Entrepreneurship for the High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person? You Betcha!

What you know about high sensation seeking highly sensitive people is probably wrong.  Have you read that highly sensitive people are crybabies?  That we are closet introverts preferring to spend our time hidden away?  Do you think highly sensitive people are weak, fragile, or unpredictably emotional?  Moreover, do you think that high sensation seeking highly sensitive people are just about skydiving, bungee-jumping, and insane, extreme thrills?  Boy, do you have it wrong!

There may be a germ of truth in all of the above statements but there is much more to the traits known as Sensation Seeking and Sensory Processing Sensitivity.  There seems to be a very conscious effort on the part of many people to narrow our ability to branch out and challenge ourselves in the workplace.  How do they do this?  By misunderstanding (or not understanding as the case may be) the well-researched, peer-reviewed scientific information, well-researched books, and other materials that may inhabit the market at any given time.  Worse, some people then choose to pick a kernel of truth and latch onto it while extending it to incredible levels in their search for an identity that makes them feel special or unique.  It’s not enough to embody a marginally rare personality trait that is quite beautiful in its own way (Sensory Processing Sensitivity) we instead feel the need to tack on half a dozen other pseudo-traits or blow them out of proportion often moving beyond the realm of scientific knowledge into New Age platitudes (empaths, Indigo children, etc).

What does it matter that we stick to scientific accuracy regarding personality traits?  Because the really good information has been well-researched utilizing strict protocols where data are collected, analyzed, and interpreted according to a systematic method minimizing personal bias.  This method is further enhanced by the peer-review process which serves to weed out inaccurate information and ensure the work meets rigorous standards for accuracy and completeness.  When we stick to the actual constructs of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Sensation Seeking we see that these individuals may possess an extraordinary propensity for one of the most empowering endeavors available to us in the modern age: entrepreneurship.

It has been suggested many times that working for ourselves may be the best compromise that allows us to create our own working conditions, choose who we deal with (customers or clients), and self-create the types of meaningful lives we seem to require.  In my book, Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career I covered a broad range of possible vocations and careers, even covering what is now becoming a hot topic: the trades.  I minimized any emphasis on entrepreneurship for a very specific reason: I did not want to make working for ourselves a panacea to our workplace woes that may entail more risk and anxiety than many people are prepared to face or endure.  There is no doubt, entrepreneurship is hard!  Don’t like having too much to do at work?  Try entrepreneurship where everything is your responsibility, where failure will be all on you to interpret, and where uncertainty is a fact of life.  That being said, entrepreneurship may be one of the most interesting, most meaningful tracks a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person may hop on to.  Why is this so?  Because entrepreneurship offers us the opportunity to engage three main capacities: creativity, personal control, and resilience.


Creativity has been done to death!  There are scores of articles, books, and websites 6a00d8341cb7f353ef01b8d0d85794970cpurporting to teach us to how to become more creative, unleash our creativity, or otherwise unlock a “secret” capacity all humans innately possess.  Creativity is nothing more than looking at a problem in a new way and findings ways to solve that problem.  You are as creative as the next person; you just don’t know it or have had it squashed by your culture so you don’t think you are creative.  In a former life as a fine artist, I used to hear non-art people say quite often, “I can’t even draw a stick figure!”  I always replied, “Well, how could you be expected to draw anything if you have not practiced?”  Drawing, painting, wheel-throwing pots on a wheel are all skills that can be learned through instruction and plenty of practice.  Once you understand this, creativity becomes an open resource you can cultivate within yourself in service to your needs at any given time.

Creativity is also much more than the fine or performing arts.  Creativity is a way of being that is exemplified by an openness of mind, a sense of curiosity (what if I did this?), and a willingness to enter the ambiguity of seriously addressing a problem.  All humans are creative but many are not able or willing to be open-minded, are far too busy (or tired) to be curious, and hate ambiguity (uncertainty of outcomes).  This leaves those people who are able to cultivate a rich, inner life where openness, curiosity, and ambiguity may find a working space (our inner studios).  Who are these people and how does this apply to entrepreneurship?  As I stated, all humans are creative (capable of looking at and solving problems in new ways, in fact, we are very good at that as a species) but many have been conditioned to not be creative in service to efficiency, productivity, and the profit motive.  Those three items may be fine in and of themselves but too much focus on them and we get narrow-mindedness, tunnel vision, and groupthink where nothing that is original or interesting can happen.  I argue that many highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people are innately creative to a degree those without the traits are not.  I say this not to be elitist but to emphasize the potential gifts we may offer to ourselves and to the world.  High sensation seeking highly sensitive people are unique individuals in that we must stay ahead of boredom, have a deep need for the new and novel experience, may be more willing to throw caution to the wind and do something outside the norm, and, yet, are served by the pause to think instinct that so exemplifies Sensory Processing Sensitivity, have rich, deep, inner lives, may be deeply empathic, and may be more comfortable working on our own stuff, our way.

Highly sensitive people, by contrast, may be somewhat less interested in throwing caution to the wind.  They may be as excited by the new and novel and may feel a need to keep ahead of boredom but may prefer an environment that exactly meets their needs for stimulation (which can vary a great deal at any given time from person to person).  These descriptions being rooted in the research literature there is also an underlying need inherent within these two traits: a need for personal control over our environments (interpersonal and physical).

Personal Control

There are some situations that are hard to bear for creative people; the worst being a repetitive, mundane environment that lacks adequate stimulation to engage our often significant capacities to create and develop.  As much as creativity is directed at theindexewe external world of things it is also an internal world that may be best managed when we are able to exercise a good degree of personal autonomy.  By autonomy I mean self-choice of activities we engage in.  For the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person having a sense of personal control over one’s life (or autonomy) may be key to well-functioning.  Entrepreneurship may allow us to exercise the level of autonomy we may need in our lives to manage our sensitivities while simultaneously allowing us to ensure we receive the level of stimulation that is most appropriate for us.  Cultivating a sense of personal control may be quite essential for many of us who have tried to fit ourselves into the working world and found it lacking on many levels.  Dissonance may lead us to consider self-employment, especially considering that we may gain the ultimate sense of personal control over our lives we wish we had (and that may be an absolute requirement for highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people).

As with any new endeavor we must be ready for failure and the many personal slings and arrows we will inevitably torture ourselves with.  Beating ourselves up over a business failure may be all too tempting as we replay what we should have done in our minds but the opportunity that lies in defeat is to learn from it how to create and run our next business.  That’s right, you will probably not do so well at your first business: be prepared for it, do your best to make it work, and, most of all, do not put all of your eggs in one basket.  If you’re going to be an entrepreneur you will face failure, you will face negative results, and you will endure the marathon that is running a small business.  The upside is you will have ultimate personal control over every business decision you need to make and you will be able to build a business that has meaning to you.  To prepare for this, we need to discuss resilience.


You may think of resilience as that old notion of “bouncing back” from adversity.  Kind of like a rubber band hurling you at a wall again and again but the real benefit of resilience is our ability to grow and learn from the experience.  After all, we do not wish to repeat a painful experience.  Resilience, then in the context of starting and operating a businesslittle watercourses with many stones means we have to be prepared for the “hell or high waters” that may come our way and, rest assured, running a business will, at some point, entail both scenarios.  Being resilient means we learn from difficult experiences, adapt our methods, and grow as a result.  Resilience for the entrepreneur is essential and cultivating resilience means we must be willing to ‘hit the wall” more than once.  Luckily, and the reason I am now stating boldly that high sensation seeking highly sensitive people may do very well as entrepreneurs, is we have the unique combination of daring-do combined with reflective thought that allows us to effectively learn from mistakes, grow from the experience, and become resilient in our small businesses.  How so you might ask?  Won’t the sensitive side of us crumble to pieces at the first whiff of failure?  Aren’t we too fragile to take a risk?  Again, many people have it mostly wrong!  Here’s why: high sensation seeking highly sensitive people spend their lives bouncing back from adversity and learning from experience as a matter of being alive!  We may be some of the most resilient people alive.  Certainly, a business failure or challenge may frustrate us but we’ve seen it all before and probably far worse at the broad range of employers we’ve worked for.

Resilience for many of us who are high sensation seeking highly sensitive people is built into us, it’s a capability we have cultivated and, many times, perfected long ago as we weathered the storms of personal doubt, career difficulties, and the sideways looks from those who are unable to see the world and its many possibilities through other than a societal lens.  It is probably not a stretch, given the data I have gathered through the past few years of interactions with high sensation seeking highly sensitive people, to say that many of us never fit the box that culture had prepared for us.  We never were interested in their game but may have felt compelled to play it out of duty, responsibility, or simply not being ready to jump out on our own.  Now, as entrepreneurs, we have a unique opportunity that many of us should take a serious look at because it offers us the chance to live the kind of lives we know will work for us.  We may have done quite well in the workplace even but ultimately felt a deep, soul-based need to move beyond a predictable path to something auto-poetic and meaningful.

We’ve been quite broad to this point with painting a wide swath of territory from establishing how high sensation seeking highly sensitive people may be well-suited to entrepreneurship; how creativity may be reVisioned to become something we may all develop within ourselves; how working for ourselves may finally give us the autonomy we so desire to finally discussing the tough, gritty reality of failure and the absolute need for resilience in the face of the many challenges that will undoubtedly come our way as people striking out on our own into often unknown and unpredictable waters.  Now, let’s be more specific:

  • Do your research for any new business idea. This means you will probably not jump right into something immediately.  Rather, you will engage your ample capacities to learn everything there is to know about your proposed business field, especially noting where the gaps exist (these become your opportunities to provide a new service or product).
  • Trust your intuition but not too much. Gut instincts may tell you something seems like a good idea but bear in mind if the facts don’t support it you are ignoring reality.  Intuition may be especially strong in those with Sensory Processing Sensitivity.  Thus, understanding and being aware that we are given to leaping over everything between A-Z (the starting and ending points we intuitively feel) may help ground us in the necessary details (curse those details!).
  • Talk to other people about your proposed idea and be willing to hear a hard truth. Your friend who is very knowledgeable may be saving you from a business failure and potentially years of hard work.  In these instances, put your ego aside and go back to step one with researching your idea.  Adapt, modify, and change as needed: repeat.  This is where creativity comes in as you engage that capacity!
  • Form an advisory committee of trusted people who are knowledgeable, trustworthy (in a personal sense to supply you unbiased opinions), and who are interested in actually helping you. Avoid yes-men/women.  Aim for three advisory members, no more than four.  Select members based on complementary expertise.
  • Don’t rush into it! Minimize your risks, know what you don’t know, and be prepared for the long haul.  Remember resilience?  It’s not for the faint of heart.  Build your core business before you do anything else.  Without that core stream of income there is no expansion or growth.  That being said, be open to the clues that come your way regarding new opportunities and let those simmer on a side burner.  They will likely come in handy at the right time.
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in to one basket! If possible, build the business on the side and retain your job until your business is viable.  If you are producing or selling a product this is especially true.  A service business will require much less of you in terms of overhead (use a home office).
  • Don’t suffer alone. Talk to other business people.  Join the local chamber of commerce or other business organizations to build out your network and enjoy social support.  Your just highly sensitive, not a hermit.  You’re also likely a very good performer when you need to be, so do it!  In time, you will become more at ease in your social interactions in this new capacity as a business owner.  Networking will be a continual effort.
  • Don’t let fear paralyze you. Anxiety is a natural state designed to alert us to the need to reconsider but when uncontrolled represents a limiting force.  Be willing to break through your own walls of fear.
  • Similarly, don’t let analysis paralysis stymy your new business idea. Yes, you have a deep, reflective capacity but know when to make a choice and swallow that fear.  Entrepreneurship is definitely challenging but also rewarding in ways traditional employment can never be.  Minimize your risks but do take them.  No one gets out of life alive; all we have to lose is a bit of time attempting to do something we may be incredibly happy doing.  Is that worth the risk?

On a personal level starting a business can be hard on a family as structured routines may be interrupted and incomes less stable (at least for a while).  Similarly, your social life may take a beating as you devote yourself to building your business.  All that will subside in time and you will likely either find more time or adjust to a new reality.

Is there one type of business that high sensation seeking highly sensitive people would be best suited to?  No, that would be as endlessly variable as grains of sand because people differ so much in their interests and inclinations not to mention geographic area which may determine how viable a business idea is.  As mentioned at the beginning of this post we should refrain from pigeon-holing HSPs and HSS/HSPs as “most suited” to one career or another.  We are in all careers including self-employment but seem to statistically favor the helping professions.  The helping professions is quite a broad category including healthcare, education, and advising fields but creative and high-tech fields are high on the list as well.  Rather than attempting to fit yourself to what you think might be best for an HSP focus on crafting something that is workable for YOU!  Your business does not have to be the most meaningful activity in your life but it does need to be profitable, viable, and sustainable.

Some very good businesses can be created doing very simple things.  Today, I just observed an Amish man walking around our neighborhood offering his services to clean mildew and mold off of siding on houses.  I said right then, “Now there is an entrepreneur!”  That man has found a need (many houses with an obvious mildew issue) and had endeavored to fill the need.  Plus, he is willing to do the work necessary to make it a viable business.  You could very simply look at needs in your community and find a way to fill them.  Your business may not be glamorous but it may be profitable and free you from the sort of soul-sucking wage slavery and predatory corporate culture too common today.

As a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, I know you.  You get bored easily and need to keep moving.  You are creative and like to think about things very deeply.  You are an odd mix of wanting to push forward with a “great” idea but simultaneously holding back to think it over.  You have a dash of devil-may-care about you and will do something out of character at times, just for the sake of doing it.  You are also an odd duck who needs to do things your own way in your own time, yet you may thrive on having a deadline or structure to force you to focus.  You have a tremendous ability to study “fascinations”20151006165136-introvert-reading-books until you are a virtual expert, then you move on to the next thing.  Your base of knowledge is deep and broad and it is likely you would make a great conversation partner if only people weren’t so irritating.  You LOVE the idea of having your own business, making your own choices, and taking calculated risks (you get a little tingle with some risk).  You also are excited by new situations and new people, yet you are drained energetically after a while and need to regroup in quiet.  You would make a fantastic creative partner in a business, yet you are quirky and possibly eccentric.  Working with you is to never quite know which person we are going to encounter: the quiet, studious hard worker or the impetuous one who wants to do something new and interesting like invent a new business model or toy with new ideas as if they were big puzzle pieces to be moved around and considered at length.

You, my friend, are a creator and you should be creating and thinking and pushing yourself to do and become more.  You will never be happy with 9-5 but you will with 11-2, 6-10, and 12-3 as you stay up at those late hours unable to sleep because you are a night owl.  You, fellow high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, are an interesting and unique individual and this world needs people like you to build the businesses of today and tomorrow, to bring new and innovative concepts to market, and chart the way forward for a humanity that lacks your vision and compassion.  Let’s get to it…

Over the next few weeks, I will be guiding you through some of the pitfalls of entrepreneurship always brutally honest because I want you to succeed.

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and resizedThrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper provides consulting services to high sensation seeking highly sensitive people at his website drtracycooper.com.  Additionally, he appeared in the documentary movie Sensitive-The Untold Journey.

The Four Most Powerful Types of Creative Thinking

Have you ever used mind mapping?  I have in the master’s degree courses I teach at Baker University.  Mind mapping helps students take all of the swirling ideas in their minds and get them out onto paper.  Some students are quite dubious at first but most report that mind mapping helps them develop ideas and see the connections in a new way.  Here, Mark McGuinness offers us three other ways we can think about creative thinking.

#5 The Four Most Powerful Types of
Creative Thinking

Four antique globes

Considering I’m a creative coach, some people are surprised to learn I’m a little sceptical about creative thinking techniques.

For one thing, there’s a lot more to creativity than thinking. It’s possible to sit around having lots of creative thoughts, but without actually making anything of them. But if you start making something, creative ideas seem to emerge naturally out of the process. So if I had to choose, I’d say creative doing beats creative thinking.

And for another thing, a lot of ‘creative thinking techniques’ leave me cold. Brainstorming, lateral thinking and (shudder) thinking outside the box have always felt a bit corporate and contrived to me. I’ve never really used them myself, and after working with hundreds of artists and creatives over the last 14 years, I’ve come across plenty of other creative professionals who don’t use them. I don’t think you can reduce creative thinking to a set of techniques. And I don’t think the process is as conscious and deliberate as these approaches imply.

Having said that, here are four types of creative thinking that I use myself and which I know for a fact are used extensively by high-level creators. Only one of them (reframing) is under conscious control. Another (mind mapping) works via associative rather than rational thinking. And the other two require us to let go of our logical, analytical mind and open up to whatever inspiration visits us from the unconscious mind.

The text below introduces the four types of creative thinking, and the worksheet will show you how to apply the techniques to your own work.

1. Reframing

Man holding picture frame containing an image of the man holding a picture frame... ad infinitum

Image by stuartpilbrow

Reframing opens up creative possibilities by changing our interpretation of an event, situation, behaviour, person or object.

Think about a time when you changed your opinion of somebody. Maybe you saw them as ‘difficult’ or ‘unpleasant’ because of the way they behaved towards you; only to discover a reason for that behaviour that made you feel sympathetic towards them. So you ended up with an image of them as ‘struggling’ or ‘dealing with problems’ rather than bad.

Or how about a time when you were pleased to buy something at a very low price, only to be disappointed when it broke the first time you used it. In your mind, it went from being a ‘bargain’ to ‘cheap rubbish’.

Or what about a time when you experienced a big disappointment, only to discover an opportunity which emerged from it. As the old saying goes, ‘when one door closes, another opens’.

All of these are examples of reframes, since the essential nature of the person, object or event didn’t change — only your perception of them. When you exchanged an old frame for a new one, things looked very different.

Jokes depend on reframing for their humour. The punchline is the moment when one frame is substituted for another, wildly incongruous or inappropriate frame. For example, when Homer Simpson says “Maybe, just once, someone will call me ‘Sir’ without adding, ‘You’re making a scene’”, it’s funny because of Homer’s swift transition from respected gentleman (high status frame) to embarrassing troublemaker (low status frame).

I first came across reframing when I trained as a psychotherapist. As a therapist, I met lots of clients who were unhappy for good reasons, but I also discovered that many of them were making themselves even more miserable with the interpretations (frames) they put around their life events. Part of my job was to offer them new frames that fitted the facts just as well, but allowed them to feel better about themselves and find creative solutions to the problems they faced. For example, a single mother feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of keeping down a job and taking good care of her children could cheer up considerably when I suggested that she wasn’t a ‘bad mother’ (negative frame) but ‘coping very well in difficult circumstances’ (positive frame).

Many outstanding creators make extensive use of reframing, finding new possibilities where others see obstacles. As advertising Creative Director Ernie Schenck puts it: “You see a wall, Houdini saw an opening” (The Houdini Solution).

What Reframing Does to Your Brain

In his excellent book Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains the powerful impact reframing — which he calls reappraisal — can have on your brain, quoting neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner:

Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world [i.e. frames], and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.

(Kevin Ochsner, quoted in Your Brain at Work by David Rock)

So reframing isn’t just an intellectual exercise – it changes the way we feel, which in turn changes our capacity for action. Which makes it a powerful creative tool for changing our own lives and influencing other people.

Creative frames of reference

Here are some frames to help you generate creative solutions. Next time you’re facing a creative challenge or are stuck on a problem, run through this list and ask yourself the questions. Once you’ve done this a few times, you should get into the habit of asking yourself these questions, and making creative use of reframing.

  • Meaning — what else could this mean?
  • Context — where else could this be useful?
  • Learning — what can I learn from this?
  • Humour — what’s the funny side of this?
  • Solution — what would I be doing if I’d solved the problem? Can I start doing any of that right now?
  • Silver lining — what opportunities are lurking inside this problem?
  • Points of view — how does this look to the other people involved?
  • Creative heroes — how would one of my creative heroes approach this problem?

2. Mind Mapping

Mind map drawn in different colours

Image by Philippe Boukobza

When you make notes or draft ideas in conventional linear form, using sentences or bullet points that follow on from each other in a sequence, it’s easy to get stuck because you are trying to do two things at once: (1) get the ideas down on paper and (2) arrange them into a logical sequence.

Mind mapping sidesteps this problem by allowing you to write ideas down in an associative, organic pattern, starting with a key concept in the centre of the page, and radiating out in all directions, using lines to connect related ideas. It’s easier to ‘splurge’ ideas onto the page without having to arrange them all neatly in sequence. And yet an order or pattern does emerge, in the lines connecting related ideas together in clusters.

Because it involves both words and a visual layout, it has been claimed that mind mapping engages both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, leading to a more holistic and imaginative style of thinking. A mind map can also aid learning by showing the relationships between different concepts and making them easier to memorize.

Visual approaches to generating and organising ideas have been used for centuries, and some pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are often cited as the inspiration for modern mind maps. Tony Buzan is the leading authority on mind mapping. Among his tips for getting the most out of the technique are:

  • Start in the centre of the page
  • The lines should be connected and radiate out from the central concept
  • Use different colours for different branches of the mind map
  • Use images and symbols to bring the concepts to life and make them easier to remember

For more tips on mind mapping, as well as books and software tools, visit Tony Buzan’s website.

3. Insight


The word insight has several different meanings, but in the context of creative thinking it means an idea that appears in the mind as if from nowhere, with no immediately preceding conscious thought or effort. It’s the proverbial ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ moment, when an idea pops into your mind out of the blue.

There are many accounts of creative breakthroughs made through insight, from Archimedes in the bath tub onwards. All of them follow the same basic pattern:

  1. Working hard to solve a problem.
  2. Getting stuck and/or taking a break.
  3. A flash of insight bringing the solution to the problem.

The neuroscience of insight

Recent research by neuroscientists has validated the subjective descriptions given by creators. It has also thrown up some interesting discoveries.

Although it may look (and even feel) as though you are doing nothing in the moments before an insight emerges, brain scans have shown that your brain is actually working harder than when you are trying to reason through a problem with ‘hard’ thinking:

These sudden insights, they found, are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically. “Your brain is really working quite hard before this moment of insight,” says psychologist Mark Wheeler at the University of Pittsburgh. “There is a lot going on behind the scenes.”

(A Wandering Mind Heads Towards Insight by Robert Lee Hotz)

So if anyone accuses you of being idle next time they see you staring out the window or strolling in the park, point them to the research!

Neuroscience has also revealed that the right hemisphere of the brain — long associated with holistic thinking, as opposed to the more logical left hemisphere) — is strongly involved in the production of insights. Another finding is that you are more likely to have an insight when you feel happier than when you feel anxious. So maybe suffering for your art isn’t such a good idea after all!

According to David Rock, self-awareness is a key to unlock insight. It’s important to recognise when you get stuck on a problem and instead of trying to push through it by working harder, deliberately slow down, calm your mind and allow your thoughts to wander. Rock also points out that every insight comes with a burst of energy and enthusiasm that helps you put it into action.

How to Have an Insight

In a book published over fifty years ago, advertising copywriter James Webb Young outlined A Technique for Producing Ideas which dovetails neatly with the accounts of creators and the discoveries of modern neuroscience. He describes his own practice in coming up with ideas for advertisements, which he distils into a four step sequence:

  1. Gathering knowledge — through both constant effort to expand your general knowledge and also specific research for each project.
  2. Hard thinking about the problem — doing your best to combine the different elements into a workable solution. Young emphasises the importance of working yourself to a standstill, when you are ready to give up out of sheer exhaustion.
  3. Incubation — taking a break and allowing the unconscious mind to work its magic. Rather than simply doing nothing, Young suggests turning your attention “do whatever stimulate your imagination and emotions” such as a trip to the movies or reading fiction. (Remember what the neuroscientists say about being happy rather than anxious.)
  4. The Eureka moment — when the idea appears as if from nowhere.
  5. Developing the idea — expanding its possibilities, critiquing it for weaknesses and translating into action.

As well as being clear, practical and a charming relic of the classic age of advertising, Young’s book has the added virtue of being short and to the point (48 pages).

A word of warning: don’t let incubation become an excuse for laziness! Read my article on the difference between incubation and procrastination if you want to wipe out that particular excuse. 🙂

4. Creative Flow


You know that feeling you get when you’re completely absorbed in your work and the outside world seems to melt away? When everything seems to fall into place, and whatever you’re working with — ideas, words, notes, colours or whatever — start to flow easily and naturally? When you feel both excited and calm, caught up in the sheer pleasure of creation?

I have some good news for you. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmahalyi has studied this state — which he calls creative flow — and concluded that it is very highly correlated with outstanding creative performance. In other words, it doesn’t just feel good — it’s a sign that you’re working at your best, producing high-quality work.

Csikszentmahalyi has described nine essential characteristics of flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way. Knowing what you are trying to achieve gives your actions a sense of purpose and meaning.
  2. There is immediate feedback to your actions. Not only do you know what you are trying to achieve, you are also clear about how well you are doing it. This makes it easier to adjust for optimum performance. It also means that by definition flow only occurs when you are performing well.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills. If the challenge is too difficult we get frustrated; if it is too easy, we get bored. Flow occurs when we reach an optimum balance between our abilities and the task in hand, keeping us alert, focused and effective.
  4. Action and awareness are merged. We have all had experiences of being in one place physically, but with our minds elsewhere — often out of boredom or frustration. In flow, we are completely focused on what we are doing in the moment. Our thoughts and actions become automatic and merged together — creative thinking and creative doing are one and the same.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness. When we are not distracted by worries or conflicting priorities, we are free to become fully absorbed in the task.
  6. There is no worry of failure. A single-minded focus of attention means that we are not simultaneously judging our performance or worrying about things going wrong.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears. When we are fully absorbed in the activity itself, we are not concerned with our self-image, or how we look to others. While flow lasts, we can even identify with something outside or larger than our sense of self — such as the painting or writing we are engaged in, or the team we are playing in.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted. Several hours can fly by in what feels like a few minutes, or a few moments can seem to last for ages.
  9. The activity becomes ‘autotelic’ – meaning it is an end in itself. Whenever most of the elements of flow are occurring, the activity becomes enjoyable and rewarding for its own sake. This is why so many artists and creators report that their greatest satisfaction comes through their work. As Noel Coward put it, “Work is more fun than fun”.


Icon - GlobeWritten by me, unless otherwise stated

Creative Thinking

A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative by Roger von Oech. My favourite book on creative thinking – witty, provocative, playful and memorable.

Roger von Oech’s blog

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko. Superb compendium of creative thinking techniques.

Creativethinking.net – Michael Michalko’s website, featuring lots of free tools and techniques.

Free Creative Thinking Tools on the Web – great selection by Chuck Frey of InnovationTools.

Is Lateral Thinking Necessary for Creativity?

Is Brainstorming a Waste of Time?

1. Reframing

Are You Trapped in Black-and-White Thinking? (Includes a cool optical illusion.)

The Houdini Solution: Put Creativity and Innovation to Work by Thinking Inside the Box by Ernie Schenck. Starts by inverting (reframing) conventional assumptions about the need to think outside the box to be creative. A brilliant and unconventional account of the creative process by an award-winning creative director.

Why Thinking Outside the Box Doesn’t Work

Spark Your Creativity By Thinking INSIDE the Box

Creative Constraints: How to Use Them and When to Lose Them

Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Chapter 8 covers the neuroscience of reframing (called ‘reappraisal’ in the book).

2. Mind Mapping

The Mind Map Book: Unlock Your Creativity, Boost Your Memory, Change Your Life by Tony Buzan

Tony Buzan’s website

Mind mapping software – product guide by Chuck Frey

3. Insight

What’s the Difference Between Incubation and Procrastination?

Why Thinking Is Overrated

A Wandering Mind Heads Towards Insight by Robert Lee Hotz

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Chapter 6 covers the neuroscience of insight.

4. Creative Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Does Creativity Make You Happy?

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you want an in-depth understanding of flow, this is the book to read.

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Fascinating book which looks at several aspects of creativity, including creative flow.

Is Writing Fun? by Steven Pressfield

Tune in Next Week …

… when we’ll look at what you can do if you experience that most embarrassing of problems for a creative professional — a creative block.

About The Creative Pathfinder

“MarkThis lesson is part of The Creative Pathfinder, an in-depth free course about how to succeed as a creative professional. If you landed on this page from elsewhere, you can learn more about the course and sign up here.

The Creative Pathfinder is taught by Mark McGuinnesspoet, creative coach, and the author of Motivation for Creative People and Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.

Is the Default Mode of the Brain to Suffer?

The brain’s default mode network is a topic I have written about several times; most recently in Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. We know that the more Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) we experience as young children the greater brain development and function seems to be impaired potentially throughout the life course. Here, author Drake Baer offers us a deeper glimpse into the Default Mode Network and assesses the potential for reforming our baseline cognitive phenomena.

Is the Default Mode of the Brain to Suffer?


If you’re going to get any sort of science done, an experiment needs a control group: the unaffected, possibly placebo-ed population that didn’t take part in whatever intervention it is you’re trying to study. Back in the earlier days of cognitive neuroscience, the control condition was intuitive enough: Just let the person in the brain scanner lie in repose, awake yet quiet, contemplating the tube they’re inside of. But in 1997, 2001, and beyond, studies kept coming out saying that it wasn’t much of a control at all. When the brain is “at rest,” it’s doing anything but resting.

When you don’t give its human anything to do, brain areas related to processing emotions, recalling memory, and thinking about what’s to come become quietly active. These self-referential streams of thought are so pervasive that in a formative paper Marcus Raichle, a Washington University neurologist who helped found the field, declared it to be the “the default mode of brain function,” and the constellation of brain areas that carry it out are the default mode network, or DMN. Because when given nothing else to do, the brain defaults to thinking about the person it’s embedded in. Since then, the DMN has been implicated in everything from depression to creativity. People who daydream more tend to have a more active DMN; relatedly, dreaming itself appears to be an amplified version of mind-wandering.

In Buddhist traditions, this chattering described by neuroscientists as the default mode is a dragon to be tamed, if not slain. Chögyam Trungpa, who was instrumental in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the U.S., said the meditation practice is “necessary generally because our thinking pattern, our conceptualized way of conducting our life in the world, is either too manipulative, imposing itself upon the world, or else runs completely wild and uncontrolled,” he wrote in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. “Therefore, our meditation practice must begin with ego’s outermost layer, the discursive thoughts which continually run through our minds, our mental gossip.”

In his book Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment ― and Your Life, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, argues that this idle narration, this “selfing,” is something that needs to be reined in order to have a balanced mental life. When the DMN “predominates, especially out of unawareness, it can very much limit our understanding of ourselves and of what might be possible,” he argues. The crux of the Buddhist argument is that if you don’t establish some relationship with your DMN, some mindfulness of its activity, you’ll be yanked around by the swirling eddies of emotion, reaction, and rumination. But what do brain sciences say?

Whether or not your default activity is helpful or harmful depends on where your mind automatically tends to go, says Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director at the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. In the same way that your tongue defaults to probing a cut on the roof of your mouth, the brain is attracted to unresolved issues. “People differ drastically regarding if their default mode network content is creative or ruminative,” he says.

In a way, the DMN is like a scout, ranging about for prospective futures. To Kaufman, the default mode has a “prospective bias”: It’s seeking out big-picture strategies for what could be. Depending on the person, their history, and their biological dispositions, that prospection could tilt toward worrying or hoping. As psychologists have contended for decades, daydreaming itself has at least three different flavors: positive constructive daydreaming, which has lots of playful, wishful imagery and plan-making thoughts; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, which has lots of anguish and obsessive fantasies; and poor attentional control, where it’s hard to concentrate on anything. “Prospection can lead to suffering if it hinders executive attention, the ability to have awe, attention to the present moment,” he says, emphasizing that, as with so many others ways that our minds get into trouble, the problem is rigidity; research indicates that a disturbed DMN is a mechanism in depression. “Our greatest source of suffering isn’t the default mode,” Kaufman says, “but when we get stuck in the default mode.”

Indeed, the peripatetic nature of the DMN can be harnessed for creative thinking. In a 2015 Scientific Reports paper that Kaufman co-authored, 25 participants were asked to do creative thinking tasks, including the standard measure of divergent thinking, asking how many uses you can come up with for a brick (spoiler alert: doorstop and weapon are two go-to options). At the start of the task, the DMN coupled with the salience network, which selects which stimuli to attend to, and toward the end of the task, it coupled with the executive network, which is responsible for the control of attention and working memory — results that suggest that producing creative ideas requires a combination of focusing internal attention and controlling spontaneous thinking. “The DMN contributes to the (more or less) spontaneous generation of (potentially useful) ideas,” co-author and Harvard postdoc Roger Beaty told Science of Us via email.

It underscores the fact that not all minds that wander are lost. University of British Columbia philosopher Evan Thompson, author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, says the DMN’s mental meanderings are “the baseline state of you as a cognitive system.” It’s tremendously pragmatic: being able to remember the past, plan for the future, and happen upon creative insights are all essential tools for navigating life. While he was hesitant to mix the word “suffering,” which is so loaded in ancient Asian religious traditions, with the “default mode,” which is of a contemporary neural vintage, the two connect in the way that suffering arises when people concretize the fleeting swirls of thought, especially around conceptions of self. Still, he says, there’s “particular kind of stickiness” that can come when DMN activity grows overly self-centered.

Default-mode content involves an image of self, one that’s easy to become attached to. These self-conceptions are “affectively charged,” he says; they carry lots of emotional weight. “We constantly think that it’s not just another thought, that [the image of self] is something real, not just an mental image.”

He compared it with a strawberry and thoughts of a strawberry. If you’re a particularly good imaginer, you might start salivating at the image of a ripe, inviting strawberry. Still, it’s just a mental image; not an actual strawberry. The “selfing” conjured up by the DMN is a lot like that: images of who you think you are, but not who you actually are. While you wouldn’t take a mental image of a strawberry to be an appropriate filling to a real-world shortcake, it’s easy to take your mental images of you to be your real-world self.

“The self isn’t one thing, it’s an evolving construct of many different processes,” Thompson says.“Contemplative traditions like Buddhism and yoga would say that habitually investing in the image of the self more reality than it actually has is a source of great difficulty. When we take it to be real when it isn’t, according to these traditions, then that causes suffering.” He mentioned that in cognitive behavioral therapy, that process of divesting realness from your mental chatter is called “decentering,” or thinking less that your thoughts are the truth about what’s happening and viewing them as an observer. The therapeutic interventions offered by psilocybin and LSD — which, at least in one trial, helped longtime smokers quit at a rate three times that of the best pharma drugs — seem to have a similar, though more sudden, effect.

At a phenomenological, subjective, what-it’s-like level, the trouble or lack thereof that your DMN gets into seems to depend on how automatic (or de-automatized) your patterns of thought are. Lots of our trains of thought, as suggest by the term train, speed along as if carried by a locomotive, one after another, carried by mental-emotional momentum. If you’re more biologically sensitive to perceived threats, it’s likely that it’s a direct line to rumination, or negatively, recursively reflecting on how you’re bad at your job, rock-climbing, dealing with your family on holidays, or whatever the task is. Though by that point the amygdala, so present in neuroticism, will probably be involved, too.

The key is what brain science people call “cognitive flexibility”: being able to more freely choose your mental habits, and have greater agency in your cognitive phenomena. CBT and even hypnosis are options for taming an unruly DMN, as is the fashionable yet ancient practice of meditation. Study after study indicates that meditation reduces activity in the DMN. Judson Brewer, psychiatrist and director of research at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness founded by Kabat-Zinn, has found that extended meditation practice reforms the DMN, so that the default mode itself shifts: The resting state of the brain becomes more like the meditative state, producing “a more present-centered default mode.” So maybe that’s what all that advice to live in the present moment is getting at: If you can invest more attention in the sensory world than in your narrative overlaying it, you might identify the former, rather than the latter, to be what’s true.