Where do creativity and innovation come from? It’s an age old question: are creativity and innovation innate abilities, something you’re either born with or not, or can they be learned? While the debate continues, the data is increasingly pointing to the fact that qualities like creativity and innovation are largely learned behaviours.

There’s no question that entrepreneurial masters such as Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Pierre Omidyar, and Jeff Bezos think and behave differently than most people. Even at a cursory glance, it’s easy to tell that they possess skills that allow them to connect ideas in a way that many of us simply don’t perceive. But Hal Gregersen, senior affiliate professor of leadership at INSEAD and co-author of “The Innovator’s DNA” argues that this isn’t necessarily due to some innate ability, but rather through the mastery of five key skills that this type of innovator possesses. These five skills are associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. Gregersen, along with his co-authors, believe that about two-thirds of the skills it takes in order to innovate can in fact be learned. In their findings, they pointed to the fact that concludes that 25-40% of human innovation stems from genetics.

According to Gregersen et al., the formula of innovation relies on questioning, which allows innovators to challenge the status quo; observing, which helps innovators observe minute details others might miss; networking, which lets innovators gain new experience through communicating with others; experimenting, which prompts innovators to try new experiences and test out new ideas; and association thinking, which includes drawing connections among different questions, problems, or ideas.

Instead of spreading yourself thin trying to excel in every field, it’s often more beneficial to identify your strengths and proceed from there.

The truly helpful finding in this is that those who are looking to improve their creative and/or innovative abilities need not fret that they improve all of these areas. Even focusing on a single area can be enough to spark creativity and innovation. In effect, Gregersen asserts, it’s by studying and replicating the habits of famous innovators that we become innovators ourselves. Instead of spreading yourself thin trying to excel in every field, it’s often more beneficial to identify your strengths and proceed from there. In the words of Gregersen himself:

“Some people are observers, some are experimenters, some are networkers for ideas. Observers, they love to watch, see, look, hear — they are anthropologists, they are watchers. Networkers for ideas, they love to talk to people that don’t think and act like them — they’re talkers. Experimenters are the doers — they get their fingers into things, they try new things, they try prototyping.

Essentially, the story is to pick one — observing, networking or experimenting — whichever is your highest skill, leverage that. If it’s not high enough, make it better. You don’t need to worry about all three. That’s one of the pieces with this DNA: Each of us have our own signature strengths — we don’t need to be everything for it to work.”

How can I become more creative and innovative?

Now that we know what goes into being creative and innovative, let’s take a look at some of the best practices that can allow you to tap into this universal ability. Ahead are a few helpful habits that will allow you to connect to the creative, innovative side of yourself.

1) Do creative work when you’re tired

Quite unlike what goes into solving an analytical problem, creative insights often come from allowing our minds to wander along tangents and into areas that at first glance seem entirely unrelated. Contrary to what most people might think, the best time to engage in something creative is during times when we are not at our peak level of mental performance. Early birds would do well to take on that creative task at night, while night owls might be better off getting up early to take on the task that’s vexing them. The reason behind all this is that a tired brain tends to have a very hard time avoiding tangents and staying focused on one thing. While this is a nightmare for more analytical applications, for something involving creativity this is ideal.

2) Get moving

Exercise might be great for your physical health, but it turns out it’s just as beneficial for your mental health. Studies have conclusively shown that exercise can actually improve our ability to think creatively. In one study, when researchers had half of participants in a study perform an exercise video while the other half of the group only watched a video, those who exercised outperformed the others in an area known as divergent thinking, which is essentially the ability to come up with more possible solutions to a problem.

3) Get ambient

While many might think that silence would be ideal for creative work, science confirms that having an ambient level of noise on in the background is more appropriate for creative work. Silence, on the other hand, helps to sharpen our focus, which again would be ideal for something involving analytical thinking, but not as effective for something requiring creativity and innovation. It looks like creatives tend to flock to cafes for a reason.

4) Make connections

While it seems like creativity is all about coming up with new ideas, it turns out that it’s really all about making new connections between ideas that already exist. Steve Jobs, in fact, had this to say on the subject:

“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.”

The exciting thing about this point is that anyone can make connections between existing ideas–it doesn’t take a genius to do this.

5) Travel more

This is another suggestion that can contribute to emotional health as much as it apparently can improve your skills in areas such as creativity and innovation. While the research is still growing, one recent study actually showed that college students who travel abroad tended to score higher on creative thinking tests when compared to their classmates who stayed at home to study. This individual study followed those who traveled from their own college in the US to join a summer study program in England.

The other exciting point to make with this is that, since cultural norms tend to differ between different states or locations within the same country, people can take advantage of even the slightest change of scenery and reap the benefits of improved creativity and innovation without even having to leave the country.

Can creativity and innovation be learned? The answer’s a resounding yes

So, by tuning in to the specific types of innovative thinking and action that the entrepreneurial masters have tapped into and following several simple habits to effect change in your life, it’s easy to become as creative and innovative in your life as you’d like to be.

By Srikar Srinivasula

 About the author

Srikar Srinivasula is a tech enthusiast and loves to keep himself up-to date by reading blogs on all things tech. Professionally he is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of You can reach him on twitter @srikar115.

Photo: lamp-head in grass from