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Your Brain Is a Mess—and That’s a Good Thing!

As scientific director of the Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Scott Barry Kaufman is known for his work on intelligence and creativity. In his new book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Scott and co-author Carolyn Gregoire explore the habits and techniques that can help us tap into our creative sides. Live Happy contributor Suzann Pileggi Pawelski recently sat down with Scott to learn more.

Live Happy: In Wired to Create, you talk about creative people having “messy minds.” What does that mean?

Scott Barry Kaufman: When you look at the lives of lots of creative people and look at their thought patterns, you see that they are constantly switching back and forth between these different modes of thought that seem incompatible with each other. It creates kind of a paradox.

For example, they seem very sensitive but also very tough and are able to overcome the obstacles to achieve their goals. Creativity involves periods of downtime and reflection as well as periods of openness and deliberation and trying to make something practical and tenable. So having messy minds contributes to the messy creative process.

LH: Can you briefly explain some additional paradoxes you mention in your book, starting with mindfulness vs. daydreaming?

Scott: Creative people will often be very mindful of their surroundings and attentive and focused, and they will also be open to long periods of daydreaming and mind wandering.

LH: What about solitude vs. collaboration?

Scott: Creative processes benefit from both solitude and collaboration. With solitude it is particularly important to get a lot of ideas down on paper and for there to be no judgment….Collaboration is an important stage of being able to present your ideas to get feedback and additional inspiration from the audience.

LH: Finally, what about seriousness vs. play?

Scott: Creative people are serious about their work and their goals, but the process they use to reach those goals is trial-and-error. When they talk about their passions, creative people are very intense, but they tend to be very playful with their ideas and present various ways of looking at a situation.

LH: Are you saying that contradiction is a hallmark of creative minds?

Scott: Yes. You find that creative minds are messy in the sense that they are flexible in switching between different ways of thinking. It’s important to their creative process to have that flexibility because creativity itself is a messy process.

I think we really need to be open to the messiness of the process without trying to find the one secret to creativity.

LH: What else do we need to learn about messy minds?

Scott: I think society in general should appreciate messy minds more. We value efficiency so much (like in our schools with standardized tests), but I don’t think this emphasis on efficiency is producing optimal creativity and innovation. A key point I want to make is that messy minds are characterized by their variability and trial and error, not by their efficiency.

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