s very much about problem solving, not simply fanciful imagining. It’s oftentimes a hard-won pursuit to find the solution to your problem.

To put a finer point on it, artists can define their problems in many different ways. Cézanne said “How can you realize nature in paint? Can you do it? This is the problem I want to solve. I have chosen this medium. This is my question.” His paintings are his answers. It can be anything, but those parameters, and being rigorous and diligent and trying to find a solution is the work of an artist.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.