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Home » Seven Habits of Highly Creative People: Dr. Pavan Soni (Transcript)

Seven Habits of Highly Creative People: Dr. Pavan Soni (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Dr. Pavan Soni’s talk titled “Seven Habits of Highly Creative People” at TEDxIBSPune conference.

Innovation evangelist Dr. Pavan Soni’s talk, “Seven Habits of Highly Creative People,” highlights the importance of nurturing creativity through specific habits. He emphasizes the value of taking half chances, as exemplified by M.S. Dhoni, to develop a quick reaction time and muscle memory through continuous practice.

Soni discusses the significance of engaging in experiments, drawing from neurology to illustrate how creative solutions can emerge from simple, cost-effective methods, such as the “mirror box” experiment for phantom limb syndrome. He critiques the confusion between seriousness and sincerity in professional environments, advocating for a more playful and experimental approach to life and work.

Soni suggests that creativity can be cultivated much like stamina, through deliberate practice and the adoption of certain habits. He encourages the audience to embrace randomness and use it as a source of inspiration and learning. Lastly, Soni calls on the audience to adopt at least one creative habit or hobby, underscoring the talk’s message that creativity is accessible and vital for everyone.

Listen to the audio version here:


So, thank you very much; it’s an absolute privilege to talk about creativity, and today’s tomorrow is creativity. With the advent with which machines are taking over the piece of work we are supposed to do, it’s important that humans carve out the niche that we have left far behind. I strongly propose that humans are the agent of creation.

There’s nothing better than creation that we are supposed to do. You’re not supposed to be as efficient as machines are, and in the fight that we have between humans and machines, eventually, machines will take over. So, what I’m proposing to all of you today are the habits of highly creative individuals.

What I use of phrase is “habits.” These are habits, the way successful people have a few habits, even creative people have a set of habits and the way habits can be cultivated. My resolution to all of you would be that let us see if you can cultivate some of these habits. But even before I delve into that, I would like to propose a working definition of what is creativity. Because as students, employees, et al., we often confuse these two phrases, what is creativity and what is innovation.

Understanding Creativity and Innovation

So let’s start with creativity. Creativity is the ability of an individual or a group of individuals to come up with ideas which are novel and useful. There has to be novelty and there has to be utility. If an idea is not useful, it’s like a daydream. But if an idea is useful, but is not novel, it’s like a common sense. We all have one.

Let’s look at innovation. Innovation is not the same as creativity. Innovation is the ability of a company or a group of individuals to commercialize an idea. It doesn’t need you to generate an idea, but needs you to commercialize an idea.

So, allow me for the next few minutes to take you through some of the most creative people that have dwelt amidst us and the practices that they have. Let’s start off with this, one of the most famous polymaths that we have ever known, Da Vinci. Now, what you see on the image here is a Vitruvian man. This figure is less known; it took about 200 scientific measures for Da Vinci to draw this figure. One of the rather more famous paintings of Da Vinci is Mona Lisa.

It might be very surprising to most of you that it took Da Vinci good 22 years to draw Mona Lisa. 22 years! If you compare that with the standards of living that we have today, that is pretty much one-third of a living life.

The Genius of Da Vinci

You can pretty much declare Da Vinci as a very tardy, lethargic man who has taken 22 years to draw a single painting. So much so that he took six long years to draw the lips of Mona Lisa. Six years to draw the lips of Mona Lisa! Why? Why did he take such an excruciating amount of time to do something close to about 600 years back? The answer lies in his ability to connect science with art. The same applies to Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

So, one of the very important characteristics of people who are highly creative is that they don’t compartmentalize in their head science and art. They pretty seamlessly mix science and art. He was an artist, a scientist, a biologist, a physicist in equal measures. So much so that six years into drawing Mona Lisa, he wasn’t going anywhere. He abandoned the project. And he took a course in one of the universities in Italy where he was on biology. And for all that you know, he started dissecting human beings. And this very golden ratio that we know of, 3s to 4s, which is very eloquently depicted in this book called “Da Vinci Code,” wasn’t learned by theory. He practiced.

He dissected human bodies, of course, dead. He dissected horses. He dissected almost all animals. And then he wasn’t done yet. He joined another university in Italy, and this time he studied optics. In optics, he studied that when a light falls on a certain object, how does it reflect, diffract, absorb, adsorb. And he brought the understanding of biology and optics to Mona Lisa.

Now, Mona Lisa then is not a painting. It’s science. So, my first submission to you is that whether you are a scientist or an artist, don’t draw the boundaries in your head. Things have to be far more seamless than what you’re supposed to be thinking as.

The Concept of the Opposable Mind

Second important thing about creative people is what we call as opposable mind. You are said to be a great manager or even a great thinker if you can take a decision quickly. Whereas the funny thing about the creative people, creative people don’t take decisions quickly. On the contrary, creative people defer decision-making. We have a phrase in creativity which says that if you have to take a choice, don’t. Don’t take a choice. Don’t even make a choice. And that’s what we call as opposable mind.

Opposable mind is like your opposable thumb. You know, we all have these two opposable thumbs. Humans never had this opposable thumb. What happened to us was that through years of evolution, this fifth finger over here started slipping. It didn’t happen overnight. Nobody woke up saying that, “Oh, I’ve got something funny here.” It didn’t happen in one generation either. Nobody said, “Look, my kid has a thumb.” It didn’t happen that way.

It happened through years of evolution. When this finger started slipping from here and the moment this became this opposable thumb, a revolution happened. For the very first time, the primordials can now hold things like this. I can hold things. I can make tools. With the help of these tools, I can go and kill. From a nest dweller, all of a sudden, I become a hunter-gatherer. With the hunter-gatherer, I need to communicate back to my nest. I can’t communicate back to my nest in syllables like birds or chirping like birds. I need a strong vocal cord.

For a strong vocal cord, I need an erect backbone. For an erect backbone, I need to be able to have a vocabulary storing mechanism, and that’s what is called as neocortex. So, if you look back at the evolution of human beings, it all happened with this very lucky accident called the opposable thumb.

So, the creative people have something called the opposable mind, which means that they can hold two very contrasting ideas in their mind simultaneously and choose none. It’s not about choice making. It’s about deferring the judgment. Steve Jobs, the poster boy, the late Steve Jobs, the poster boy of innovation, he wanted a cell phone that works like any other cell phone without a button. And for the first six months, the entire battery of brilliant engineers fought with him that sir, at least give us two buttons. He said, “No, no button.” And now, he must be turning in his grave with iPhone X coming without a single button now.

The Power of Diverse Interests

And that’s what we call as opposable mind. Don’t take a decision unless and until it is required. Stay with the problem. What I mean by staying with the problem, I also mean sleeping with the problem. And for those of you who are married, you understand what I mean, sleeping with the problem. Opposable mind is very critical when it comes to creativity. Another important thing is this.

Now, have you ever imagined Albert Einstein playing violin, for God’s sake? The only images that might conjure up in your mind about this man are either his tongue stretching out or some very unimaginable, unconceivable mathematical equation on the blackboard behind him. Playing a violin doesn’t occur to us, isn’t it? But a less known phenomenon is that he was an extremely good violin player. So much so that the recent studies of Albert Einstein’s brain, and I’m sure you must be knowing that Albert Einstein’s brain was smuggled when his autopsy was done.

So, the guy who was doing his autopsy smuggled his brain without any permission of the family. And when the family did the rituals, they realized that the most important organ is missing. So, he dissected the brain into small pieces, shipped it to various people across the US and Canada. With the advancement in the CT scans, they rebuilt his entire brain. And they realized something very interesting with Albert Einstein’s brain.

What they realized is that one of the sections of the brain of Albert Einstein was quite similar in its structure to the section of extremely good musicians. And then they started talking to musicians, extremely good musicians like Hans Zimmer of the fame of “Dark Knight.” And when they realized that how musicians become great, they don’t start reading the notes. They just don’t refer to the notes at all beyond a point.

So when musicians become great, they develop what we call as spatial thinking. Spatial thinking means thinking in space. And the less known fact then remains that his ability to think in space, which came out of his ability to play violin, is exactly what helped him conjure up the theory of relativity.

So, if I were to propose to all of you that E is equal to MC squared came out of a violin, you wouldn’t believe me. But that’s not too far-fetched an imagination either, which means that we all need to take our hobbies seriously.

Let’s go back to our childhood days. When did we develop hobbies? As a child, hobbies were developed by all of us to pretty much occupy the time. We had a good eight hours, 10 hours between sleeping and perhaps going to that kindergarten. And between that time, we had to fill that time somehow. Those were the days when we didn’t have these electronic gadgets, so we picked up hobbies. Then we had schools, and more recently, we have jobs.

What a job does is that a job eats away into our hobbies. The fundamental difference here between the job and a hobby is this: a job is something that you do, and you continue to do with a very clear external motivation, such as a salary, a promotion, incentives, or whatever else you have, whereas a hobby is something that you do, and you continue to do with a very intrinsic motivation.

What I’m proposing to all of you is that creative people protect their hobbies very ferociously. They protect their hobbies from their jobs. They protect their hobbies from the people who evaluate their hobbies. And these hobbies will be very useful when all of us will be retiring. By the time most of the students sitting before me will retire, the life expectancy in this country would be about 85 years. So, you have actually 25 boring years in your life, between 60 and 85.

The Importance of Hobbies

Boring years when you would not have huge physical strength, when you can’t go out, and that’s where the hobbies will be very crucial to you. Hobbies do three things to you. First, a hobby gives you self-confidence. Because there is a point in time when you’re not getting judged in comparison with somebody else.

The second thing that a hobby gives you is a new perspective. When you’re gardening, when you’re cooking, when you’re painting, singing, dancing, for your own benefit by the way, you shift your mindset. You shift your mindset from the problem zone to the solution zone. And still keeping in your mind the problem which you wanted to solve.

And the third thing is that it allows you to have new connections. When you’re part of a bike club, blood donation camp, gardening camp, Bharatnatyam club, etc., you end up engaging with people who are outside your work domain. And that is why you realize that maybe the problems that you are so grappling with have been solved already by somebody else in some other domain.

So, why not just learn from them? And that’s why some of the most creative people are absolutely polymaths. They don’t define their life by their titles or by their roles. They define their lives quite broadly. The canvases are drawn quite neat and quite broad. So, have a hobby, and more importantly, protect your hobbies. Hobbies are very important in life. Go back to your childhood, and you’ll realize why.

Another important thing about the creative class is what I call as latent inhibition. What you see on the screen over here is a very interesting gentleman by the name John Nash. There’s a very fascinating movie made on him by the name “A Beautiful Mind,” which got our man Russell Crowe to win the Oscar. And John Nash won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory.

Understanding Latent Inhibition

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie, but the movie is an amazing movie, and I strongly suggest you watch that movie. What happens in the movie is a depiction of this man’s thinking. He is known to be suffering from a mental disorder called schizophrenia.

What happens in schizophrenia is that it manifests itself into two dimensions. One dimension is called paranoia. Paranoia means that somebody is conspiring against me, a bunch of people are going to kill me if I cross my 18 minutes. That’s called paranoia. The second thing is called hallucination. Hallucination means you start imagining. For example, what I’m doing right now is again a bunch of people listening to me intently. That’s called hallucination. If you combine hallucination with paranoia, that becomes schizophrenia.

Now, the interesting thing is this: for many years, scientists had this very fascinating finding. The finding was, the brain mapping of people who are schizophrenic is quite similar to the brain mapping of people who are highly creative.

Now, how is that possible? Does it mean then that the people who are schizophrenic are bound to be more creative, or worse still, does it mean that the people who are highly creative are bound to be schizophrenic? Which is a very disturbing thought, isn’t it? There is a correlation, but there is no causality. One doesn’t lead to another. Both of them perhaps work together.

Recently, there was a very interesting research paper that came out in one of the magazines, and this figure popped out in the research paper, what you see on the screen. Allow me a minute to explain this figure to you, and this will be quite an eye-opener to all of you. It was to me, actually.

Intelligence, Creativity, and Inhibition

What you see on the screen are two categories of people. One with a moderate IQ and one with a very high IQ. Let’s look at IQ. What is IQ? IQ is your mental age divided by your chronological age, multiplied by 100. That’s your IQ score. Generally, IQ score ranges from about 100 to about 160. Anybody above 160 is called a genius. Anybody below 100 is called mentally retarded. Most of us have an IQ of about 110 at home and 15 at the office. Depends on your designation, however. And 110 at home also depends upon if you are married or not.

Having said that, pay attention to this particular image. On the y-axis, you have something called creative achievement score, which also suggests that yes, creativity can be measured. Like intelligence can be measured with IQ score, even creativity can be measured.

How the creativity part can be measured, that’s for some other time and some other day. But remember this one important thing. So, two sets of people, moderate IQ about say 110 and high IQ about 150. And then you’re trying to measure their creative scores. You have two cohorts. One with a high latent inhibition and the second with a low latent inhibition.

Let me explain this to you. What is latent inhibition? We all have inhibitions in our life. Inhibitions hold us back to express, hold us back to listen, put constraints onto ourselves which does not allow us to be free and express ourselves.

What this image shows is very interestingly that the people who have a low IQ, pay close attention to all of them and especially the parents amongst you, the parents or maybe tomorrow’s parents, today’s tomorrow. The people with a low IQ score are far more creative than the people with a high IQ score provided their inhibitions are low.

Which means what? Which means that between intelligence and attitude, it’s attitude that matters and not intelligence. If I tell this to my dad, he wouldn’t agree. Because all his life and all my life, the only thing he focused on was how good am I scoring in school? Intelligence.

Now, when my teacher walked into my classroom, this is what she asked me: “Hey Pavan, what is 5 into 2?” And the answer was 10. Had my teacher asked a slightly different question this time, not “What is 5 into 2,” she would have asked me, “Pavan, tell me what are the various ways I can come up to the number 10?” The answer could have been, and all of us would have started yelling out actually, the answer could have been 5 plus 5, 5 into 2, 2 into 5, 10 into 1, 11 minus 1, 9 plus 1, 8 plus 2, 13 minus 3. You see, the moment I change the question from one answer, which is 10, I have so many answers. So, what is more important is not the answer, what is more important is the question. And more so in the Google economy.

In the Google economy, I don’t need to know the answer actually; I just need to know the question. What’s my search phrase? That’s more important. Because there are zillions of results that Google is throwing at me in milliseconds, and I’m not even willing to go beyond page number one. And that’s why questions are very important. And having low inhibitions are very, very important. Don’t be so critical about what others are saying. It’s perfectly okay. It’s absolutely okay.

Because I know for a fact that if you give too much heat to people around you, possibly you’re not paying attention to yourself. And somebody said it very rightly that the recipe of success is not known, but the recipe of failure is your intent or your desire to please everybody around yourself. So, have inhibitions low. It’s okay.

If you are going to a room, going to a conference where people are completely strangers to you, it’s okay. If you’re talking about something where you’re not sounding very intelligent, it’s okay. It’s absolutely okay to have the mind of a child in the body of an adult.

And believe me, you, this will do a lot of good to all of us. So, have inhibitions in control. Don’t have a very high level of alertness. Your alertness has to be low. You should be open to small, small stimuli around yourself. Small things. Start enjoying small things and start drawing connections on small things. And that’s very critical, in my opinion.

Another important thing is taking half chances. He is my role model, M.S. Dhoni. And I really wish one day he watches this video, me praising him. If you look at the story of M.S. Dhoni, nothing went along the plan. His entire life is dotted by taking half chances. Look at this one over here. When he started stumping off these batsmen, 8 out of 10 times the guy was in the crease. The batsman was in the crease. But what he did in this entire process of taking off the bails is developed almost a muscle memory. He took so many half chances that over a period of time, his reaction time became 0.1 seconds.

The Best in the Field: Taking Half Chances

The best in the field. Taking half chances. What happens to all of us, and more so with the higher education level that we achieve, is we start waiting for the right opportunity in the right frame to be coming all the way to us. But what I am suggesting is that creative people always look at the crack in the door, and they sniff through it. They never wait for the opportunities to be coming to them decorated. They create opportunities. And there are fewer examples in my mind from this country than this gentleman over here, where he created opportunities all along his way. So, take half chances. You will fail. And if you fail, what you need to understand is the importance of experiments.

The Importance of Experiments

Now, this is one of my most favorite experiments from the space of neurology. What you see on the screen is a man with a missing limb. We call this as a phantom limb. Now, this is a very funny thing that happens. Suppose a man’s limb or a person’s limb gets amputated. The interesting thing is that this person, whose limb is missing because of an accident or a disease or a war, when the limb is cut, often people feel a sense of itchiness in the limb.

Now, how do you itch a limb that doesn’t exist? Now, there is a very interesting professor, famous professor in the US by the name V.S. Ramachandran, who studies this phenomenon. He calls this as phantom limbs. Phantom limbs means a limb that does not exist but troubles you.

Now, how do you scratch a limb that does not exist? Now, for long, the solution that these elegant neurologists had was to do a mental surgery. Now, the brain being such a complex organ, there are more chances of you creating more problems than solving one if you ever venture in. So, he came up with this very simple elegant experiment that works, called the mirror in the box.

What happens in this experiment is that a person who has an amputated limb goes to the box with a mirror, stretches the actual limb on one side of the mirror, and he sees a reflection of the actual limb stretching the phantom limb on the other side, and this reflection fools him to think that perhaps his limb has got resurrected. And believe me, you, this experiment has shown to cure his problem almost permanently.

Now, compare the cost of this experiment with the neurosurgery. Are the costs comparable? Not at all. And that’s what I mean by doing cheap, easy, dirty experiments. Life has to be full of experiments, and only then will you realize what your calling in life is, and most importantly, taking it easy.

Creativity, Seriousness, and Sincerity

We in our country have this very fundamental problem that we confuse between seriousness and sincerity. Isn’t it true? We assume that for a person to be sincere, he or she has to be serious. And that’s why my role model, the joker, comes into play here. What happens is that because life is so random, as the speaker before me narrated, life is so random, there is absolutely no reason to either draw a lot of pride from your success or a lot of guilt from your failure. When you move along the way, keep doing experiments, have latent inhibitions, take half chances, have multiple affiliations, is when you start realizing and start enjoying the randomness that life has to offer you.

So, my submission to all of you is that creativity can be cultivated. Like stamina can be cultivated. And for you to cultivate creativity, there are some habits that you can. My request to all of you right here is that if you can pick up one habit, let me call this as one hobby or one practice from this list over here, that will make my narrative worth talking about. So, thank you so very much, and have a good day ahead.

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