This Is the Trait All Creative Geniuses Share

Jessica Stillman

Scientists put a bunch of geniuses in a house and observed them. This is what they discovered.

Author Truman Capote, poet William Carlos Williams, and a couple of scientists and entrepreneurs walk into a house....

This might sound like the start of a (very bad) joke, but it was actually an experiment conducted by creativity researchers in the 1960s.

To see what sets the minds of the extremely creative apart from the rest of us, the team behind the study recruited some of the era's top creative minds--including leading scientists, mathematicians, and writers--to live in a house on the University of California, Berkeley, campus and undergo observation by researchers.

What this experiment uncovered is the subject of a fascinating article from Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman, the authors of a new book entitled Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, that appeared on Quartz recently.

Open minds are creative minds

The piece goes into detail about the neurological differences and quirks of creative geniuses, and if it's a subject you're interested in, the complete article is well worth a read in full, but according to Gregoire and Kaufman one trait in particular stood out during this classic experiment.

What is this essential character trait all the geniuses shared? Nope, not an exceptionally high IQ, but instead an openness to all the contradictory weirdness life has to offer. "The common traits that people across all creative fields seemed to have in common were an openness to one's inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks," write Gregoire and Kaufman.

This openness to complexity might also explain another startling finding of the same researchers. Apparently, a group of writers they tested scored in the top 15 percent of the general population on a standard measure of psychopathology. Strangely, though, they also scored quite high on other measures of psychological health. How could these creators be totally crazy and completely sane at the same time?

The answer: openness. "It may be because they engage with the full spectrum of life--both the dark and the light--that writers score high on some of the characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness. Conversely, this same propensity can lead them to become more grounded and self-aware. In openly and boldly confronting themselves and the world, creative-minded people seemed to find an unusual synthesis between healthy and 'pathological' behaviors," explain the authors.

The takeaway?

This research provides an interesting glimpse inside the strange and wonderful minds of geniuses, but is it of any practical use? Openness is one of the so-called "Big Five" personality traits, and as such has been shown by science to be pretty stable over time. Therefore, if you're not the type to embrace the new and wacky, you're probably not going to be able to fundamentally change that fact of your character.

But nothing is stopping you from nudging yourself in the direction of greater openness if you're looking to boost your creativity. Why not try following the simple but powerful advice of WayUp CEO Liz Wessel and just "say yes" more to get started? All you need to do is, whenever someone proposes as activity or idea, simply default to saying yes unless you can think of a damn good reason not to.