Unshackling Creativity

Main Line native and Penn Imagination Institute scientific director, Scott Kaufman, is trying to change the way we look at creativity and imagination through his latest book.

When the Lower Merion School District failed to see his potential, Scott Barry Kaufman didn’t simply accept it, he pushed back. Told he would likely never attend college, Kaufman went on to earn his doctorate in psychology and turned his experiences into inspiration for research into imagination and creativity, which he had grown quite familiar with in his youth. His recent research comes together in his newest book, “Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind,” available Dec. 29.

Placed in special education classes for an auditory disability in the first years of his life, by ninth grade, Kaufman knew he was bound to do bigger things—or, at least wanted to try. Creative from an early age, Kaufman would spend hours writing stories and acting out fanciful plots in his head. “I was always a big daydreamer. When I was younger, people thought I just tuned out, but I’d just go to this rich fantasy world and daydream,” he says.

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His creativity was unseen or flat out rejected, leaving him flailing in school. Ninth grade proved to be a turning point, though. When one of his teachers asked him about his apparent frustration with special education, Kaufman realized he no longer belonged there.

“I was curious what I was capable of achieving,” he says, and so he entered mainstream classes and a journey to find his niche. He tried his hand at basketball—at the same time Kobe Bryant, a few years his senior, was team captain—the school musical and more, before trying out for the orchestra. His grandfather was a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra and spent the summer helping Kaufman pick up the craft. Endless hours of practice paid off as Kaufman quickly rose through the ranks. It seemed his imaginative mind could find a place, after all.

A few years later, a determined Kaufman applied to college to study psychology, resolved to help change intelligence standards and metrics so that future students wouldn’t be forced to live through similar secondary education experiences. He was rejected, he believes, and quite ironically, for his SAT scores being too low. Years of immense imagination couldn’t change the metrics for measuring intelligence. He didn’t fit the standard mold. Still thoroughly determined, Kaufman was admitted to university through the opera program and later switched into psychology and later went on to earn his doctorate from Yale University.

Kaufman sought to gain a better understanding of how creativity occurs, inspired by his own life and his subsequent studies. “I’d been on this quest for 10, 20 years of my life, to understand what intelligence is and how we should best measure it and whether we can develop it in people,” he says. What was once seen as irrelevant is propelling his research today. He is currently the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and “Wired to Create,” co-written with journalist Carolyn Gregoire, takes a look at the unique processes of creative people, which he hopes will help alter society’s views on imagination and intelligence.

“I realized that we all have this rich inner stream of consciousness that no one knows about. It’s so easy to write people off without knowing what goes on in their head,” Kaufman says.

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The perpetual mystery around creative individuals lies in the brain, or so Kaufman believes. In “Wired to Create” he seeks to uncover the commonalities of creators, specifically artists, writers and innovators. He and Gregoire take a look at some of the most lauded creators, from Pablo Picasso to Thomas Edison to John Lennon.

“To really self-actualize, to become the person you’re capable of becoming, I think creativity is essential. Creative expression is intimately tied to self-expression.”

Broken down into 10 chapters, each section explores what they consider to be attributes of the highly creative, ranging from imaginative play to solitude to sensitivity, among others. “These 10 themes were things that came up over and over again in the scientific literature. We looked at people that dovetailed with it,” says Kaufman.

They found shared tendencies that seemingly shouldn’t naturally coexist within an individual. “Some of these habits like daydreaming, mindfulness, resilience, sensitivity—they seem like contradictions. But it looks like creative people are good at becoming intimate with themselves and getting to know who they are, both the good and the bad, and they’re really good at reconciling these fundamental contradictions,” Kaufman says. “They’re able to entertain fantastical ideas and they’re also able to reign it in and think realistically and see which ideas they want to flesh out. There’s this constant toggling back and forth. They’re very adaptable.”

Creative individuals also have a strong sense of their personal identity and values, Kaufman says. “To really self-actualize, to become the person you’re capable of becoming, I think creativity is essential. Creative expression is intimately tied to self-expression,” he says.

Creativity, of course, isn’t only for those born of exceptional minds and talents. “I do think that to some degree, we’re all wired to create. It’s a fundamental human drive, part of human expression,” Kaufman says. But often, that expression is stifled by day-to-day banalities. Worse, that stifling, he believes, starts at an early age when children are discouraged by school systems, in the ways that he was, to set aside their own fanciful thoughts in favor of learning in a standardized manner, befitting standardized tests. 

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“We’re really wasting a lot of talent and letting a lot of kids slip through the cracks in this education environment, standardized testing culture and the procedures we use to measure potential, like in gifted and talented programs,” he says.

The minds of creative geniuses operate in what he calls a “messy,” or non-linear, manner. “Creative people are not characterized by their consistency. They’re characterized by their variability, their trial and error, their ability to fail a lot, but keep going through and trying new things. It’s a messy process.”

That process isn’t valued in school or even in business, he believes. Much of it has to do with efficiency and impatience of an ever fast-paced society. There’s no time to draw out ideas, much less meditate of them. “We focus a lot on efficiency in school and business, focusing on this linear path and getting things right the first time,” he notes. “Most companies don’t cultivate creativity at all.”

Kaufman believes that if businesses and schools gave more time for this kind of thinking and creativity, the results would prove beneficial. “It’s important to have time for solitude and reflection and making meaning out of experiences. It will lead to better performance, and I would argue, intellectual behavior, as well,” he says.

Kaufman recognizes that to change a culture and society would be difficult and take a great deal of time. For many, incorporating exercises into their own personal lives would be a simpler and more immediate change, like morning meditation, keeping a journal, questioning assumptions or trying new things.

As for parents trying to foster creativity in their children, being supportive and hearing out children’s dreams are important, as is giving them time to play. “We found that play is extremely important,” he says. “Giving kids that space for trial and error and exploration, working with teachers, making sure teachers are giving them material that is creating a personal connection, are important to support a child’s creativity.”

Many schools aren’t concerned about a creative environment, but rather on children testing well and going on to top colleges—something Kaufman is all to familiar with. To help institute changes, he is working with some local schools to reevaluate the educational system. “It’s a slow process, but if it was to happen on a large scale, it would make a lot of changes to the education system that’s actively robbing kids of opportunities for imagination and creativity.”

Growing up on the Main Line, he says, “A lot of parents were so overprotective of their children and they didn’t need to be.” Today, he encourages parents to let go a little. “Give [children] some autonomy to discover who they are. If we want to set children up for a happy, healthy life, we need to give them chances to fail. We need to listen to their dreams and their passions. We need to support their entire being, not just one side of them,” he says.

Ultimately, Kaufman hopes his book helps readers gain a better understanding of themselves and recognize that, as he puts it, “You are fine the way you are.”


“Wired to Create” is available from many major book retailers, including Amazon.com. Dr. Kaufman will conduct a reading and discussion on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. at the Penn Bookstore (3601 Walnut St., Philadelphia). For more information visit www.scottbarrykaufman.com

Scott Kaufman

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