An Interview with Scott Barry Kaufman

Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, is scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the development and measurement of intelligence, creativity, and personality. He writes the blog Beautiful Minds for Scientific American and has written or edited seven books in pursuit of fostering creativity. His latest book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, which he co-wrote with Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer for The Huffington Post, was released in December 2015.

Of creativity, Kaufman and Gregoire wrote:

"[It] works in mysterious and often paradoxical ways. We human beings are messy creatures, to be sure, and creativity is a process that reflects our fundamentally chaotic and multifaceted nature. It is both deliberate and uncontrollable, mindful and mindless, work and play. It is both the realm of a select group of geniuses through history, and the domain of every human being."

Tell me a little bit about what you do at the Imagination Institute.

In a nutshell, we scientifically study imagination, how it develops, and how we can measure it and nurture it in all sectors of society.

What exactly is Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology is the study of human flourishing — what it means to live a good life, a full life — how you can bring out your best self. Creativity plays a very important role in that.

Why did this topic of creativity strike such a chord with you?

We're all a bit different. I'm a bit different — cheeky — to this day I feel like I have to tone it down. So I do feel like it's part of my mission in life to build some appreciation for creativity, to show that it isn't incompatible with living a full life and, in fact, is extremely valuable to it.

Explain what you mean when you say "creativity is a messy business."

There's so much pressure to be efficient and do things right and not fail — get the A on the test — but creativity is not characterized by that kind of process. It requires getting messy. Creativity has highs and lows; it's a very nonlinear path. It's necessary to have different ways of being. Even the personality can be different — introverted or extroverted and so on. You see lots of contradictions in the creative process. It's almost a necessity to have a great creative outcome.

By the way, camp is a great environment for getting messy.

Talk about some of the key habits of mind that foster creative problem-solving.

Openness to experience or curiosity, having an open, playful attitude toward life, trying lots of different things, doing a lot of trial and error.

Another one is nonconformity — having confidence in your own thinking — having an idea that is unpopular but sticking to your guns even if you fail.

Another major one is mindfulness, being nonjudgmentally aware of your stream of consciousness.

You also talk about solitude, which probably isn't something that most people associate with the camp experience, but can you explain a bit about why alone time with oneself can be important?

Camps shouldn't feel like there only has to be group work. It really is very valuable to tune out and reflect and meditate on yourself and your future strivings and goals — and to really get in touch with what your intrinsic motivation is, and not external stuff that might be what others have assigned you.

It's to the benefit of counselors to give kids a choice of activities and give them some alone time to explore. Give them time for savoring beauty — a beautiful sunset or a nature trail. This increases awe and creative experiences.

One of your headings in your book is "Take a Hike." Can you explain the connection between walking and creativity?

There are ways your brain responds to movement. There's a good combination of things going on there. Exercise itself — there's lots of research supporting its importance. Taking a hike, being around nature and beauty, and being alone with your thoughts while you're exercising allows you to not only get in touch with yourself, but increases the flow of ideas that are divergently related to each other. That kind of physical movement and being around something expansive, such as mountains, can really help get you out of a rut.

How does resiliency play into creativity?

When you are faced with a traumatic experience you can go different directions with it. You can turn to anxiety and fear life, or you can build your resilience muscle and expand your creative field. You can use trauma in ways that allow you to have a new perspective on life and have even more bravery. What doesn't kill you can make you not only stronger, but also more creative. When you've overcome things that are traumatic you realize how short life is, how unstable life is — but that can be channeled in a positive way. There can be post-traumatic growth, where you create new experiences for yourself.

I think the camp experience is a great opportunity for fostering post-traumatic growth in a safe environment.

As play so often spurs imagination, can you suggest steps you think communities in general, and camps specifically, can take to encourage society to take play more seriously?

Focusing on processes more than goal-related tasks is really conducive to that. We focus so much on achievement. The play really comes in the process. It comes in allowing a free environment and nothing that we would label as failure.

Foster a playful attitude — dressing up in costumes, role playing, dance — environments where kids feel they are safe to take on different roles.

As an aside, the essay question is being removed from the SATs. What does that say about how we as a society feel about creative people and creativity in general?

The SATs, in general, don't value creativity at all. It's a test of convergent thinking. The fact that tests are standardized says we don't really care about free and deep (not necessarily fast) thinkers. That's really problematic.

What do you think we should do to change that? Any advice?

What the camp industry is doing already — they should be commended for offering so many opportunities of personal growth. Autonomy and supporting safety to explore — we know these conditions are absolutely essential to personal growth and creativity.

In the book we say, "When we embrace our own messiness — engaging with the world with our own unique imagination and artistry — we give others permission to do the same. We help create a world that is more welcoming of the creative spirit and, it is hoped, make it possible to find a greater connection with ourselves and others in the process."

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Orkila, Florissant, Colorado.