The 16 traits of creative thinkers

Creative thinking is an art—and fortunately also a science. What I mean by that is we can observe and define creativity, and through that research create a framework for our own creative thinking.

Research shows that there are 16 aspects or categories of traits to a creative personality—I list these down below. This research comes primarily from research done in the 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley by Frank Barron. Barron did some great experiments with highly creative people, he would get them into his laboratory and observe and interview them on how they worked in order to highlight which personality traits they used or saw as useful in creative projects. I highly recommend his book “Creators on Creating”, if you want to get more insights.

I think that for people wanting to be more creative, understanding the categories of traits of creative people is useful in developing a framework for your own creative practice. I’m not saying that these 16 categories are exhaustive, but I do think that they give us the confidence to lean into our own traits that we know are linked to creative output. This could be particularly so if they are traits that maybe aren’t necessarily valued where you work. Have a read of the below and tick which ones apply to you. Play around with the idea that if you lean into those traits that you could be more creative.

16 categories of traits of creativity:

Awareness of creativity: Do you acknowledge that you are creative? If you don’t you will find it hard to access creative thinking. If you are, say it loud and proud.

Original: Are you happy not walking with the crowd? Do you dislike wearing what everyone else is wearing? It’s hard to be original in an increasingly homogenous world, but to be creative we have to at least seek it.

Independent: Can you work on your own and be happy when you are out of steps with others? Being independent requires a lot of critical thinking about your views and biases.

Risk-taking: We hear this often in the corporate innovation lingo—if you are not prepared to fail you are less likely to succeed.

High Energy: For me high levels of creativity come when many aspects of my life are aligned, particularly my health. Think of those moments when you feel really high energy and ask what it took to get you to that point and then think about how you could use that energy.

Curious: Unfortunately curiosity is very hard to teach, but you can foster it by being aware of how easily you accept answers and how often you want to know more.

Sense of humour: This is one of my favourite traits because I think that fun is very under-rated! Next time you are goofing around and someone makes a critical remark, remind that the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Fenyman was the ultimate practice joker (and my personal hero).

Capacity for fantasy: I think it’s sad how much we give up on fantasy as we grow up. We get into the ‘real world’ and we get too busy for dreaming. Make time for it and give into it – don’t feel guilty about day-dreaming. Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

Attracted to complexity/ambiguity: Increasingly we are expected to have answers to everything and that makes us shy away from issues that we can’t answer. Think about being happy with not knowing and luxuriating in it. There’s nothing wrong with saying “It’s complex, I’m going to think about it.”

Artistic: If you grow up and you are told (as I was) that you are no good at art (and to be fair I am not a very good drawer), you can think that you aren’t artistic. But look at other areas of your life, how you like to cook, plan your garden, what you are going to wear, how you arrange things in your house and start to note how artistic you are.

Open-minded: You can’t be creative if you aren’t willing to see things differently. Challenge yourself to defer judgement and see what comes up.

Thorough: There’s this image of creativity as being slap-dash, the ideas person coming up with ideas that others have to implement. But actually creatives give things a lot of thought and will think things through to the end. Look at Steve Jobs—highly creative but also incredibly detailed.

Needs alone time: Research shows us that the best ideas actually come up on your own, the social pressure of being in groups can act to stymie ideas and creativity. Creative people recognise this and lean into it.

Perceptive: If you can’t see what’s going on, you can’t come up with new ideas. Creative people are perceptive, they think and perceive with their whole body.

Emotional: We are taught to make logical decisions, to be rational, to take the emotion out of it. But there’s nothing wrong with making emotional decisions—most of our big decisions like who we marry and where we live and how many children we have are emotional decisions and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ethical: I like to think that creative people see that everything is connected and that unethical activities have an impact.