The Surprising Trait That Predicts Creative Success (and How to Develop It)
This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.
Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.
Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. I am so happy to have you all here…
Today is Saturday as I record this podcast, and today I am tingling with nerves…Maybe you can hear it in my voice. I’m not nervous about recording the podcast. I’m nervous because today Ben decided that he wanted to teach Nelson how to ride a bike…Well, no. Nelson is our dog. He decided he wanted to teach Nelson how to run alongside the bike while he — Ben the human — rode the bike. And this makes me really nervous because Nelson is terrified of bikes. I’m a little worried that he won’t think it’s fun and that it will actually traumatize him even more, but Ben is very much a “face your fears” type of person, so we’ll see how this goes.
In other news, this week was very exciting because I finally sent Creative Morning Magic off to my proofreader. Whew! Oh my god. Getting that book to a place where I felt like I could finally be done fiddling with it was so, so hard. The last time I fussed over a book this much was right before I released my first book ever, which makes sense since this is my first foray into nonfiction.
What’s that saying? If your work doesn’t give you butterflies or make you want to throw up sometimes, you aren’t evolving. I’m sure that’s not the saying. But I definitely felt like throwing up on Friday when I sent the book to my editor. There’s a lot of me wanting to throw up this week…First sending the book off to my editor and then letting Ben take Nelson out to run alongside the bike.
Word to the wise: If you marry a daredevil who got his first motorcycle when he was 8 years old, it will take years off your life, but you’ll actually live at least fifty percent more in the limited years you do have.
And I just want to start off by saying that I picked out this week’s topic before any of this happened, and yes, I recognize the irony of my fear with Nelson and what I’m talking about today…
This week I wanted to address a topic related to creativity that’s not often talked about — at least not in direct terms. This is something I’ve recognized in myself over the years…Julia Cameron talks about this kind of indirectly in The Artist’s Way.
What I want to discuss this week is what’s known as “openness to experience.” So in this episode, I’ll cover what openness to experience means, how it applies to creative people, and how you can start cultivating more openness in your own life to be more creative.
But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I talk about something useful or interesting that I’ve found helpful this week. And today I want to mention a new podcast I have discovered called The Creative Introvert Podcast with Cat Rose. I first heard Cat on The Creative Penn, which is one of my long-time favorites.
And Cat just has a wonderful way about her…She tackles topics related to creativity, marketing, and business, but through the lens of an introvert. If you’re an introvert, you probably hate marketing and pitching yourself and putting yourself out there in general, and the episodes I’ve listened to so far have been really helpful…I’m going to try to get Cat on this show because I think you’d all think she was just wonderful to listen to.
Let’s go ahead and dive into today’s topic: openness to experience. Now this is an idea Julia Cameron hints at when she talks about filling the creative well. It’s something that I have been trying to articulate myself for a while, and I feel as though I finally have the terminology to discuss this idea in detail.
The first time I heard this explained really clearly and directly was when I read the book “Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind” by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. Scott Barry Kaufman is a psychologist, and Carolyn Gregoire is a science writer at The Huffington Post, and they wrote this book that explains ten traits, habits, or preferences that highly creative people have in common. These are things like solitude, daydreaming, sensitivity, mindfulness.
My honest assessment of this book is that I thought it was really interesting and well-researched, but unfortunately, the research is really where it ends. This book doesn’t offer any advice for creative people. It’s not a how-to manual, and it’s really not that groundbreaking. Most of the traits and habits they discuss are things you might expect would be correlated with creativity. This is a book written about creative people that would be more interesting to someone who’s not all that creative…Or maybe if aliens ever visit Earth and want to understand how human beings come to create art.
But I found the mindfulness research really helpful when I was writing my nonfiction book, and I thought the section on openness to experience was really interesting.
In the book, Kaufman and Gregoire define openness to experience as “the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds.” It “speaks to our desire and motivation to engage with ideas and emotions — to seek truth and beauty, newness, and novelty.”
They write that openness to experience is the “strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.”
The desire to learn and discover new things is a bigger predictor of creative accomplishment that cognitive ability or IQ.
Now openness is also one of the Big Five personality traits. The theory that there are five core personality traits came about in 1949, and there’s been evidence over the years that this is true. The Big Five personality traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Apparently, these traits are a combination of nature and nurture, but they tend to be fairly stable throughout adulthood.
I found a really interesting write-up about the Big Five personality traits here. The article says that openness “features characteristics such as imagination and insight. People who are high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests. They are curious about the world and other people and eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences. People who are high in this trait tend to be more adventurous and creative. People low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking.”
According to The Scientific American, open-minded people process information differently and literally see the world differently from the average person. These people are intellectually curious and interested in art. They tend to be politically liberal and major consumers of books, music, and other “fruits of culture.”
“Information is like catnip for their brain” — their words, not mine.
This “information catnip” effect comes from dopamine. Dopamine acts like a reward that makes us want things, and it leads to psychological plasticity, according to Kaufman and Gregoire. Plasticity makes us engage with uncertainty. For open people, the reward comes from the possibility of discovering new information.
The focus of “Wired to Create” was on openness to emotional experiences and discovering new information, but I also like to think of openness as being open to literal experiences.
So why is openness to experience so important for creativity?
The authors of “Wired to Create” write “We need new and unusual experience to think differently.” They argue that this might be the best thing we can do for our creativity.
Julia Cameron alludes to this when she speaks about filling the well. The idea is that we all have a creative well that we draw from to get new ideas, and to keep from feeling burnt out or creatively depleted, we have to add inspiration to the well on a regular basis.
So when I think of openness to experience and how this applies to me as a creative person, I think of it as taking a “when it Rome” attitude toward the world…also known as the first rule of improve.
The first rule of improv is “yes and…” In other words, you’re not allowed to say no. You have to embrace whatever your partner says and add to it. So, for instance, if your improv partner says “Here we are in this phone booth,” you aren’t allowed to say “No, we’re in a deli.” You have to say, “Yes…Here we are in this phone booth…and there’s a bomb in here.”
Sometimes this means seizing unusual opportunities when they present themselves. Sometimes this means seeking out new things.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always open to new experiences — especially experiences that require me to flex my muscles of extraversion. But I’m always working on it.
Probably the best example I have for this is the first trip I took to Taos. Taos is a town in New Mexico not too far from Santa Fe, and it’s one of the few places that I feel a really strong connection to that’s almost psychic or spiritual. I don’t know. It’s like Taos and I are linked somehow. And if I’ve been away for longer than six months, I’ll just start to get this really strong urge that I have to go back.
If you’ve never been to Taos, there’s nowhere else quite like it. One of our friends here in Colorado Springs visited for the first time with us, and she made the comment that it’s like being in a foreign country — which it kind of is. The Native American and Mexican cultures are really intertwined, which gives it a unique Southwest flavor that you really can’t understand unless you visit.
Taos is a tourist town, but outside the Plaza, it’s a super-weird place. Its full-time inhabitants are mostly aging hippies and wanderers. And the first time I went, I was just fully sucked in by Taos’s weirdness. Ben took me there in 2015, and one of the things you do in Taos is go to the hot springs. These are natural hot springs that are fed by the Rio Grande.
There are some that are relatively easy to get to and some that are kind of a hike. They’re more secluded and tend to be less crowded. We decided to hike out to the more secluded hot springs, and we had a really hard time finding them.
Instead of taking the actual trail, Ben led us on this crazy bush-whacking mission through the desert. I have no idea how long we were hiking for, but it was hot and it took forever, so when we finally reached the hot spring, it was like an oasis. We were just delirious with relief.
And the thing about the hot springs was…everyone was naked. There was a super-stoned old hippie with these mean dogs. There was a younger couple from Colorado. And there were some other people, I think. And so when you get to a place like this that’s really secluded and on the edge of a river, it’s kind of one of those “when in Rome” situations.
You can’t be that person at a naked hippie hot spring party.
So we get in, and it’s kind of nice and freeing. But then things start to get weird…
This older couple shows up…You know the type. They’re sitting a little too close to you in the hot springs, and you start to get the vibe that they’re either full-time nudists or swingers. Then this guy paddles up in a kayak and decides he wants to join the hot-spring situation. Then this whole squad of tourists in like polos and khakis and golf visors shows up. They take one look at all the naked people and decide that this is not for them.
Things are starting to get weird, so we leave. We find this trail that leads directly up to the trailhead where we parked, but as we’re walking up, we’re waylaid by this beautiful barefoot girl in a long skirt who’s singing and carrying a ukulele as she walks down to the hot springs.
Now personally, I don’t really believe in auras, but if I did, this girl’s aura would have been just glowing. She’s literally glowing. And I have one of those moments where I wonder if I’m hallucinating. But I didn’t take any pot from the old hippie guy, and Ben swears that this girl was real, so I’m inclined to believe that she was…
The thing is, you don’t get these types of experiences without a degree of openness. And these experiences are what make your writing interesting. They’re what make you interesting. And they can serve as inspiration years later.
So always say yes to the hippie hot spring party…Except when you go to Taos for the third or fourth time and there’s a whole family of nudists down there. That’s when you’ve reached the weirdness threshold and it’s okay to say no.
If you’re a creative person or you want to be more creative, you might be wondering about some low-risk ways that you can be more open without going to a naked hippie hot spring party.
So here are some of my top suggestions for increasing openness. These are things I’ve done or habits I’ve developed that have led to some of my greatest periods of inspiration…and experiences that come from these things nearly always make it into my writing.
1. Never stay in a hotel. Travel is obviously a fantastic way to be more open, learn new things, and have interesting experiences. To me, a change of scenery just kind of clears the cobwebs and breathes fresh life into my routine. But how you travel is really important, because it’s totally possible to go to different places without really getting outside your comfort zone.
When I travel, I almost never stay in a hotel. When I traveled abroad, I stayed in youth hostels, which are great. And when I travel in the US, I nearly always get Airbnbs. I’ve stayed in super urban Airbnbs in cities, and I’ve stayed in Airbnbs that were really remote. They just provide a different experience than staying in a hotel, and if you choose wisely, your Airbnb can totally make your trip.
If you get an Airbnb, try not to just go with the safest, most basic Airbnb. And by that I mean pick the unusual ones — the teepees, the RVs, the yurts.
My favorite Airbnb I ever stayed in was a garlic farm in Dixon, New Mexico. The house itself was designed like a small tower. We were surrounded by wineries. Our hosts let us harvest as many fresh veggies as we wanted for our meals. We got to get our own eggs from their chickens. We had an Airbnb in Sedona where we got a late-night visit from a herd of javelina, which look like wild pigs with tusks but actually aren’t in the pig family. They’re about forty pounds, extremely aggressive, and they can actually jump a four-foot fence.
I’m going to Santa Fe for the Gathering of Creatives next month, and instead of staying in this really basic Airbnb near the plaza, I got a casita in Nambe on this little microfarm…I don’t really know what to expect, but they had me at “goats.” They have goats on the property, so I pretty much had to stay there.
So hotels = bad. Weird Airbnbs = good.
2. Get up close and personal with a subculture you’re unfamiliar with. This is one of those things where it’s difficult to seek it out…You really just have to stay open and seize these opportunities when they present themselves. Maybe you’ll get an opportunity to be a groupie or a hot spring weirdo. You never know.
Now, I had a very conservative Catholic Midwestern upbringing. Where I grew up and where I went to high school, the very worst thing is for someone to be “too edgy.” I wasn’t allowed to have temporary tattoos or dye my hair. I still remember the year my mom got a male student teacher who wore a leather jacket, had an earring, and rode a motorcycle to school. I remember this specifically because it really rocked the boat at Bloomington Junior High School. I also vaguely remember my brother wanting to bleach his hair and my dad telling him no because he didn’t want his son walking around looking like Dennis Rodman. (Back in the mid-nineties, Dennis Rodman was about as edgy as you could get.)
Maybe this is why I find these subcultures so interesting as an adult. Two weeks ago, there was a huge motorcycle rally up in Cripple Creek. We didn’t get to go since it was the same weekend as the Gem and Mineral Show, but next year, we’ll probably make it up there.
I think the best chance I’ve had to get up close and personal with a subculture like that is when I went to the MMA gym back in Missouri. The MMA subculture is, frankly, awesome. I never had a fight, but I trained with those guys, and it’s just so interesting. It really added a lot to my writing at the time, and I just felt really intensely creative being exposed to that world.
Immersing yourself in an interesting subculture goes hand-in-hand with tip No. 3, which is…
3. Be nosy. So we’ve all probably been told to mind our own business…Which is generally good advice, but it doesn’t serve you well out in the world if you’re a writer trying to gather material for books.
A nicer way to phrase this might be something like “be a curious person” or “be inquisitive.” I once had a guest lecturer in a journalism class who said that if you want to be a good journalist, you need relentless curiosity. But basically, that just means be nosy.
Now I’m not much for gossip, but if you give me a hint that you’ve got something juicy, you can bet I’m going to get it out of you. This goes for strangers, too. I’m all about getting the dirt from my barista, from my hairstylist, from the ladies down at Ace Hardware…
But I don’t just mean that you should be nosy about regular life things. Anytime you meet someone with unusual life experience or an unusual hobby, you should definitely ask them about it.
If I meet someone at the dog park that’s really into falconry, you can bet I’m going to need to ask him all of my questions.
You can start with questions like, “How did you get into that?” or “What got you interested in X?”
If I have some burning questions that I’m afraid to ask, I’ll preface them with “This might be a stupid question, but…”
That lets you off the hook for asking an obvious question, but it also makes them more likely to answer because they get to be the expert.
Sometimes if someone starts telling you about your life, you’re going to have questions that might not seem appropriate to ask. Introverts sometimes struggle with this because introverts don’t like small talk. We tend to go straight for the deep stuff, but extraverts want you to buy them dinner first.
In those cases, if I blurt out a personal question and instantly know I’ve overstepped, I’ll say, “I’m sorry. That’s really personal. I shouldn’t have asked.”
You don’t have to be awkward about it. If you recognize that you’ve overstepped right then and there, it puts everyone at ease and lets the recipient off the hook. They know they don’t have to answer, but I’ve actually never had someone not answer once I qualify the question that way.
Most of the time, people like to talk about themselves, and they’ll tell you whatever you want to know if you ask your questions in an inquisitive, respectful way.
Plus, I’m not a reporter…Who am I gonna tell?
This brings me to tip 4…
4. Embrace random opportunities. Sometimes, you’ll get the opportunity to do something kind of unexpected…even weird. If this happens, you should always take that opportunity. You should lean into the weird.
The best example I have for this is Burro Days. Last year, we went to Fairplay, Colorado for the annual festival known as Burro Days, when people come to race their burrows (yes, donkeys). There are also llama races. It’s just a good time.
I feel like Colorado is a really good case study in embracing the weird, because weird things are always happening. If I see a guy running down the sidewalk in street clothes looking like he’s running from someone, I’m gonna stop the car and ask what’s up. This is actually how we met our good friend Kyle.
If your cat drags a baby squirrel into your kitchen, you might have an extra house guest for three or four weeks. Embrace it.
So this week, I want you to ask yourself, “Are you open to experience?” Really sit with this question. If you aren’t very open, ask yourself how you might say “yes and” to life just a little bit more.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you have any questions or suggestions for future show topics, you can find me on Instagram @writewithtarah, Twitter @writewithtarah, or at my website, www.writewithtarah.com.
I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!
Photo by Katika Bele
Wired to Create
Big Five Personality Traits: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422
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