Present at the Creation

From the self-help gurus to the hottest new books, it’s the buzziest concept out there: take a few simple steps—paint your room blue, drink more (or less), work under low ceilings—and you’ll become more creative in no time, leading you to the success you’ve always desired. How much of it is true? We asked a Harvard expert to find out.

creativity tips experiment

Can surrounding yourself with the color blue lead to bursts of creativity?

“It’s a bit of an experiment,” I replied. The three struggled to hear me as I responded. I tried to shout, or at least it felt like I was shouting, but it was hard to gauge because I was wearing highly effective, flesh-colored Hearos earplugs, and it seemed both inefficient and gross to take them out in front of these strangers for this short conversation.

I’d begun wearing earplugs after reading Rapt, by Winifred Gallagher, who, after learning how difficult it is for the brain to multitask in a noisy environment, started taking earplugs with her wherever she went so she could create her own portable “stimulus shelter.” At first, I couldn’t find any research indicating that the use of earplugs was effective for creative endeavors, but I kept wearing them anyway—which is why I was delighted to eventually come across a study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that found that a moderate level of ambient noise is good for creativity. Okay, that study had more sophisticated ways of moderating ambient noise than earplugs, but the low-tech option seemed to be working, and earplugs felt somehow less rude than headphones…as long as I didn’t have to remove them publicly.

Which I didn’t, because the trio gathered their coats and left. I took a sip of coffee, hoping for greater focus. I worried about being there until closing time, and struggled to get on with planning this project.


Much of what we know about innovation and creativity comes from psychologists who have studied factors that can be controlled in a lab, or from organizational specialists writing case studies taken from specific companies or industries. Research in these areas has grown rapidly, vastly improving our understanding of creativity in school and at work in recent decades, but we still have more to learn when it comes to how to apply this research to real life. Despite the fact that scientists have been studying creativity and innovation for decades, the daily lives of most people feel more than ever like an endless stream of tasks and emails and to-do lists and meetings, with little opportunity for creative inspiration.

Many people are in a hurry, like me, to find ways to be more creative, both personally and professionally. And we are certainly not short on books, people, and companies offering advice about how to do this. When I searched Amazon, I found that in the prior 90 days alone, 571 new books had been published with the word creativity in the title, and 718 had the word innovation. More than 500 TED talks devoted in some way to these two topics are available online. And it all adds up to a big business opportunity. According to one estimate published in the Wall Street Journal last year, innovation consultants charge from $300,000 to $1 million per project when they work with Fortune 100 companies.

The innovation industry is hardly new. Back in 1999, The Economist was already comparing innovation to a new religion, arguing that it had become the big idea for governments and companies looking to boost economic performance. And around that time, companies like IDEO and 3M had become famous for their approaches to innovation; pioneering professors like Peter Drucker and Clayton Christensen were being widely heralded for their theories about how firms innovate; and the professors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Teresa Amabile had published what would become some of the most-cited theories about the individual and social factors that relate to creativity. All of this work was impressive, as has been what’s followed in the years after from the best researchers and practitioners in the field.

But these days, the topics of creativity and innovation have become so pervasive that they risk losing meaning. You’ll find discussions on how to foster them everywhere from universities to veterinary clinics to the family dinner table. What’s caught on lately is taking research insights meant for companies and social scientists and stretching them to apply to individuals, often in ways that defy common sense. Nothing embodies this trend more than Jonah Lehrer’s 2012 book Imagine, which incorporated insights from neuroscience to declare that the idea of creative genius is a myth—that far from being inborn, creative skill is actually something that can be taught or even facilitated by doing simple things like rearranging our work or living space. The implication was that if we just implemented a few clever tricks, we could harness our inner Einstein in time for dinner.

Within months of the book’s release, Lehrer was largely discredited for sloppy journalism, and Imagine was pulled from bookshelves both physical and virtual. However, the studies he cited were sound enough to have been published in leading scientific journals. And the magazine articles published around the time of Imagine’s release, both by Lehrer and by others influenced by his book, are still available, still out there promoting those tips. And Lehrer was hardly alone. His book was part of a bigger trend of published advice, based loosely on science, about how we can all turn ourselves into the next Jobs or Zuckerberg.

The problem is, there’s considerable scientific disagreement about how to define and measure creativity, much less foster it. Some researchers describe creativity as the process of first exploring possibilities and then converging on a solution. Others believe the process is irrelevant, as long as the outcome is both original and useful. And still others argue that even the outcome is unimportant, since failing is not only an acceptable outcome but a desirable one because, even if we never do produce anything that’s novel or valuable, we (hopefully) learn from the experience of trying. The point is, it’s hard to know exactly what’s worth reading, trying, or buying in the quest to get more creative. But that hasn’t stopped a growing industry from telling us how to become more creative, innovative, and successful.

I get it. I crave the same practical tips that everyone else does. But as someone who both teaches and conducts research in this field, I’m aware of how much we still have to learn about what will actually work to increase creativity in our everyday lives.


I suppose I don’t have to tell you that I left Temple Bar without managing to settle on a project I’d use to track my creative development. So I decided to go back to the basics. Research says that if you set goals, you are more likely to accomplish them. More specifically, a recent Harvard Business School study suggests that you’re more likely to succeed when you have clear goals, and more likely to continue to make progress in the long run if you’re able to achieve small wins along the way. Set a goal at the start of a project? No kidding. My mom has been telling me this since kindergarten.

But that’s the thing about life: The most obvious and intuitive solutions are often the most effective. So for my project, I chose a personal goal that had been vexing me for ages, and tried to make it realistic enough that I could achieve regular small wins. My goal would be this: Create a series of 8 to 12 drawings on special paper, and then frame each one individually. They would be conceived of as individual pieces, but when the frames were arranged in a certain way, they would also work together to create a larger picture.

I started fantasizing about the whole series, already framed and artfully displayed on one of two woefully naked walls in my apartment. This felt like progress—until my mind started reeling through examples of prior projects I’d started without finishing: Photography of people’s shoes. A series of paintings of intellectuals who’d been shafted by the groups that award the Nobel Prizes. A wooden bookcase that looks like interlocking Tetris pieces.

In other words, all I’d really accomplished was identifying my project. Now I had to actually complete it. This was going to be harder than I thought.


I had been waiting for an office for months before Harvard gave me a space in the attic of Pierce Hall in late 2012. The office became available after we discovered that an old man who no longer worked in our department was just squatting there. As it was the only available option, I took it. There’d been something satisfying about reclaiming the space from a squatter, but as I looked around the 12-by-9-foot room, empty but for two worn navy-blue office chairs and a standard-issue black filing cabinet, I realized that it was just another office. My email-coffee-meeting-repeat routine was going to fit in a little too well in here.

  • Douglas Eby

    Thanks for this fascinating article. Maybe enhancing creativity has much more to do with inner changes in feeling and thinking. For example, a study at North Dakota State University had college students write a short essay, with one group instructed to imagine they were seven years old, and this group “exhibited significantly higher levels of originality in thought.” – From my post
    Creative Thinking: Imagine You Are Seven Again

    • Beth Altringer

      I’ve seen that study – thanks for adding it here. In the end I believe there are many ways to stimulate creativity, and it’s important to use those. But I’ve increasingly come to see that discipline is just as important, and I’m looking forward to more research that helps us learn how to combine these to advance our real-world projects.

  • Henri Naths

    Your project the series of drawing that made a bigger picture is exactly what your mind had you create with your office space, your apartment, your web design work. All collaboratively manifested into a larger picture. Creativity works in wonderous way aligned with self awareness

    • Beth Altringer

      Nice point – I hadn’t thought of it that way!

  • Rebecca Rivera

    In your travels, did you happen upon any discussion of the important role procrastination plays in the creative process? I’m a writer (and a Grubbie BTW) who makes my living by being creative. For me (and many of my ilk) working on everything and anything but the project you need to work on is all part of the game–but it may not be part of the research.

    • Beth Altringer

      I engage in productive procrastination all the time. It’s often not an efficient process but it is how I juggle many projects and manage to make progress on them all. The key is that it is productive – switching from one project to another that is still part of my broader interest area – instead of procrastinating in totally unrelated areas.

      • Steve Heim

        I wonder if some of the so-called “procrastination” is actually avoidance with deeper psychological implications related to fear/conflict surrounding success and failure? I think creative people give themselves lots of permission to fail in the name of progress. There’s nothing at stake in trying, it’s playful experimentation. I really enjoyed this narrative voice dishing the right balance of humor and research! A very clever dual perspective from a left and right brain inside the head of a very talented writer and thinker. Brilliant! I love “bluetiful.”

  • Kelly McMahen

    Thanks for the laugh. The light hearted look at what can be a frustrating struggle was welcome. I think anyone who has put themselves out there by trying can identify with the feelings and appreciate the wisdom that discipline or commitment is key.