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Grit will make you many things but more creative is not one of them

In all of the hype about ‘grit’ we would do well to understand it’s...

Grit will make you many things but more creative is not one of them

In all of the hype about ‘grit’ we would do well to understand it’s limitations. The notion, of ‘grit’, the concept developed by psychologist Angela Duckworth, is gripping the business world. But amid all the hype about grit, are people missing its limitations? 

By analysing the characteristics of successful contestants in large-scale spelling competitions, Duckworth identified two parameters that strongly predict success: deliberate, focused practice and a refusal to be discouraged by setbacks. She found a similar pattern when studies were replicated among army recruits and under-graduates. Duckworth later combined the notion of ‘passion’ when pursuing one’s goals into her concept of grit. 

Now, think of a typical creative person… fiery, opinionated, feisty, passionate? One might expect grit, if it encompasses ‘passion’, to predict creative ability. And after all, organisations are increasing seeking talented individuals who can think creatively. 

Well here’s the thing, at best there is no correlation between grit and creativity. At worst, it correlates negatively. That was the finding of a team led by Magdalena Grohman at the University of Texas, in a series of recent studies. 

They asked 131 students to complete a ‘creative achievement questionnaire’. This enquired about how much, and how well, each individual had done in a number of creative domains, such as music, dance or writing. Extra points were added where respondents had produced their own compositions. The research team then looked for correlations between scores for creative achievement and results on two other questionnaires. One was Duckworth’s grit scale questionnaire, the other was a questionnaire to measure the big five personality attributes. And guess what, there’s no significant correlation between grit and creativity.

The researchers then tested the hypothesis using a different measure for creativity. In this study, tutors and students were asked to score their fellow students for creativity (based on their view of the originality of their assignments etc.) On this measure again there is no correlation between grit and creativity.

However, if we look at creativity alongside the big five personality traits, something interesting happens. There is a strong correlation between creativity and openness, the personality trait that measures openness to experience. People with high scores for openness enjoy trying new things. They are typically curious and open-minded. It seems that creative people are always scanning the horizon for new ideas. 

One hypothesis is that grit encourages us to narrow our focus. Duckworth’s questionnaire defines passion, in part, as being not distracted by new ideas and projects. It seems that creative people deliberately carve out time to allow the mind to wander, to become curious, to check out new things. 

So, there may be many virtues to grit, but it is unlikely to enhance your creativity and may have the reverse effect. So is there a way we can boost our creativity? Well, here’s one simple idea that you can put into practice right away. Go take a walk. As Nietzsche put it, "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking." 

Two Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz published their findings of a recent study in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. The research looked at a sample of one hundred and seventy-six people who were asked to undertake a number of tasks designed to test creative ability. While taking the tests, participants were put in a varied range of conditions for example: Some walking on a treadmill; some seated; some facing a blank wall; some being pushed in a wheel chair.

The results were clear. Participants were significantly more likely to be creative when walking rather than sitting. They were even more inclined to be creative when walking outdoors as opposed to walking on a treadmill indoors.

So does walking specifically improve creative thinking or does it just improve our all round cognitive ability? The researchers emphasize that not all forms of thinking are improved by walking, for example a more structured problem that has a single correct answer will not typically be improved by walking. But if you need, a fresh angle, a new perspective or a fresh and original breakthrough, walking is an effective way to create the right mental conditions.

I’m off to take a walk.  

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