Q&A with Scott Barry Kaufman

Scott Barry Kaufman is a researcher, author, and teacher. He’s a co-founder and a scientific director, as well as a public speaker. He’s an opera singer, a cello player, and a hip-hop dancer. He’s funny, thoughtful, and unpredictable.

This is just a sampling of the “jigsaw pieces,” as Kaufman would say, that make up his very own creative lifestyle. In the psychologist’s most recently released book (co-authored with Carolyn Gregoire), “Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind,” Kaufman discusses the importance of harmonious passion in having a healthy integration of activities into the core of your identity. It’s important to not take one label and make it your life.

If Kaufman had done that when he was younger, he wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is today.

“You know how labels, you put it on you and that becomes all you are?” Kaufman says. “Instead, you can take a piece of who you are and see it as a jigsaw puzzle. Put it in the rest of the jigsaw puzzle of yourself, in a healthy way, in a way that you’re proud of, and you say, ‘Yes, I am this, I am, say, an introvert and I’m proud of that, but I’m also compassionate, I’m also a person that likes to get crazy.’”

Labels can become problematic, especially in an education environment.

“Outside of an education environment, if people use labels as a healthy part of their identity, I’m all for it,” he says. “But that’s not how they’re used in schools. It’s not like we say, ‘Here’s your learning disability label because we think that’d be a healthy way for you to integrate the fact that you’re disabled.’”

Since earning his doctorate in cognitive psychology from Yale University in 2009, Kaufman’s research has focused on redefining intelligence and possibility, inspired by his own experiences in special education as a child. He wants to encourage more creativity—something he thinks society is “very biased against.”

“There are studies showing that teachers, for instance, will say that they like creative students but will penalize their most creative students when it comes down to it because they’re harder to teach,” Kaufman says. “These students are non-conformists. They really do question assumptions and they may see the world differently.”

His research brought him to the University in May 2014, when he became scientific director of the Positive Psychology Center’s Science of Imagination Project, which is supported by the nonprofit Imagination Institute under a grant from the Templeton Foundation.

Outside of the University, Kaufman helps run the website “The Creativity Post,” which he co-founded in 2011. He writes an online column for Scientific American magazine called “Beautiful Minds,” and is also a host of “The Psychology Podcast.”

Kaufman recently sat down with the Current in his colorful Center City apartment to discuss his passion for psychology and teaching, his daily duty of reaching out to geniuses, how creativity is a “messy business,” and much, much more.

Q: How’d you get interested in cognitive psychology, with regards to the development of intelligence, creativity, and personality?
A: My interest in all this stuff was spurred by my early childhood experiences. I remember at a really young age, sitting there in the special education room wondering what more people are capable of. I had an auditory learning disability when I was young and it caused a lot of problems, and the teachers took that as an indication that I was stupid. It took until ninth grade for a teacher to take me aside and question my place in the school hierarchy. I think it was the first time someone had truly seen me, and she said she saw my frustration. So I took myself out and I signed up for like a million different things. I didn’t necessarily do well in everything, but there were some things I did do well in, like cello.

Q: Do you still play cello?
A: Yes. My grandfather taught me cello. That was really cool. It was the first time I felt like I was good at something and could show my intelligence. When I first got into the field [of psychology], I thought that what I was studying was intelligence. I thought that was my main purpose in life, but my purpose has evolved over the years. After my book ‘Ungifted:  Intelligence Redefined’ came out and I talked with lots of educators and parents, I realized that intelligence wasn’t the thing that I was redefining, it was really human potential that I was redefining, or human possibility. I don’t really like the word potential. 

Q: What was your aha moment—when you knew psychology was what you wanted to do?
A: My sophomore year in college, I encountered a textbook on cognitive psychology written by Robert Sternberg, and when I got to the chapter on intelligence, I remember the day I was sitting on the sofa, I was like, ‘Wow this is it, this is what I want to do.’ But let me back up a little bit. I was an opera singer.

Q: What? An opera singer? That’s so cool.
A: When I applied to Carnegie Mellon [for undergrad], I wanted to redefine intelligence. I got rejected, I think because my SAT scores weren’t high enough. I had written in my personal essay how I wanted to redefine our metrics of measuring intelligence. I was also looking at departments that weren’t looking so highly at SAT scores and I did have this singing ability as well as cello ability. So I auditioned for their opera program and I got accepted to Carnegie Mellon for voice performance—the same school that just rejected me. During my second semester, I took introduction to psychology, loved it, but then it really was the next semester, sophomore year, when I took cognitive psychology and learned about a whole field of intelligence that was going beyond IQ scores and I realized that was what I wanted to study. I told my cognitive psychology teacher Anne Fay point blank that I wanted to go to Yale for graduate school and study with Robert Sternberg and redefine intelligence. She believed in me and [suggested we] do an independent study reading together and figure out a concrete plan to make that happen. So long story short, I made it happen and did get my Ph.D. in 2009, when I came up with my dual-process theory of human intelligence.

Q: You have your own dual-process theory of intelligence?
A: In that dissertation I argued that intelligence researchers are missing about half of the picture. For the last 100 years they focused so much on controlled, rational thought but have ignored the importance of spontaneous cognition. I think in my dissertation I called it autonomous cognition, which is the kind of cognition that operates outside of our consciousness. Intuition includes pretend play, all kinds of spontaneous forms of cognition. That was the dual-process theory. I tested it in various ways and found support for the model. And then, in 2013, it evolved in ‘Ungifted’ into a personal theory of intelligence, which argued that intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and ability in the pursuit of personal goals. So not only do theories of intelligence miss out on spontaneous cognition, but I think they also miss out on the importance of engagement and finding something deeply important and valuable. No intelligence researchers in the last 100 years have incorporated engagement as a central driving force of human intelligence. Just measuring someone’s IQ does a very poor job of measuring their eventual personal fulfillment of who they are as a human being.

Q: What are your daily duties as scientific director of the Science of Imagination Project?
A: We use creativity and imagination to better the world. There are so many things I do on a daily basis that are related to that. There are no two days that are alike. Lately, I’ve been focusing more on reaching out to imaginative geniuses, because a big part of what we’re doing in the next year-and-a-half is bringing together 50 or so of the most imaginative minds on this planet across a series of imagination retreats that we’re holding in various fields, from great psychologists, great leaders, great video game designers, people in positive medicine, physicists, futurists. We’re doing a whole series of things. We are reaching out to literally the most imaginative people and having a conversation with them and organizing these retreats. We had the ‘great psychologists’ one already, at the Union League of Philadelphia [with] Steven Pinker, Roy Baumeister, Jonathan Haidt, Martin Seligman, Leda Cosmides, and Thérèse Rein. We are planning a physics retreat at the University of Cambridge this summer. We’re hoping to get Stephen Hawking there.

Q: What course do you teach at Penn?
A: [Professor of Psychology] Angela Duckworth, who usually teaches ‘Introduction to Positive Psychology,’ was busy writing her book on grit and she asked if I wanted to teach the course. I started teaching that in Spring 2015 and have been so grateful for the opportunity. This will be my third semester teaching it. It’s turned into one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my life. I see how much the students are inspired by it.

Q: You say it’s been one of most meaningful things for you. Why is that?
A: I used to teach at New York University as an adjunct professor. I love teaching, I love being enthusiastic about things that I find that are really interesting. The thing about positive psychology is that the students find it so meaningful. So I think that’s why I find it so meaningful. Every week they have a reflection assignment, where they implement a positive intervention related to the coursework in their lives. The students do a series of exercises to help their wellbeing. The course is about what science tells us about what it means to live a good life, and who’s not interested in that? I think I learn a lot from the students as well.

Q: How have you made the course your own?
A: I haven’t used Angela’s lectures. They are all my own lectures and my topics are also slightly different. She focuses more on grit and achievement and I focus more on daydreaming and creativity. There is some overlap, though, in the content, but it’s definitely my own feel.

Q: What are the students like who take your course?
A: I think they are all very different. I think what has happened, after I taught it the first semester, students told me that there was a huge buzz about this course on campus. A lot of students say the course really does change their lives. It makes them think more about what really matters in life. That’s what the course is about. What grade they get on a test, their GPA, doesn’t matter as much in the long run as do their social relationships, their meaning, their sense of fulfillment and competency and contributing something that is personally meaningful to them.

Q: Standardized tests seem to be something you really, well, don’t like. Do you have tests in your class?
A: I wanted it to be a different kind of course. So about 50 percent of their grade is based on their wellbeing, which hopefully improves by certain exercises I give them. The course is designed so that about 50 percent could be assessed by how much they’ve really deeply reflected on these activities. There are a couple tests. The tests are not designed to be a ‘gotcha’ sort of thing, but of course no one likes tests. Maybe at some point I will make it a course that has no tests whatsoever.

Q: You’ve written seven books. What’s a common theme of your writing?
A: They are all psychology-related. They are all related to my obsession with understanding the human mind and understanding human nature.

Q: Your book ‘Wired to Create’ just came out at the end of December. What’s the main point you want to get across with it?
A: I hope that this book inspires people to make the choice to live a more creative lifestyle, that creativity is, to a large degree, a way of being, a way of interacting with the world. Highly creative people embrace these 10 habits that we talk about in the book [imaginative play, passion, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness, sensitivity, turning adversity into advantage, thinking differently] and anyone can make a conscious decision to live that way. Also, I hope this book increases the appreciation for imagination and creativity in society, and the possibility to use them to make the world a better place to live.

Q: How did you get connected with Carolyn Gregoire to write ‘Wired to Create’?

A: I was living in New York at the time and Carolyn asked to interview me for her Huffington Post article, ‘18 Things Creative People Do Differently,’ and we hit it off instantly. I really liked the job she did with that article. So did millions of other people—it went viral within a couple days. I was on a train one day, on my way to give a talk at Princeton Public Library, and I just had the idea and called her on the phone and said we should turn that into a book immediately. She was in.

Q: In your book you talk about creativity as a habit. How does it help inspire people to be more creative?
A: I hope this book inspires people to draw out what is already within themselves. The need for self-expression is such a strong drive. Not just the need for self-expression. Can I get really philosophical? There’s a really deep drive there to create something that gives us immortality. We all know at a deep level that we’re going to die someday and creativity in a lot of ways is a defense against our mortality. Most people probably don’t think of it that way. There’s a deep level upon which we can rebel against our eminent mortality by creating something that can live forever. That’s one reason why I think there’s so much passion associated with creativity.

Q: A major thread running through ‘Wired to Create’ is that creative people think differently.
A: They really do. Call it what you will. Some people call it mental illness. Some people have said that there’s a link between madness and creativity, and that is not quite right, you know. While creative people do think differently, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily crazy. Some of the most creative people have the amazing capacity to think differently but also to reflect at a higher level on their own thinking. It’s called metacognition in psychology. But a thing that does differentiate the creative person from the mad person is that metacognitive ability of consciousness, to see which ideas should be fleshed out more. But the point is, what’s still there is that willingness and dare I say daringness to embrace all sides of oneself and to really think through as many different alternative possibilities as possible. Some of those possibilities may be considered crazy, but some of them eventually may be shown to be true.

Q: You draw from different people’s experiences often in your work. Which creatives have been particularly inspirational to you?
A: Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Seligman.

Q: In your work, you often talk about the importance of not labeling students.
A: I think labels can unintentionally limit people’s possibilities. They are used in the school system for people to get scarce resources, but they become not useful when they limit people’s options in life. The learning disability labels set up expectations that we treat kids a certain way and that can be very limiting. But even the gifted label sets up expectations that things should come easy to you because you’re just gifted, and when things get hard for these kids, it can create an identity crisis.

Q: You mentioned that as a young kid, because of an auditory processing issue, you were given the ‘special education’ label in school. Do you feel like your possibilities for the future were limited?
A: Yes.

Q: Is that where the basis for your interest in these topics comes from?
A: Absolutely. And the past couple years since ‘Ungifted’ came out, I’ve tried to divorce my own ego from it more and more and see it from other people’s perspectives, like the gifted community. Some of them love the label. It’s deeply part of their identity. I recognize and appreciate that labels can become a meaningful source of identity. I don’t want to take meaningful sources of identity away from people. But I think that we’re too quick to put on labels and we’re very, very slow to take them away.

Q: Is being ‘gifted’ a positive label?
A: It’s not necessarily positive. It puts such pressure on a child, that once gifted, always gifted. Just the word itself—‘gifted’—connotes something that doesn’t develop. All labels kind of describe the essence of the person, when every single one of us is a multidimensional being. Even people who embrace the label of introversion—I’ve done some work with Susan Cain on introverts—there’s a whole bunch of people who have said that introversion is central to their identity. Well, what does that do to you? When that’s so much of your identity, that can prevent you from venturing out and being crazy, going to a party and dancing, for instance. Sometimes it’s good to do that. You don’t want your identity to make you inflexible. Now with that said, I talk in the book ‘Wired to Create’ about the importance of harmonious passion, having a healthy integration of an activity into the core of your identity, and I do think that can be very healthy.

Q: What are some of your visions for teaching that are different from the current model?
A: The predominant paradigm in this country is still standardized testing. Not just standardized testing, but this idea of there being a decisive moment of testing, like a judgment day. We need more of a personal growth model than a judgment day model. A personal growth model would be—and I’m not just talking about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory—I’m saying like actually shifting the whole education system to be more around personal growth. It’s not one-size-fits-all; it’s about individual growth as a whole person. That’s the thing—not just in one academic area, and [you] allow people to revise their content knowledge, revise their understanding, make everything constantly revisable. There is no judgment day, and there is no standardized test where you’re compared to other people. You’re being evaluated, yes, I believe in evaluation. But I think that evaluation can be revisable. I have a very flexible idea of what evaluation could look like, so project-based learning is a form of evaluation that I think can be very useful to the student.

Q: Creativity is a ‘messy business,’ as you say.
A: Creators think outside the box when they’re creating, so their process itself is very nonlinear and may include lots and lots of failure and false starts and seemingly blind experimentation. However, I would say in addition, in the process of being creative, what’s clear about the creative personality is that their own personality is outside the box as well. They tend to be a bundle of contradictions, which gets played out through the creative process, and I would argue that the resolving of these tensions is what leads to a creative product. A life without any contradiction or tension is not a very creative life. Creativity is born often from suffering or born from a drive to make order out of chaos. In the ’60s, Frank Barron found through studies that creative people were much more likely to embrace and like things that depicted chaos and disorder than the noncreative people. The noncreative people were uncomfortable with it. They wanted an instant resolution. Creative people often go through the creative process because they delight in the resolution process.

Q: Can anyone be a creative?
A: I think a New Year’s resolution for people is you can wake up and say, ‘This is the year I’m going to live a creative lifestyle.’ I think anyone who adopts the 10 habits of mine is a creator. I think all of us are inherently creative because we’re inherently meaning-making machines. We’re constantly trying to impose our subjective consciousness in an objective universe and then show to others some sort of deeper truth to these things. And that, to me, is a big part of what creativity is all about. It’s putting into being something that wasn’t in-being prior. Any of us has that capacity to do that, in many different levels, building up to the genius kind that transforms entire populations of people like Steve Jobs did. But even at a small level, we’re all wired to create.

Scott Barry Kaufman