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Realizing Creativity

At the just-completed Marconi Institute for Creativity conference in Bologna, Italy, creativity scholars presented new research examining how people transform their ideas into products and achievements. Realizing creativity—moving it from potential to achievement—requires much self-regulation. What this self-regulation entails depends in part on the domain in which people work (e.g., art, science, writing). Importantly, there are different routes to creative achievement.

At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we reviewed existing research on the creative process and identified six areas describing different functions of self-regulation for creativity. First, people have to regulate expectations of the creative process. They have to understand the nature of the creative process. (Creativity is hard! But sometimes what has to be done is also boring.) It helps to know what kinds of obstacles might be encountered during creative work. Second, creativity requires exploring ideas before committing to something; self-regulation is necessary so that people don’t get fixated on one avenue, strategy, tool, procedure, or idea prematurely. Third, creative achievement benefits from setting appropriate goals: ones that are challenging (to enable something original to be done) but still within a person’s reach.

Once the aspiring creator knows what to expect, set challenging (and somewhat risky goals), and spend time exploring their options, they face another difficulty—how to sustain effort on (often) long-term creative projects. Proactive planning helps (e.g., using outlines leads to better writing) because it frees up resources to devote to creative thinking and doing. However, planning has to be flexible, leaving the possibility to change course. Furthermore, creative individuals are apt at finding ways to self-motivate. They are driven by enjoyment of the activity and solving its challenges. Last, but not least, creators have to manage their emotions throughout the creative process. Creative projects deal more blows than non-creative projects. Obstacles and unknowns of creative work (Is this going to work? Are these ideas too “out there"?) can lead to discouragement. To persist, people need to have and use strategies to manage emotions so that they don’t interfere with long-term creative effort.

Recently, Aleksandra Zielinska and colleagues built on our model and investigated what self-regulation processes happen before engaging in the creative process (forethought phase), during the creative process (performance phase), and after the creative process (self-reflection phase). They asked a large group of adolescents to refer to these phases in describing their thoughts and actions on a creative project and worked to identify different factors of self-regulation. In my own work, I studied people across different domains of creative work (in the arts, sciences, technology, marketing, and education). Collectively, these studies found that self-regulation processes predict the level of creative achievement people reach.

Self-regulation across creativity domains

In one study, I recruited a sample of visual artists and physical scientists who worked as faculty at universities in the United States. This research examined whether there are artist- and scientist-specific processes of self-regulation in creative work. Another group of researchers in Europe examined the same question in a sample of people who described having recently worked on creative projects in various domains, from cooking and crafts to visual and performing arts to science and engineering. Studying people working in a broad set of domains enabled researchers to compare self-regulation in the arts, sciences/technology, and everyday creativity.

The studies were consistent. Self-regulation is similar in nature across different creativity domains. Both sets of studies showed that artists, scientists, and everyday creators have sophisticated expectations of the creative process and use multiple strategies to help them through the work.

But there are also some differences. Scientists are more likely than artists to think that good enough and finished is better than perfect and not completed, they are more likely to be aware that their work will be criticized, and they are more likely to purposefully pursue work that questions assumptions of their field. Artists are more likely than scientists to try new strategies to broaden their perspectives, but also sometimes find it difficult to move beyond certain ideas and want to scrap the whole idea if it is criticized before being finished. Everyday creators are less likely than artists and scientists to expect obstacles and frustrations in the creative process, perhaps because creativity in daily activities and interactions is quicker (e.g., thinking of a new recipe an hour before dinner) than that on long-term projects in professional creativity.

Comparison of creators' strategies

Another question our research examined is whether there are different ways to reach the same creative outcomes (as opposed to there being one best way to successfully work through creative projects). To answer this question, we examined what patterns of expectations and strategies creators hold.

We found that different creators have different sets of expectations. It is helpful that creators have a basic understanding that creative work is not linear. It requires many revisions and changes and is likely to be criticized. However, some creators also adopt the attitude that completing their work is more important than making it perfect, while others do not. For some, focusing on the creative process itself is a productive approach, while for others, it helps to keep the end product in mind.

Crucially, creators can reach high creative achievement using different patterns of self-regulation strategies. Relying largely on one strategy, such as planning and trying to predict possible obstacles, is less effective than having multiple strategies (e.g., adjusting approach when necessary, flexibly planning, and taking calculated risks). However, the specific combination of strategies is less important. Some creators focus primarily on exploration and embracing risks, while others try to purposefully manage their self-doubts. One set of strategies will work for some creators and another set will work for others. Self-regulation is the engine that makes creative achievement happen. In a just-published study, researchers asked close to 700 people about their ability to self-regulate, as well as about their creative activities and achievements. The first set of creativity questions was about whether people tried out a long list of creative activities and if they did, how often. Did they write a short story? Newspaper article or editorial? How about making up a melody? Making a present for someone? Designing a piece of clothing? Painting a picture? Creating a website? Writing a piece of software? And so on. Also, for each of the different areas of work (e.g., writing, music, science, and engineering), people were asked about their achievements. The achievements could vary, from none (not having engaged in a particular area of work or having tried it only once) to being recognized for one’s creativity (having won an award for one’s work, media reporting about one’s work, having sold some of the work). The first thing that the researchers found was well-known. People have to invest effort in an activity to reach high levels of achievement. More importantly, those who reached higher levels of creative achievement were not only spending time on creative activities but also had high self-regulation ability. Creative achievement did not happen when people only dabbled in something, like writing a poem or two in high school. But engaging in an activity, such as sculpting or writing poems, did not guarantee achievement. Self-regulation helped transform activity into recognized achievement. Much of cultural discourse about creativity focuses on the origin of ideas. By contrast, this research shows that if we want to understand who will transform creative ideas into tangible achievements, we need to understand with what expectations people start the creative process and what strategies they use to complete the creative work. Importantly, there isn’t one best way to manage creative work. As we consider how to teach skills of creative work beyond coming up with ideas, we need to find ways to teach coping with the creative process and its surprises and frustrations.

References Ivcevic, Z., & Nusbaum, E. C. (2017). From having an idea to doing something with it: Self-regulation for creativity. In M. Karwowski & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), The creative self: How our beliefs, self-efficacy, mindset, and identity impact our creativity (pp. 343-365). Academic Press. Zielińska, A., Lebuda, I., Ivcevic, Z., & Karwoski, M. (2022). How adolescents develop and implement their ideas? On self-regulation of creative action. Thinking Skills and Creativity. Zielińska, A., Lebuda, I., & Karwowski, M. (2023). Dispositional self-regulation strengthens the links between creative activity and creative achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 200,


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