Innovation – defined as the practical side of creativity – is hard to measure. As in any other domain of competence, our self-views rarely align with other people’s views of us, mainly because most of us tend to believe we are more creative than we actually are.
Things are hardly any better when we rely on experts’ opinions. For example, art critics frequently disagree about the aesthetic value of movies, music and paintings – and, when they agree, they almost always disagree with mainstream taste (which is why they are called “critics”). In educational settings, students are mostly rewarded for doing what is expected from them, and there are few institutions that reward unconventional displays of performance – educators expect the correct answer rather than a novel one. And in the world of business, there are few organizations that tolerate experimentation, failure, and intuitive decision making. Yes, most companies today SAY they value innovation (it is written in their websites next to corporate social responsibility and diversity), but if we ask employees they will tell us that they are mostly paid to be predictable, do what their managers tell them, and minimize risks. One of the interesting paradoxes underlying the fate of most businesses is that innovation leads to growth, but growth hinders innovation.
So how can you tell if you are an innovator? On the one hand, we all have the potential to do innovative things. On the other, some people are much more likely to innovate than others – and this depends more on their personality, attitudes and values than the educational, corporate, or even cultural policies or norms. Psychologists have conducted thousands of studies into the correlates of individual differences in innovation, and here are five rarely discussed habits that appear to signal potential for innovation – see if they apply to you or not…
1) You are an evening rather than a morning type: Research shows that, especially during adolescence, preference for working at night is associated with higher levels of sensation seeking, intellectual curiosity, and an interest in complex and unusual ideas. All these things predict adult displays of creativity… so, if you are under 25 and enjoy working through the night (or you used to do it when you were that age), then you tick one of the boxes that relates to creative potential.
2) You can multi-task: Recent studies show that creative individuals tend to display higher levels of working memory capacity – this is the aspect of memory engaged in short-term activities, like retaining a 7-digit number or an address for a few seconds; it is the human version of RAM memory, which determines how many pieces of information you can handle at once. Working memory capacity is highly correlated with IQ – so, the more stuff you can handle at once, the smarter you are.
3) You often have weird and embarrassing thoughts: Although this may annoy you, there is a direct and positive link between the inability to suppress irrelevant ideas and creative potential. Indeed, research shows that people with lower levels of latent or cognitive inhibition are predisposed to more innovative or creative thinking. This makes perfect sense, given that creativity requires originality and that most original ideas (or things) are by definition irrelevant – the trick is to also have the ability to discern whether your unusual thoughts have the potential to be relevant and interesting to others – that’s when they may become innovative. So, treasure your eccentric and unusual ideas because some of them may develop into creative insights like a caterpillar that upgrades to a butterfly. By the same token, if you rarely have weird or embarrassing ideas going through your mind, you may lack the raw materials that contribute to innovative thinking.
4) When you work on something you enjoy, you completely lose track of time and immerse yourself in the task: This is what psychologists call “flow”, and it is associated with both creative thinking and non-clinical manifestations of schizophrenia [see Scott Kaufman’s great PT article on this here]. So, if you are capable of high levels of focus – despite the fact, discussed in point 3, that you often experience intrusive thoughts – then you tick another creative potential box. Of course, it is essential that you find tasks and projects that are of interest and meaningful, but truly creative people find a way to follow their interests and passions (whether at work or in their leisure time).
5) You dislike rules, norms and the status-quo: If you don’t, you have an internal constrain to be creative. Conversely, people who are passionately opposed to authority figures and who question the status-quo will tend to be more naturally predisposed to innovation – because they have a bigger incentive to do things differently (if you are happy with the way things are, then why bother doing things differently?). Put simply, conformity inhibits creativity, whereas nonconfirmity promotes it. At the same time, you cannot be a total counterconformist because you will just end up doing the opposite of what most people do (which is not creative either).