How to Empower Yourself to be Creative

It’s possible to empower yourself to be creative because our brain is wired to create just like the title of Scott Barry Kaufman’s and Carolyn Gregoire’s book (Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, New York: Perigee, 2015). In fact, creativity guru and researcher Dr. Keith Sawyer reviewed what neuroscientists have learned about brain wiring for creativity (Sawyer K., “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity: A Critical Review,” Creativity Research Journal, 2011, 23(2): 137-154). Dr. Sawyer concluded from his research review that when people are engaged in creative tasks, they are using the same brain regions that are used for non-creative tasks. If the same brain regions are used for non-creative and creative tasks, then we all have the basic brain wiring or hardware needed to be creative. If we have the hardware to be creative, then all we need is the software – or the process of using the brain hardware to get the desired result. Process is something that can be taught and learned.

We need to learn how to empower ourselves to be creative because of the many ways beyond our control that others can disempower our creativity. Creativity is having new and useful insights for a problem or challenge. The process of having an insight can be disrupted by others such as someone imposing their positional power. For example, if a meeting is being run by a boss who demands an idea, on-the-spot, from each employee present, then those ideas will lack creativity. Creativity cannot be summoned.

Creativity is a task that requires knowledge. Dr. Keith Sawyer (Keith Sawyer, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, New York: Jossey-Bass, 2013, 49-72) and Sir Ken Robinson (Keynote Speech at IDSA Conference in 2017) both talk about the importance of expertise to creativity. Expertise is knowledge based on many hours of education and experience. Others can disempower our creativity when they behave in ways that disrupt our thinking. For example, a boss offering an extrinsic reward for creativity would be detrimental to creativity because extrinsic rewards decrease the performance of tasks requiring knowledge ( Similarly, a boss or coworker chiding you to get more creative is also hampering creativity if their chiding gets you frustrated, fearful, or angry. Neuroscientists have found that strong negative emotions decrease our ability for critical thinking and creativity takes tapping into our vast stores of knowledge and experience (

Empowering yourself to be creative takes tapping into personal power. From my personal experience and from curating research on creativity, there are three types of personal power needed for creativity. The three types of personal power to empower yourself to get creative are expert power, referent power, and the power to embrace duality. You can choose to tap into the personal power needed for creativity even while someone else is behaving in ways to diminish your creativity. Others diminish your creativity when they tell you what to do, offer an extrinsic reward, or trigger a high negative emotional state.

Expert Power to Get Creative

One way to empower yourself to get creative is to develop expert power. Expert power is the degree to which others seek you out for your knowledge in a particular area. Developing expert power takes continual and intentional learning. Continual and intentional learning takes motivation. The motivation to learn is tied to what you find meaningful and how you want to contribute to society and the world. I recently worked with a friend to find my why as described in Simon Sinek’s book (Simon Sinek, David Mead, and Peter Docker, Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2017). I have found my why to be an extraordinary source of motivation to narrow in on my unique expertise and to continue to develop my expert power.

Dr. Keith Sawyer provides practical ways you can develop expert power for creativity based on his research (Keith Sawyer, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, New York: Jossey-Bass, 2013, 49-72). For example, Dr. Sawyer points out that learners who want to get more creative reflect on their learning process and change it up in order to keep challenged. Part of my learning process is writing and teaching on new topics related to my expertise so that I seek the deeper understanding needed to explain topics to others who are not experts. Dr. Sawyer also recommends becoming a T-shaped person. The vertical line of the “T” represents deep expertise in a particular field while the horizontal line of the “T” represents lower levels of expertise across many different fields. T-shaped people get creative ideas by making connections between what is done in other areas and what is done in their area of expertise.

Referent Power to Get Creative

Another way to empower yourself to get creative is to develop referent power. Referent power is the degree to which others respect you for your character and your competence. Dr. Stephen M.R. Covey discusses ways to build character and competence in his book about trust (Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, New York: Free Press, 20026). Dr. Covey talks about the importance of integrity and intent to character. Integrity includes making and keeping commitments to yourself and others and acting according to purpose and value. Integrity also includes situational humility or being open to learning something new depending on the situation. Intent includes transparency about your intent for a given interaction, behavior that creates credibility, and genuine caring for others. Dr. Covey talks about competence as more than just developing capabilities but also driving for results.

When you have referent power which elicits the respect of others, you can attract other people to help you in the creative process when needed. Respect is a form of trust and trust is the basis for healthy connection between people. It is a myth that creativity is a solo sport. Dr. Keith Sawyer gives the example of the importance of others to J.R.R. Tolkien’s creative works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Keith Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, New York: Basic Books, 2007). Tolkien is quoted as saying that his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were made possible because of his participation in a literary group called The Inklings. The Inklings met every Tuesday at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford to read aloud their literary works in progress for critical feedback. The Inklings illustrate that soliciting feedback from knowledgeable others is an important part of creativity. The most creative people get a lot of input from qualified others. Qualified others are experts in the field that are respected and that think differently than the person requesting the feedback. Not only does a creator tend to bring their best work to qualified others, but input from qualified others will be valuable enough to justify the effort of incorporating the input to improve the work.

The most creative people understand that creative work can be improved by feedback from qualified others. Behavioral scientists have uncovered specific reasons why we can’t judge the quality of our own creative work. For example, psychologist Paul Slovic discovered the affect heuristic which is the tendency to rank our ideas higher than unbiased others would rank our ideas. There is also the overconfidence bias which makes some of us too confident in our abilities. In fact, experts are more prone to overconfidence bias than laypeople. An expert might make the same inaccurate prediction as someone unfamiliar with the topic but the expert will probably be convinced that they are right. The affect heuristic and the overconfidence bias are mechanisms explaining why people are more likely to overestimate their own creativity compared to the creativity of others (

Power to Embrace Duality to Get Creative

A third way to empower yourself to get creative is to develop the power to embrace duality. The power to embrace duality is learning to harness skills that are contradictory in nature. Contradiction plays an important role in creativity. Contradiction has been found in the traits of highly creative people, in the processes used to generate highly creative solutions, and in the sources of highly creative innovations.
Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman has found in his research that creative people learn to harness contradictory skills, behaviors, and ways of thinking to fuel creativity by bringing them together in new and unusual ways (Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, New York: Perigee, 2015). For example, highly creative people practice both openness to experience through intellectual exploration of their inner and outer worlds and solitude. Solitude involves becoming intimate with one’s own mind alone to find new meaning. Highly creative people also spark creativity using both mindfulness and mind wandering. Mindfulness is focused attention to determine meaning and patterns. Mind wandering is unfocused attention in the form of daydreaming to tap into the non-conscious brain. Highly creative people have developed many different contradictory personality traits and invent novel ways to practice them.

The theory of creativity that Dr. Scott Barry Kaufmann advocates is called BVSR (see BVSR is an acronym for two thought processes called blind variation and selective retention. In fact, BVSR forms the basis for the heartbeat (see in the creative problem-solving process. The heartbeat is the incorporation of both generating processes in which judgement is deferred and focusing processes in which affirmative judgment is used. The generating processes of creative problem solving come from the blind variation portion of the BVSR theory. But, the focusing processes of creative problem-solving come from the selective retention portion of the BVSR theory. Specifically, blind variation is the generation of many ideas regardless of their utility value while selective retention is choosing ideas for further refinement. The creative problem-solving process requires the contradictory abilities to defer judgment when generating ideas and to exercise judgment when selecting ideas for further processing.

There is a role for contradiction in sources of highly creative innovations. Baba Shiv ( notes that creativity is enhanced by engaging people in other disciplines and reading widely outside your field. Engaging with content outside your purview enables you to develop what Shiv calls knowledge nodes. Knowledge nodes are tidbits of unrelated information that can come together in random patterns to produce an unexpected solution. Shiv describes that this is how Steve Jobs came up with innovation after innovation: “His wide-ranging interests allowed for a creative lifetime of connecting the dots.” This observation is reinforced by cognitive psychologist Steven Smith of Texas A & M University who told Forbes magazine ( that “creative ideas often come from unusual combinations.” The contradiction of subject-matter expertise and random knowledge when combined can produce a creative innovation.

While innovation often comes from making unusual associations, creativity leading to innovation requires subject-matter expertise. While one way to generate unusual combinations is to put experts from unrelated fields together, there are likely perspectives that would be helpful and not helpful for creativity that will lead to viable innovation. In “For the Most Creative Ideas Look Outside Your Industry,” (, Rebecca Borison sites a group of European business school professors who wrote in Harvard Business Review: “We’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level. Such as makeup and surgical infections, surprisingly. Or inventory management and robot games. Or malls and mines.” The contradiction of expertise plus seemingly unrelated but structurally-related knowledge is key to innovation.

Summary of How to Empower Yourself to Be Creative

We all face situations at home, in school, and at work that diminish our ability to be creative like being told what to do, being incentivized with extrinsic rewards, or having strong negative emotions triggered by the behavior of others. But out brains are wired to be creative so we can solve problems and change things for the better! While we can’t control the external forces diminishing our ability to be creative, we can empower ourselves to get creative in different ways. For example, we can tap into our expert power by becoming a T-shaped person with deep expertise in a particular field and lower levels of expertise across many different other fields. T-shaped people are more likely to come up with new and unusual associations for creative problem-solving and changing things for the better. We can tap into our referent power by developing the character and competence traits needed to enable connection with others so our creative efforts can benefit from qualified feedback. Finally, we can tap into the power to embrace duality so we can develop and use the contradictive personality traits and approaches used by highly creative people.