Debunking the Eureka Moment: Why Creativity Is a Process, Not an Event

In 1666, one of the most influential scientists in history was strolling through a garden when he was struck with a flash of creative brilliance that would change the world.

While standing under the shade of an apple tree, Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” Newton wondered. “Why should it not go sideways, or upwards, but constantly to the earth’s center? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter.” 1

And thus, the concept of gravity was born.

The story of the falling apple has become one of the lasting and iconic examples of the creative moment. It is a symbol of the inspired genius that fills your brain during those “light bulb moments” when creative conditions are just right. 2

What most people forget, however, is that Newton worked on his ideas about gravity for nearly twenty years until, in 1687, he published his groundbreaking book, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The falling apple was merely the beginning of a train of thought that continued for decades.

Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life by William Stukeley
The famous page describing Newton’s apple incident in Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life by William Stukeley.

Newton isn’t the only one to wrestle with a great idea for years. Creative thinking is a process for all of us. In this article, I’ll share the science of creative thinking, discuss which conditions drive creativity and which ones hinder it, and offer practical tips for becoming more creative.

Creative Thinking: Destiny or Development?

Creative thinking requires our brains to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Is this a skill that we are born with or one that we develop through practice? Let’s look at the research to uncover an answer.

In the 1960s, a creative performance researcher named George Land conducted a study of 1,600 five-year-olds and 98 percent of the children scored in the “highly creative” range. Dr. Land re-tested each subject during five year increments. When the same children were 10-years-old, only 30 percent scored in the highly creative range. This number dropped to 12 percent by age 15 and just 2 percent by age 25. As the children grew into adults they effectively had the creativity trained out of them. In the words of Dr. Land, “non-creative behavior is learned.” 3

Similar trends have been discovered by other researchers. For example, one study of 272,599 students found that although IQ scores have risen since 1990, creative thinking scores have decreased. 4

This is not to say that creativity is 100 percent learned. Genetics do play a role. According to psychology professor Barbara Kerr, “approximately 22 percent of the variance [in creativity] is due to the influence of genes.” This discovery was made by studying the differences in creative thinking between sets of twins. 5

All of this to say, claiming that “I’m just not the creative type” is a pretty weak excuse for avoiding creative thinking. Certainly, some people are primed to be more creative than others. However, nearly every person is born with some level of creative skill and the majority of our creative thinking abilities are trainable.

Now that we know creativity is a skill that can be improved, let’s talk about why—and how—practice and learning impacts your creative output.

Intelligence and Creative Thinking

What does it take to unleash your creative potential?

As I mentioned in my article on Threshold Theory, being in the top 1 percent of intelligence has no correlation with being fantastically creative. Instead, you simply have to be smart (not a genius) and then work hard, practice deliberately and put in your reps.

As long as you meet a threshold of intelligence, then brilliant creative work is well within your reach. In the words of researchers from a 2013 study, “we obtained evidence that once the intelligence threshold is met, personality factors become more predictive for creativity.” 6

Threshold Theory

Growth Mindset

What exactly are these “personality factors” that researchers are referring to when it comes to boosting your creative thinking?

One of the most critical components is how you view your talents internally. More specifically, your creative skills are largely determined by whether you approach the creative process with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

The differences between these two mindsets are described in detail in Carol Dweck’s fantastic book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (audiobook).

The basic idea is that when we use a fixed mindset we approach tasks as if our talents and abilities are fixed and unchanging. In a growth mindset, however, we believe that our abilities can be improved with effort and practice. Interestingly, we can easily nudge ourselves in one direction or another based on how we talk about and praise our efforts.

Here’s a brief summary in Dweck’s words:

“The whole self-esteem movement taught us erroneously that praising intelligence, talent, abilities would foster self-confidence, self-esteem, and everything great would follow. But we’ve found it backfires. People who are praised for talent now worry about doing the next thing, about taking on the hard task, and not looking talented, tarnishing that reputation for brilliance. So instead, they’ll stick to their comfort zone and get really defensive when they hit setbacks.

So what should we praise? The effort, the strategies, the doggedness and persistence, the grit people show, the resilience that they show in the face of obstacles, that bouncing back when things go wrong and knowing what to try next. So I think a huge part of promoting a growth mindset in the workplace is to convey those values of process, to give feedback, to reward people engaging in the process, and not just a successful outcome.”

—Carol Dweck 7

Embarrassment and Creativity

How can we apply the growth mindset to creativity in practical terms? In my experience it comes down to one thing: the willingness to look bad when pursuing an activity.

As Dweck says, the growth mindset is focused more on the process than the outcome. This is easy to accept in theory, but very hard to stick to in practice. Most people don’t want to deal with the accompanying embarrassment or shame that is often required to learn a new skill.

The list of mistakes that you can never recover from is very short. I think most of us realize this on some level. We know that our lives will not be destroyed if that book we write doesn’t sell or if we get turned down by a potential date or if we forget someone’s name when we introduce them. It’s not necessarily what comes after the event that worries us. It’s the possibility of looking stupid, feeling humiliated, or dealing with embarrassment along the way that prevents us from getting started at all.

In order to fully embrace the growth mindset and enhance your creativity, you need to be willing to take action in the face of these feelings which so often deter us.

How to Be More Creative

Assuming that you are willing to do the hard work of facing your inner fears and working through failure, here are a few practical strategies for becoming more creative.

Constrain yourself. Carefully designed constraints are one of your best tools for sparking creative thinking. Dr. Seuss wrote his most famous book when he limited himself to 50 words. Soccer players develop more elaborate skill sets when they play on a smaller field. Designers can use a 3-inch by 5-inch canvas to create better large scale designs. The more we limit ourselves, the more resourceful we become.

Write more. For nearly three years, I published a new article every Monday and every Thursday at The longer I stuck with this schedule, the more I realized that I had to write about a dozen average ideas before I uncovered a brilliant one. By producing a volume of work, I created a larger surface area for a creative spark to hit me.

Not interested in sharing your writing publicly? Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages routine is a fantastic way to use writing to increase your creativity even if you have no intention of writing for others.

Broaden your knowledge. One of my most successful creative strategies is to force myself to write about seemingly disparate topics and ideas. For example, I have to be creative when I use 1980s basketball strategies or ancient word processing software or zen buddhism to describe our daily behaviors. In the words of psychologist Robert Epstein, “You’ll do better in psychology and life if you broaden your knowledge.”

Sleep longer. In my article on how to get better sleep, I shared a study from the University of Pennsylvania, which revealed the incredible impact of sleep on mental performance. The main finding was this: Sleep debt is cumulative and if you get 6 hours of sleep per night for two weeks straight, your mental and physical performance declines to the same level as if you had stayed awake for 48 hours straight. Like all cognitive functions, creative thinking is significantly impaired by sleep deprivation.

Enjoy sunshine and nature. One study tested 56 backpackers with a variety of creative thinking questions before and after a 4-day backpacking trip. The researchers found that by the end of the trip the backpackers had increased their creativity by 50 percent. This research supports the findings of other studies, which show that spending time in nature and increasing your exposure to sunlight can lead to higher levels of creativity. 8

Embrace positive thinking. It sounds a bit fluffy for my taste, but positive thinking can lead to significant improvements in creative thinking. Why? Positive psychology research has revealed that we tend to think more broadly when we are happy. This concept, which is known as the Broaden and Build Theory, makes it easier for us to make creative connections between ideas. Conversely, sadness and depression seems to lead to more restrictive and limited thinking.

Ship it. The honest truth is that creativity is just hard work. The single best thing you can do is choose a pace you can sustain and ship content on a consistent basis. Commit to the process and create on a schedule. The only way creativity becomes a reality is by shipping.

Final Thoughts on Creative Thinking

Creativity is a process, not an event. You have to work through mental barriers and internal blocks. You have to commit to practicing your craft deliberately. And you have to stick with the process for years, perhaps even decades like Newton did, in order to see your creative genius blossom.

The ideas in this article offer a variety approaches on how to be more creative. If you’re looking for additional practical strategies on how to improve your creativity habits, then read my free guide called Mastering Creativity.

  1. Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life by William Stukeley. Page 15.

  2. In some versions of the famous incident, Newton is hit on the head by the falling apple and screams “Eureka!” when he recognizes the importance of his brilliant insight. There is no evidence that an apple actually plunked ol’ Isaac on the head, but the story of the falling apple does appear to be true. Both William Stukeley, a friend of Newton, and John Conduitt, an assistant to Newton, confirmed in separate texts that the sight of a falling apple kickstarted Newton’s thoughts about gravity.

  3. Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today by George Land and Beth Jarman (1992).

  4. The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, Volume 23, Issue 4, 2011.

  5. Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent By Barbara Kerr

  6. The relationship between intelligence and creativity” by Jauk, Benedek, Dunst, Neubauer.

  7. The Right Mindset for Success.” Interview with Carol Dweck for Harvard Business Review.

  8. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings by Ruth Ann Atchley, David Strayer, Paul Atchley.

Scott Dinsmore: A Tribute

My friend Scott Dinsmore died last week. He passed away during a tragic mountain climbing accident on Mount Kilimanjaro. He was 33 years old.

Scott is my first friend to die young and unexpectedly. One of the hardest parts of growing up is realizing that life is a race with a different finish line for each of us. We walk this journey together, but we all finish it separately.

This article is about Scott, about the lessons I learned from him, about the global movement he created, and about the incredible difference one person can make in the world. My words are a poor tribute to the life he lived, but they are the best I can offer.
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The Next Chapter: I’m No Longer Writing Twice Per Week. Here’s Why

For nearly three years, I have written a new article on every Monday and every Thursday.

This twice-per-week pattern has changed my business and my life. When I started this habit on November 12, 2012, I had zero readers. Today, more than 200,000 people receive my email newsletter each week.

Along the way, I’ve met many of you at live events, heard from thousands of you via email, and enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that my writing is making some small difference in the world. I’m very thankful to have you reading each week.

But today marks the end of my Monday-Thursday streak and the beginning of something new. I will now be writing once per week. Every Monday, I’ll post a new article.

Here’s why…
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5 Common Mental Errors That Sway You From Making Good Decisions

I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’m not one. The good news is it’s not just me — or you. We are all irrational.

For a long time, researchers and economists believed that humans made logical, well-considered decisions. In recent decades, however, researchers have uncovered a wide range of mental errors that derail our thinking. Sometimes we make logical decisions, but there are many times when we make emotional, irrational, and confusing choices.

Psychologists and behavioral researchers love to geek out about these different mental mistakes. There are dozens of them and they all have fancy names like “mere exposure effect” or “narrative fallacy.” But I don’t want to get bogged down in the scientific jargon today. Instead, let’s talk about the mental errors that show up most frequently in our lives and break them down in easy-to-understand language.

Here are five common mental errors that sway you from making good decisions.
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The Impact Bias: How to Be Happy When Everything Goes Wrong

In the summer of 2010, Rachelle Friedman was preparing for one of the best periods of her life. She was recently engaged, surrounded by her best friends, and enjoying her bachelorette party.

Friedman and her friends were spending the day at the pool when one of them playfully pushed her into the shallow end of the water. Friedman floated slowly to the top of the pool until her face emerged. It was immediately obvious that something was wrong. “This isn’t a joke,” she said.

Her head had struck the bottom of the pool and shattered two vertebrae. In particular, the fracture of her C6 vertebra severed her spinal cord and left her permanently paralyzed from the chest down. She would never walk again.
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Why Old Ideas Are a Secret Weapon

A series of explosions shook the city of St. Louis on March 16, 1972. The first building fell to the ground at 3 p.m. that afternoon. In the months that followed, more than 30 buildings would be turned to rubble.

The buildings that were destroyed were part of the now infamous housing project known as Pruitt-Igoe. When the Pruitt-Igoe housing project opened in 1954 it was believed to be a breakthrough in urban architecture. Spanning 57 acres across the north side of St. Louis, Pruitt-Igoe consisted of 33 high-rise buildings and provided nearly 3,000 new apartments to the surrounding population.

Pruitt-Igoe was designed with cutting-edge ideas from modern architecture. The designers emphasized green spaces and packed residents into high-rise towers with beautiful views of the surrounding city. The buildings employed skip-stop elevators, which only stopped at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors. (Architects believed that forcing people to use the stairs would lessen the foot traffic and congestion in the building.) The buildings were outfitted with “unbreakable” lights that were covered in metal mesh and intended to reduce vandalism. The floors featured communal garbage chutes and large windows to brighten the corridors with natural light.

On paper, Pruitt-Igoe was a testament to modern engineering. In practice, the project was a disaster.
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The 2015 Tiny Gains Challenge

For the next 20 weeks, I’m going to lead the charge on The Tiny Gains Challenge. Along the way, you’ll learn how to build better health habits, avoid injury, and get leaner and stronger in the easiest way possible.

Let me explain how this is going to work and, more importantly, why this will work.
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It’s Not Just About What You Say, It’s About How You Live

For the last 2,000 years the Nguni people have lived on the lands of central and southern Africa. Today, the Nguni people are primarily spread across the southern and eastern portions of the African continent.

Given their long and rich culture, oral tradition and hand gestures are an important part of communication within the Nguni nations. The Nguni people speak not just with words, but also with their bodies.
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