Where does creative genius come from? Who are these virtuoso musicians, pathbreaking scientists, and Olympic athletes? What distinguishes them from the rest of us mere mortals? The heights of human creative expression have always captivated our interest. And for good reason: The striving for greatness is a basic human motivation, a drive that has enabled some of our most valuable cultural products.

In ancient times, creative genius was viewed as divine. Immanuel Kant believed talent was inborn, and that geniuses use their talents to produce something original and exemplary. Only in the latter part of the 19th century did scientists begin to systematically study creative genius and attempt to unravel its major determinants.

In one seminal study in the ‘60s, psychologist Frank X. Barron invited a group of eminent writers—including Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O’Connor—along with leading architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, and mathematicians, to live in a former fraternity house on the University of California, Berkeley, campus for a few days. These highly acclaimed creators spent time talking to each other, being observed and evaluated on their work and lives, and completing batteries of cognitive and personality tests.

What was the special sauce of creative genius? To Barron’s surprise, it wasn’t having a high IQ. While general intelligence was certainly high among many of these creators, it wasn’t necessarily extremely high. Neither was expertise the defining characteristic; while they had much experience in their domain, it wasn’t their knowledge alone that gave rise to their creativity.

In fact, Barron found there was no single ingredient to creativity; no one special sauce. His sample was influenced by a whole suite of intellectual, emotional, motivational, and ethical characteristics, and while some were perfectly compatible, others seemed quite contradictory. For instance, in one analysis, Barron and his colleague Donald MacKinnon found that the writers in the sample scored extremely high on many measures of psychological health, including "ego-strength," a key skill for maintaining confidence despite harsh criticism and bouncing back after setbacks. But here’s the thing: The average creative writer also scored in the top 15% of the general population on measures of mental illness! As Barron put it, the creative genius is "occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person."

Scientists have confirmed that the personality trait "openness to experience" is a potent contributor to creative thinking and achievement.

 

How could this be? Revealingly, Barron also found that the creators had an extremely high interest in understanding ambiguities and complexities. When they saw disarray and incompleteness, their interest was piqued, and they showed a drive to discover unhidden meanings and extract order from chaos. In contrast, less creative participants showed a greater intolerance and frustration when encountering ambiguity.

Since Barron’s seminal study, a number of scientists (including myself) have confirmed that the personality trait “openness to experience” is a potent contributor to creative thinking and achievement. Those who are high in this attribute tend to be imaginative, curious, perceptive, creative, artistic, thoughtful, and intellectual. They are driven to explore their inner worlds of ideas, emotions, sensations, and dreams, and to constantly seek out new experiences in their environment that will impart personal growth and allow them to further make meaning out of their lives.

This doesn’t mean that knowledge, expertise, and deliberate practice aren’t important for creative genius. Both depth and breadth are important. For example, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton analyzed the careers of 59 classical composers, and the aesthetic success of the 911 operas they had collectively written, using a composite measure of seven indicators (including audio and video recordings, number of performances, and array of written references). On the one hand, cumulative experience within the domain of music was important, explaining between 14% and 20% of the impact of a composer’s opera. So certainly, experience matters.

On the other hand, “cross-training” (composing operas across genres) was a better predictor of overall impact than the production of genre-specific operas. In fact, there was an optimal level of compositional experience after the first piece that was most conducive to operatic ingenuity. Increased expertise beyond this point actually brought decreased creativity. For example, Pietro Mascagni’s most acclaimed opera was his first (Cavalleria rusticana) and his second best was next (L’amico Fritz), but beyond that his inventiveness gradually declined until he was panned by critics and often booed offstage.

When it comes to creativity, overtraining can lead to inflexibility, a death knell for innovation. Some of the greatest composers of all time—including Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss—were also the most versatile. Indeed, this versatility and variability lies at the heart of the creative process. While the expert is characterized by his or her reliability and efficiency, creative geniuses are characterized by their long history of hits and misses, successes and false starts.

There are many examples of a creative genius producing a masterpiece, only to be followed by an embarrassing clunker. For example, Simonton found that Shakespeare’s most popular plays were created around mid-career. At this time, he composed his masterpiece Hamlet, but, not long after, he wrote Troilus and Cressida, which is cited as one of his more problematic works, and decidedly less frequently performed. If ability and knowledge were the sole provenance of creative genius, one would expect that the higher the skill and expertise, the more innovative the work.

But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead of a clean, narrow pathway to a goal, creators take risks, seek out new experiences, and reconcile contradictions. Indeed, this dance of contradictions is exactly what may give rise to the intense inner drive to create. As the journalist Carolyn Gregoire and I put it in our recent book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, creative people have “messy minds.”

We wouldn’t have it any other way. Without these rebellious experts, these passionate meaning-makers, these doers and dreamers, we would be bereft of some of humanity’s greatest creative accomplishments. Creative geniuses reveal what is within human reach, what we may all be capable of achieving with the drive to make meaning and the courage to create.


Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is scientific director of the Imagination Institute and a researcher and lecturer in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written or edited seven books, including Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire) and Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. He is also co-founder of The Creativity Post, host of The Psychology Podcast, and he writes the blog Beautiful Minds for Scientific American. Kaufman lives in Philadelphia.