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So, You Want to Be a Creative Genius?

by Jeff DeGraff on September 13, 2013


jeff-degraff's picture

So, You Want to Be a Creative Genius?

Is everyone creative? Sure they are but in very different ways and to varying degrees. There is a big difference between the folksong you wrote for your college sweetheart and a symphony composed by Beethoven. Our democratic longing to make everyone and everything equal has lead us to make creative greatness indistinguishable from an act of personal expression. What is lacking is meaningful appreciation of the different levels of creativity and how we can use them as steps for increasing our own potential.

Borrowing from everyone from Aristotle to Zappa, let’s examine the five levels and types of creativity, from the easiest to the most difficult to master, and some of the creative methodologies associated with each.

Mimetic Creativity

Mimesis is a term passed down to us from the Ancient Greeks meaning to imitate or mimic. This is the most rudimentary form of creativity. Animals from Caledonian crows to orangutans have the ability to create tools simply by observing other creatures. Watch a mother and child together and it becomes clear that we do the same. It is the foundation of the learning process.

An often overlooked form of creativity is simply taking an idea from one area or discipline and applying it to another. For example, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who wants to improve the patient experience may pay a visit to a Ritz-Carlton, known for its customer service.

Steve Jobs saw this ability to move across boundaries to adapt ideas as the key to useful creativity: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”

How to Improve Your Mimetic Creativity:

  • Go On Field Trips: Travel to new places and meet new people. Bring your phone or digital camera and record events so that you can both be aware of the experience as it happens and review it when you have a little time and distance to spot things you may have missed before.
  • Make New Friends:  To get new ideas you have to swim in a different gene pool.  Find some interesting people who don’t think like you, believe the same things you do or frequent the same places. Ask questions about their thoughts on traditionally taboo subject such as politics or religion and just listen. If you’re not a little uncomfortable, cast your net a little wider.
  • Copy Nature: Inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller created the geodesic dome Spaceship Earth by copying the geometric structure of spores and plankton. This form of design, where something is observed in the natural world and then modified into man-made creations, is called biomimicry. Think of it as an accelerated form of evolution. Leonardo da Vinci drew flying machines after observing birds in flight and maple leaves spinning their way to the ground. The US Navy does the same when it fashions a rudder of a battleship after the aerodynamic fluke of humpback whale. Pay attention to form and function of the natural world around you.

Bisociative Creativity

“Bisociative” is a term coined by the controversial novelist Arthur Koestler in his celebrated book, The Act of Creation, to describe how our conscious mind can connect rational with intuitive thoughts to produce eureka moments. In the Zen tradition this act of communion is called satori, meaning sudden enlightenment. Bisociative creativity occurs when a familiar idea is connected to an unfamiliar one to produce a novel hybrid.

Though connecting ideas is often done through more contemplative means, it can also be stimulated by bombarding the mind with a barrage of random thoughts to see what catches. The general description for this type of activity is called brainstorming. For example, in 1994, while coming out of a near bankruptcy experience and working on Toy Story their first feature film, four of the original Pixar directors had lunch at a diner and brainstormed ideas about movies they wanted make. Building on each other’s concepts, from this one informal meeting came A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. The motion picture industry was changed in an afternoon by Hollywood outsiders throwing ideas together.

Bisociative creativity builds on the electrifying dynamics of the 3F’s:

  • Fluency – It is more productive to have lots of unpolished ideas than a few “good” ones because the greater the diversity of ideas the wider the range of possible solutions
  • Flexibility – Often we have the “right” idea but we’ve put it in the “wrong” place so we have to move them around to see where they best fit to meet our challenges
  • Flow – We aren’t creative on demand. We need to be both simulated and relaxed to draw out the energy required to create. Ideas pour out smoothly when we get into a groove

How to Improve Your Bisociative Creativity:

  • Random Words – Pick up a dictionary or any book for that matter and open it up and point to a random word. Connect your challenge to that word. For example, let’s say you are trying to find funding for a new restaurant and you finger lands on the word “bicycle.” You might get the idea to put your restaurant on wheels or provide delivery service only. Both ideas would lower the amount of money needed to start the business.
  • SCAMPER – Adverting executive extraordinaire Alex Osborne is largely credited with coining the term brainstorming in his 1942 book How to Think Up. Osborn posed six questions that were later turned into the acronym SCAMPER: What can we…Substitute? Combine? Adapt? Magnify? Put to other uses? Eliminate? Reverse? By asking these simple questions you connect ideas and actions in new ways to easily produce useful variations.
  • Thinking Hats – Physician Edward de Bono developed a method for indirect creative reasoning he calls lateral thinking. The basic idea is to think around a problem instead of trying to solve it directly. This allows individuals and groups to have a wider range of creative approaches to a challenge and to identify their blind spots. The six thinking hats represent different types of thinking and roles played by group members: Blue- Objectives, White- Information, Red- Emotions, Black- Judgment, Yellow- Optimism, and Green- Creativity. This technique is often used when you want to get a new angle on a problem.

Analogical Creativity

Great innovators, from Archimedes in his bathtub to Einstein riding his elevator of relativity, have used analogies to solve complex problems. We use analogies to transfer information that we believe we understand in one domain (the source) to help resolve a challenge in an unfamiliar area (the target). For example, the design of vacuum cleaners was largely unchanged for nearly a century when inventor James Dyson used a different analogy, cyclones, to devise a new way to separate particles through the spinning force of a centrifuge.

Analogies can be used to disrupt habit-bound thinking to make way for new ideas. In the same way that an analogy helps us make sense of our experiences by assimilating what we don’t know into what we do know, the process also works in reverse. That is, we can take something we believe we know and use an analogy to make it unknown. Artists call this defamilarization. Nobel Laureate Albert Camus frequently narrated his stories from the point of view of a housefly. Consider what your strategy development process would look like if it was done from the point of view of your children instead of your shareholders or customers.

How to Improve Your Analogical Creativity:

  • Adaptive Reasoning – Adaptive reasoning is a general description of how your perspective or relative relationship to a problem can change or evolve through the use of analogies. The basic approach can be summarized as follows: “How is [your problem] like [your analogy]?” For example, how is [creating a successful marketing campaign for your new line of fashionable handbags] like [making friends at a new school]? The key is to vary your outlook and make numerous new connections.
  • Imaginary Friends – This is a role-storming method where the creativity comes from imaging what someone might say or do. “What would Steve Jobs do if he had this challenge?” So the analogy source, the challenge, is the same as with other analogical approaches, but the target, the unfamiliar area, is a person instead of a second idea. This can either be someone you know, like the crazy stuff your Dad says, or a famous person you admire, like Teddy Roosevelt, or a character from your favorite book or movie, like Gandalf. Watch documentaries; read biographies, encyclopedias and comic books. Put together your own imaginary board of advisors.

Narrative Creativity

Have you ever heard a child try to get a story straight? Or maybe you have a dear friend who always blows the punch line of a good joke. Both are examples of how hard it is to tell a coherent, meaningful and compelling tale. Stories are a complex mash up of characters, actions, plots, description, grammar and sequence. Most importantly, they have a narrative voice – our voice - authentic or personified. How we tell the tale can either energize the most mundane anecdote or dampened even the most rousing spellbinder.

Narrative is a story communicated in sequence. It is how the tale is told. Stories can be readily deconstructed and reconstructed to make different versions or new concoctions altogether. For example, many American’s first drank Dos Equis beer during their college years in the 1970’s while on winter break in California or Mexico. It wasn’t exactly a premium brand. Then the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery, which had been in business since 1900, changed the story of the product with an advertising campaign about "The Most Interesting Man in the World.” This character is a combination of James Bond and Ernest Hemmingway and the commercials chronicles his manly feats of derring-do. Simply by changing the narrative, Dos Equis experienced explosive growth in a shrinking market.

How to Improve Your Narrative Creativity:

  • Storyboarding – For years Walt Disney came into our living rooms each Sunday evening from his animation studio. He would sit in front of a wall filled with drawings connected by small lengths of twine. Disney developed this storyboarding process of pre-visualizing a movie by representing the various characters and scenes on large note cards. This allowed his animation team to easily change the sequence of the action, add and subtract characters and get a real sense of what the motion picture would look like before production began. These days there are a number of software applications that eliminate the need for note cards and string but the power of telling and retelling a story in a group is still an incredibly effective ways to create new ideas.
  • Morphologies –Morphologies codify challenges into their most discrete elements. They are often used in biological sciences to understand what makes an organism tick. Think of it like building blocks that you can take apart and put back together in new ways. By breaking down a story into characters and actions a wide range of possible solutions can be reconstructed.  Similarly, by looking at a product or experience as a collection of functions and attributes in a matrix, a series of new combinations can be assembled – uses, colors, size, flavors, etc.
  • Scenario Making –There is no data on the future where breakthrough innovation happens. So how do you see the future first? You consider how underlying forces at work today may drive what happens in the future – politics, economics and social well being just to name just a few. Scenarios are just projected courses of action. They ask the “what if?” questions and help you gauge the impact and probability of each possible story.

Intuitive Creativity

This is where creativity becomes bigger and possibly beyond us. Intuition is about receiving ideas as much as generating them. There are several methods for freeing and emptying the mind – meditation, yoga and chanting to name a few. The basic idea is to distract and relax the mind to create a flow state of consciousness where ideas come easily. Disciples are typically apprenticed by acknowledged gurus and often take years to master these techniques.

Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate, developed some meditative practices specifically to enhance personal creativity, as did Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf education system. The approaches to intuitive creativity are too numerous to chronicle here. They range from autonomic writing to taking mind alternating drugs (not recommended).

How to Improve Your Intuitive Creativity:

  • Creative Visualization – Much of the apparatus of our brain is designed to make pictures. We are unique in that the pictures we create in our minds can alter our experience of reality for better or worse. For example, successful athletes often visualize themselves performing at a high level – clearing the bar, beating the time or lifting the weight. Visualization as a form of positive thinking helps us overcome our doubts and pulls us toward what we seek. Because visual information is so vivid and difficult to distinguish from our experience of ordinary perception, visualization often provides a compelling source of new ideas.
  • Free Writing – It is said that Mozart never made a single correction to any of his sheet music. He composed it all in his head. For most of us the process works the other way around. It is in the iterative expression of our thoughts that we come to discover that we have some new and compelling ideas. The basic premise of free writing is that it is an act of us communicating with our intuitive, and presumably, creative self. The challenge here is to suspend your voice of judgment and simply observe what flows out of the pen or the tapping of the keys. The aim is to achieve a flow or trance state where we are writing faster than our mind can edit. It is only after we have poured ourselves out on paper that we can double back and “discover” our creative ideas.
  • Dream Interpretation– German chemist August Kekulé is reported to have discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after he saw it in a dream. Dreams are tricky because they are difficult to capture and even when we do we often adjust them to make them more sensible. Some research suggests that it is helpful to wake up at the exact same time each day to prepare the mind to end the dream cycle at a fixed time. It’s important to immediately record the dream as it is given and not provide a narrative which is often an act of sense making imposed upon it. Keeping a journal or chronicle of your dreams will help you develop an understanding of your own unique language of symbols - swimming means you are getting sick, etc. While there may be universal symbols, most therapists agree that your own dream vocabulary is quite unique.

You may not be a Shakespeare, Rembrandt, or Leonardo, but you can always work to increase your own creative capacity. All of these approaches are within your power—you just have to keep trying new things. Remember, a creative life means you make it up as you go along.

Jeff DeGraff is a professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please visit You can follow Jeff at and

Field Guides to Creativity

Mimetic Creativity:

Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others by David Kord Murray

Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus

Bisociative Creativity:

A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative by Roger von Oech. There is also an app: Creative Whack Pack by Creative Think.

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking by Michael Michalko

Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono

Analogical Creativity:

The Power of Thinking Differently: An Imaginative Guide To Creativity, Change, And The Discovery Of New Ideas by Javy W. Galindo

101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques: The Handbook of New Ideas for Business by James M. Higgins

I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary

Narrative Creativity:

Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Scenario Planning: A Field Guide to the Future by Woody Wade

Intuitive Creativity:

Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life by Shakti Gawain

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy

Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson

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ikway's picture


Thank you for a thought provoking & insightful article.

Though somehow I am averse to the idea of some sort of system/method/process for innovation, and feel that intuition and only intuition alone could be the fountain of innovation, this article made some counters to that. Interesting.


Even now I am of the opinion that we are only TRYING to decode possible thought processes of the already concluded innovations/ known innovators.

Alternatively, did any of the innovators sighted above in the article knew which methodology/tool they were using?

Well. Can I ask you to answer the following? :

Do we have any evidence that the innovators sighted here were really aware of these methods and using these steps.? Can we attribute those innovations by innovators v/s the above methods?. In absence of this we all are only TRYING to decode the thought process and writing a bunch of best selling books. If these methods are of real substance then the authors & readers of these books should have produced infinite number of innovations by now. Just like the way how we can not produce a best epic author, we can not predict the innovators also.

At best these are useful for making management presentations / communicate to the world through a ready made template to fit into which will make them believe there in fact a system to innovate!
Hurray we have cracked a secretive universal formula.

The path to chose depends heavily on your perspective and thinking process.

An analogy here is the inflection point of Music & Mathematics.

People tend to think Music/Art is a right brain (creative) pursuit and Mathematics is a left brain (Dry Logic) pursuit.

But the reality is to sing the musical notes there should be a flawless calculation and for solving/understanding mathematical equations there should be enormous amount of imagination.

Then the devil's advocate in me wakes up and asks "Are you making a system for innovation? Isn't it a factor of intuition and purely intuition? (:-)


I would like to invite you to have a look at these pages when you find time. My humble observations on the every day elements. A word of caution : These are just simple things and not anywhere near to the higher order subjects you are bringing to us here in this blog page.

A translated version can be found here at :

jd-wilson-jr's picture

Almost all of the information conveyed in this blog felt brand new. That is such a nice feeling to come across a truly unique contribution. Thanks Jeff.

bjorn-peters's picture

Great thoughts, thanks. I like the plethora of good examples on how to unearth ideas. The segmentation into five types of creativity might be helpful for some, in particular for teachers of creativity. As a practitioner in it, working in the ninth totally different job type since high school and preparing the tenth one currently, I think there is only one creativity, and it is probably best described by your 'mimetic' style.

From my time in cognition sciences, it is evident for me that all idea generation is based on the knowledge that we have by heart (not in books or blogs) and the connections the brain does to it when in a relaxed mode - Mozart is just a perfect example. Necessary conditions for being creative are hence only two: walking the earth with open eyes and mind in order to pick up as much information as possible; and slowing down from time to time to let the brain make the necessary connections, in particular when times are stressful and require new ideas.

The suggested techniques foster either one of the two, but there is no shortcut for people with limited perception powers on the one side or the inability to relax on the other side. I understand that the teaching on creativity tries to make people more open-minded for these two. I wish you lots of success in it and would be interested whether this really works.

daniel-foster's picture

Great blog, I love the examples.

anuradha-goyal's picture

Beautiful compilation of the types of creativity. In my experience most people are limited because they restrict themselves to their own kinds, travel and books are two things that take us to different worlds and let us be creative naturally and intuitively.

job-mathew's picture

Excellent blog Jeff . Quite erudite and high in content. I like the examples.
Thanks for putting your thoughts and stuff you have read in such a comprehensive manner.
I feel creativity can also happen if one is at it. Take the example of Dr AJ Cronin.

." In 1930, after being diagnosed with a chronic duodenal ulcer, Cronin was told he must take six months' complete rest in the country on a milk diet. At Dalchenna Farm by Loch Fyne, he was finally able to indulge his lifelong desire to write a novel, having theretofore "written nothing but prescriptions and scientific papers". But even as he sat pen in hand and paper on table he sat at, no ideas came. He persisted and then the idea of a plot came .. and the rest is history of classics such as The Citadel etc..

Job Mathew

jorma-lehtinen's picture

Hi Jeff, thanks for great article! I could't resist visualize it a little bit ;->

hesham-mohammed-gurban's picture

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the interesting blog higlighting different styles of creativity and practical tips to improve them. It is thought provoking.

It goes without saying that all styles are equally important. The choice of the style (s) depends on the context and this is another topic for Jeff``s next blog ( I hope so) building on this one.

May I share part of my experience of teaching a large number of interactive fun-filled creativity workshops to various age groups over a period of ten years plus.

Imagination is a crucial skill needed by all creativity style especially Intuitive Creativity.

I found that a large number of my workshop participants find it difficult ( or feel shy) to engage in child-like imagination in the first day or two of the workshop.

They start to engage more in imagination on the third day of my 4 day workshop and afterward. I notice that they laugh more on the last 2 days.

This change occurs as we set the tone, style and atmposphere of the workshop: using toys, crayons, showing short funny video shows ( I tried Mr. Bean from the UK), encouraging particpation in role playing, declaring that there is no right answer, talking about inner fear and showing that it is exaggerated leading to an exagerated level of anticipated difficulty level of the presented challenge..

May I also add one more reference for the intuitive creativity:

Put Your Mother on the Ceiling, a book by Richard De Mille.

It teaches imagnation for kids and even adults throug many games. There is lot of info on this book on the www.

One more time, thank u Jeff for this very useful blog.

Hesham Mohammed Gurban

natalie-l-wood's picture

Wonderful article!
Very well described with ways/tools to help increase and access our capacity to be more creative in our way of seeing and interpreting the world. I'm also of the belief that some people are born with a more creative way of viewing life, period. And at the same time, there are people who haven't been all that creative in their past and start receiving "downloads" of information that come to them out of the blue and end up writing books that resonate with people's spirits world wide. Case in point is JK Rowling, Paulo Coelho and also Ekhart Tole. Ekhart had to move back to Oakland, CA from England because he wasn't getting any add'l info coming to him for his book entitled, "A New Earth" when he left to live in England. Food for thought, Natalie