UW Graduate School

October 29, 2018

Creativity: Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s something she learned?

Is it possible to learn creativity and originality? Why are some people more creative than others? I find it hard to generate original ideas and research questions. I learn things because they are interesting but I find it hard to take it one step further and develop a follow-up research project. Is this because I do not have the capacity to be a scientist? Or can it be related to having a very hands-off advisor and being isolated so I don’t have anyone from whom I can learn these thinking patterns? I am surrounded by very creative individuals who constantly spew out original content that I myself cannot do. I feel like an employee surrounded by entrepreneurs. Am I hopeless? 

— Anonymous 

Dear Anonymous,

This is a really interesting question! (Look, you’re developing great questions already!) I’ve pooled several resources that I hope, together, will give you the confidence, knowledge and motivation to kick-start your research.

To answer your question, I first turned to a couple experts right here at the University of Washington. I broke your question into two main ideas: “Is creativity malleable, and, if so, how do we build it?” And, “How can I develop a strong research question?” To answer the first question, I called upon Crystal Farh, associate professor of management at the Foster School of Business, who studies creativity. For the second question, I consulted Madeline Mundt, head of the Research Commons.

Since your question was so interesting, I also decided to consult another abundant (though occasionally unreliable) source of advice: Academic Twitter. I tweeted your question to Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychology researcher who studies creativity in business. Dr. Epstein replied and pointed us toward his 2015 article in Harvard Business Review on building creativity among your team.

I hope you’ll be relieved and excited to hear that yes, it is possible to develop creativity; creativity is a product of traits we can build in ourselves. However, these traits are not necessarily easy to develop. Please see the full answers from our experts, and a bit of advice directly from the Guru, below!

On creativity, and how to build it 

Crystal Farh, associate professor of management, Foster School of Business: 

“What an interesting question! First, let’s define creativity. Creativity is generating output that is both novel and useful. Research on creativity (at least in organizational settings) suggests that there are some individual differences that facilitate creativity — but interestingly, very few of those individual differences are “fixed” or “innate.”  One of the key factors, for example, is knowledge. Creativity often emerges from the combination of new and old ideas in uncommon ways. Having knowledge, thus, and access to new information is one of the key ways to enhance one’s creativity.

Another key factor is motivation, particularly intrinsic motivation. Compared to more conventional types of work, creative work is challenging, ambiguous and often discouraging. There is a great deal of uncertainty around whether one’s ideas are good or not, whether others will positively evaluate those ideas or whether anything will come of those ideas. Thus, it takes a great deal of effort and persistence to keep at creativity, and motivation and self-confidence that one can be creative is hugely influential in predicting actual creativity. To be fair, creativity has also been linked to innovative cognitive style, which captures innate differences across individuals in their propensity to think in novel ways.

However, it is worth pointing out that knowledge and motivation are both malleable factors that are within the control of the individual and can be improved over time. It is also worth pointing out that creativity often emerges from engaging in the creative process — in other words, going through structured steps of generating ideas, reflecting on problems, and scanning the environment for relevant information and solutions. Again, these steps are within the control of the individual and can be developed. Moreover, there are a number of environmental factors (e.g., the behaviors of your supervisor, your coworkers/fellow classmates, support for creativity in the context) that also matter a great deal.

So, to address your question: you are not hopeless. There are lots of factors affecting creativity that you can nurture and practice over time. With sufficient knowledge and motivation, dedicated engagement in the creative process, and a favorable environment for creativity, I am confident that you will come up with your own exciting, creative research ideas.

Developing a research question 

Madeline Mundt, head of the Research Commons:

“A good place to start is to identify your subject liaison librarian and pay them a visit. Subject liaison librarians can help you generate and refine research questions, and they have in-depth expertise in research and developing research questions that will be applicable to the way things are done your field of study. Subject librarians help many students develop research questions, as it’s a very common question — definitely nothing that indicates you’re not cut out to be a scientist!

Subject librarians are also great people for students to connect with throughout their time here at UW, since they can help with much more than just generating research questions. They can help with research strategies, focusing topics, tracking down research, comprehensive literature searching, and more.

Being gentle with yourself

I wanted to give you one more piece of advice, Anonymous, directly from the Guru. The way you talk about your peers and compare yourself to others in your lab makes me wonder if you may be experiencing a kind of imposter syndrome. Professors Ralina Joseph and Alexes Harris explain imposter syndrome quite well in this mentor memo, but I’d sum it up as “feeling inadequate or hopeless, specifically in your work, despite being quite adequate.” Please read the mentor memo and decide for yourself if you relate to these sentiments.

So, Anonymous, be patient with, and confident in, yourself. Remember that you were selected for your program and asked by your P.I. to join your lab for a reason. You are not hopeless — on the contrary — the fact you’ve made it this far is strong evidence that you are indeed cut out to be a scientist!

Wishing you the best of luck in your research and in your program! If you have any follow-up questions, or want to ask a different question, please do not hesitate to reach out. The Guru will be here!

— The Grad School Guru

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →