Creativity is kind of a loaded word. It’s often thought of as exclusive and rare—a gift that only select creative geniuses possess. And we associate it with outstanding things like radical inventions, astounding revelations, and breathtaking artwork.
But everyone can be creative. No one is born with an excess or lack of creativity. We all have a little creative genius inside. We don’t need to have a driving passion or lifelong mission to bring it out of us. It just takes one thing: curiosity.
Lots of studies show that curiosity, the desire to learn new or unfamiliar things, leads to creativity. Even Albert Einstein knew, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Creativity doesn’t start with passion, it starts with interest, with curiosity.
Curiosity Is When You Explore and Learn
Curiosity is not about the depth of your knowledge (your expertise), but rather the breadth of your knowledge (your interest). The openness that comes with curiosity triggers deep thinking, opposed to rule-based thinking.
Deep thinking is when we think beyond our preconceived notions to absorb the new and different. It lets your mind jump around and explore to make unexpected connections. This unordered thought is essential to creativity.
So curiosity leads to deep thinking, which leads to learning, which leads to creativity. Author Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED Talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, “Once you tap into your curiosity and allow yourself permission to follow it wherever it takes you, you will find very quickly that you are living a much more creative life.”
Unlike passion, curiosity doesn’t demand commitment. It frees you to explore and learn—to see where your interest takes you without fear or expectations. Gilbert describes curiosity as a friendly force, offering clues. When you start to investigate something, you never know what creative place you’ll end up.
As children, our curiosity comes naturally—for better or worse. Artist Erik Wahl explains in his book Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius, “Curiosity ruled our senses. Enthusiasm ignited our actions. We did not fear what we did not know—instead we thrived on the process of discovery."
You probably remember this natural curiosity from your own childhood, or have observed it in other children. A toddler’s constant questioning, “Why?” a little boy’s fascination with bugs, a little girl wanting to know what it’s like to wear mommy’s heels and makeup.
As we grow older, this curiosity fades. In a 1968 study, 1,600 children were given a creativity assessment—the same used by NASA to score the creativity of prospective NASA engineers and scientists. The test presented a problem and asked test takers to share new, different, and innovative ideas to solve it.
As the children grew older, the test scores decreased significantly. 98 percent of five-years-olds received “genius level” scores, while just 30 percent of ten-year-olds and 12 percent of fifteen-year-olds did. Even scarier were the results of the same test given to adults—only two percent scored the highest creativity level!
We become fearful of taking risks, avoid failure, and seek safety and security as we enter adulthood. Thus, limiting our curiosity in turn limits our creativity.
Creativity Is When You Discover and Do
Creativity is more than mere discovery or ideation. Merely having an idea is not being creative: It’s being imaginative. Being creative is going a step further to make an idea a reality—it’s creating.
Creativity is what happens when you start to make connections from the things you’ve learned through curiosity. Creativity requires freedom from fear and any other limiting factors or emotions that hold you back from discovery and acting on discoveries.
Creative inspiration doesn’t come from a shattering “aha” moment. It comes in hints, whispers. “People tend to think that creativity comes in lightning bolts, but I think it comes in whispers,” Gilbert shares. Similarly, acting on curiosity can be in small steps, too.
Start to act on your discoveries and interests, and watch what happens. How do you begin? Just ask yourself, “Is there anything that even slightly sparks my interest right now?” Then, start to look into it. Maybe you love watching baking shows, start to research breadmaking, experiment with a few recipes, and pick it up as a new hobby.
Gilbert gives the example of gardening. As she started to garden, she became fascinated with the origins of plants, got into lots of research about the science of botany, and eventually wrote a novel about a female botanist.
Personally, I started a style blog in college since I love fashion and writing. I did it just for fun, but it led me to submit a story pitch to Verily in 2015, and I’ve been a contributor ever since! Now I write for multiple publications, and it’s become a great side gig.
So stay curious, and see where it takes you.