In 1666, while strolling through a garden, one of history’s most influential scientists was struck by a flash of creative brilliance that would change the world.

Sir Isaac Newton noticed an apple fall to the ground while standing in the shade of an apple tree. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” wondered Newton. “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.” The reason, without a doubt, is that the earth pulls it. “Matter must have a drawing power.”

The concept of gravity was thus born.

The story of the falling apple has become one of the most enduring and iconic representations of the creative process. It’s a representation of the inspired genius that fills your mind during those “eureka moments” when the conditions are just right for creativity.

Most people overlook the fact that Newton worked on his theories about gravity for nearly two decades before publishing The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687. The incident with the falling apple was only the beginning of a decades-long train of thought.

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 who has spent years pondering a brilliant idea. For all of us, creative thinking is a process. In this article, I’ll discuss the science of creative thinking, as well as the conditions that encourage and hinder creativity, as well as practical tips for becoming more creative.

Is It Destiny Or Development When It Comes To Creative Thinking?

Our brains must make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas in order to think creatively. Is this a natural ability or one that requires practice? Let’s take a look at the research to find out.

A study of 1,600 five-year-olds was conducted in the 1960s by a creative performance researcher named George Land, and 98 percent of the children scored in the “highly creative” range. Each subject was re-tested every five years by Dr. Land. Only 30% of the same children scored in the highly creative range when they were ten years old. By the age of 15, the percentage had dropped to only 12%, and by the age of 25, it had dropped to just 2%. The children’s creativity was effectively trained out of them as they grew into adults. “Non-creative behavior is learned,” according to Dr. Land.

Other researchers have discovered similar patterns. According to one study of 272,599 students, while IQ scores have increased since 1990, creative thinking scores have decreased.

This isn’t to say that creativity can’t be taught. Genetics is a factor. “Approximately 22% of the variance [in creativity] is due to the influence of genes,” says psychology professor Barbara Kerr. Studying the differences in creative thinking between sets of twins led to this discovery.

To summarize, claiming that “I’m just not the creative type” is a pretty lame justification for avoiding creative thinking. Certainly, some people are born with a higher capacity for creativity than others. However, almost everyone is born with some level of creative ability, and the majority of our creative thinking abilities can be developed.

Let’s talk about why—and how—practice and learning affect your creative output now that we know creativity is a skill that can be improved.

Creative Thinking and Intelligence

What are the prerequisites for realizing your creative potential?

As I mentioned in my article on Threshold Theory, being in the top 1% of intelligence has nothing to do with being a phenomenally creative person. Instead, you must be intelligent (not brilliant) and then work hard, practice deliberately, and complete your reps.

Brilliant creative work is well within your reach as long as you meet a certain level of intelligence. “We obtained evidence that once the intelligence threshold is met, personality factors become more predictive of creativity,” researchers from a 2013 study wrote.

Mindset for Growth

When it comes to boosting your creative thinking, what exactly are these “personality factors” that researchers are referring to?

Internally, one of the most important factors is how you view your talents. More specifically, whether you approach the creative process with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset has a big impact on your creative abilities.

Carol Dweck’s fantastic book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, goes into great detail about the differences between these two mindsets (audiobook).

The basic premise is that when we approach tasks with a fixed mindset, we approach them as if our talents and abilities are unchanging and fixed. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, we believe that with effort and practice, we can improve our abilities. Surprisingly, the way we talk about and praise our efforts can easily nudge us in one direction or the other.

In Dweck’s words, here’s a quick summary:

“The entire self-esteem movement erroneously taught us that praising intelligence, talent, and abilities would foster self-confidence and self-esteem, and that everything great would follow.” However, we’ve discovered that it has the opposite effect. People who have been praised for their talent are now concerned about doing the next thing, about taking on the difficult task, and not appearing talented, tarnishing their brilliance reputation. As a result, they’ll stay in their comfort zone and become defensive when they experience 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

Embarrassment and Innovation

How can we put the growth mindset into practice when it comes to creativity? In my experience, it all boils down to one thing: the willingness to make a fool of yourself while engaging in an activity.

According to Dweck, the growth mindset is more concerned with the process than with the outcome. In theory, this is simple to accept, but it is extremely difficult to implement in practice. The majority of people do not want to deal with the embarrassment or shame that comes with learning a new skill.

The list of mistakes from which you will never be able to recover is quite short. On some level, I believe most of us are aware of this. We know that if that book we wrote doesn’t sell, if a potential date rejects us, or if we forget someone’s name when we introduce them, our lives will not be ruined. What concerns us isn’t always what happens after the event. It’s the fear of looking stupid, humiliated, or dealing with embarrassment that keeps us from getting started in the first place.

You must be willing to take action in the face of these feelings if you want to fully embrace the growth mindset and increase your creativity.

How to Boost Your Creativity

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

You must restrain yourself. One of your best tools for sparking creative thinking is carefully designed constraints. When Dr. Seuss wrote his most famous book, he only used 50 words. When soccer players play on a smaller field, they develop more complex skill sets. Designers can create better large-scale designs by using a 3-inch by 5-inch canvas. We become more resourceful the more we limit ourselves.

More writing is required. Every Monday and Thursday for nearly three years, I published a new article on JamesClear.com. The longer I stuck to this schedule, the more I realized that I had to come up with about a dozen average ideas before I came up with one that was brilliant. I created a larger surface area for a creative spark to strike by producing a large volume of work.

Expand your horizons. Forcing myself to write about seemingly disparate topics and ideas is one of my most successful creative strategies. When I use 1980s basketball strategies, ancient word processing software, or zen buddhism to describe our daily behaviors, for example, I have to be creative. “You’ll do better in psychology and life if you broaden your knowledge,” says psychologist Robert Epstein.

Sleep for a little longer. I mentioned a study from the University of Pennsylvania in my article on how to get better sleep, which revealed the incredible impact of sleep on mental performance. The most important finding was that sleep debt builds up over time, and if you get 6 hours of sleep per night for two weeks in a row, your mental and physical performance will deteriorate to the same level as if you had stayed awake for 48 hours. Sleep deprivation has a significant impact on creative thinking, as it does on all cognitive functions.

Enjoy the sunshine and the beauty of nature. Before and after a four-day backpacking trip, 56 backpackers were tested on a variety of creative thinking questions. The backpackers’ creativity had increased by 50% by the end of the trip, according to the researchers. This study backs up the findings of other studies that show that spending time in nature and increasing your exposure to sunlight can boost your creativity levels.

Positive thinking should be embraced. Positive thinking can lead to significant improvements in creative thinking, which sounds a little fluffy to me. Why? According to positive psychology research, when we are happy, we think more broadly. The Broaden and Build Theory is a concept that makes it easier for us to make creative connections between ideas. Sadness and depression, on the other hand, appear to lead to more restrictive and limited thinking.

Send it on its way. The truth is that creativity is simply a lot of work. The single most important thing you can do is set a pace that you can maintain and ship content on a regular basis. Make a commitment to the process and stick to it. Shipping is the only way for creativity to become a reality.

Final Thoughts on the Subject of Creativity

Creativity is a method, not an end result. It’s not just an epiphany. You must overcome mental obstacles and internal roadblocks. You must make a conscious effort to practice your craft. And, like Newton, you’ll have to stick with the process for years, if not decades, to see your creative genius blossom.

The suggestions in this article cover a wide range of methods for becoming more creative. If you’re looking for more practical tips on how to improve your creative habits, check out my free guide, Mastering Creativity.