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Be Creative Like a Child

written by Thomas Heffner 24 November 2014

Thomas Heffner, MAPP 2012, is a leader in Design Thinking and works at the intersection of design, technology, and business. Working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, he uses human-centered design to create transformative solutions for the complex and challenging problems facing our nation's security. He is a curious explorer of the world around him and draws much inspiration from meeting new people. So feel free to drop him a line @tom_heffner or visit his website. Full bio. Articles by Thomas are here.

“Son, what is that in your underwear?” I asked, puzzled by the white patch flashing from the middle of his underclothing. We had just finished dinner, and as part of our nightly routine, I was drawing his bath when I spotted something out of place. It turns out my then three-year-old son had swiped one of his mother’s menstrual pads in the morning and using the adhesive patches, affixed it to his underwear.

“Look Papa, if I have an accident, my underwear won’t get dirty. That’s a good idea, right, Papa!”

I had to admit, he was right. Moreover, it was a creative solution to his ongoing challenge of potty training. I could not help but chuckle and admire his ingenuity. Since that experience, my son has continued to generate creative ideas and display imaginative behaviors. Through that process, he is learning to express his signature strength of creativity, as well as identify his other signature strengths.

Creativity as a Character Strength

Creativity, as a character strength is quite simple and straightforward. According to Peterson and Seligman, it is the ability to generate novel and adaptive ideas that positively affect our lives or the lives of the people around us.

Strongly connected to creativity is the signature strength of curiosity. You can think of curiosity as the engine that drives the efforts of creative people. Curiosity is our drive to understand, learn, or experience something new. It would be difficult to generate new and different ideas if we were not willing to seek them out. Both strengths can have a profound effect on our pursuit of a meaningful and well-lived life.

For example, according to David Kelley and Tom Kelley from IDEO, the iconic innovation design firm, the ability to be creative gives us the confidence to meet any problem, challenge, or opportunity that comes our way. Life, both personal and professional, is nothing if not full of challenges, problems, and opportunities.

Having creative confidence to meet life’s challenges and problems helps us avoid feeling helpless. According to Seligman, perceived helplessness is a prime factor in lowered well-being.

If we believe the logic and science behind these arguments, then the next reasonable question is how do we become more creative? The answer is simple but at the same time not easy: think and act like kids! Kashdan argues that children are the most creative and curious group of people you will ever meet. They come into this world driven by curiosity so that they can make sense of the world around them. Their curiosity constantly encourages them to seek out new, varied, and exploratory actions and ideas. By extension, that curiosity drives their creativity and imagination.

Children are willing to think very differently and to try things that seem wrong, embarrassing, contradictory, and even nonsensical. They are not afraid to be wrong and do not accept for one second, limitations or constraints.

Childlike Creativity in Action

A good example of this creativity in action was when my then five year-old son and I were building a model rocket. After we had finished building the rocket but before we packed the parachute, my son asked if we could attach a toy army man to the parachute.

“No, we can’t do that, son,” I replied to him.

“Why not, it will be cool to watch him float down,“ was his response.

I, as his father and an electrical engineer, patronizingly told him, “No son, it will throw the balance off and the parachute will tangle, it won’t work.” But, as kids do, he persisted until I relented. Later that day, we launched the rocket with the toy army man aboard, and lo and behold, his creative idea to create a manned model rocket was successful.

As someone who works as an engineer and innovation consultant within my organization, I see the value of that kind of creativity everyday. But I can also tell you that it’s not easy to think and act with a child-like curiosity and creativity. Nonetheless, what follows here are a few ways to regain your creative confidence. With practice and commitment, you can rediscover that childlike creativity we all have within us.

Meet someone unlike you

This is going to seem painfully obvious, but if you want to do things differently or create new and different ideas, then you need to talk to people who are not just like you. For example, let’s say you are an investment banker looking to create new investment strategies for your portfolio. If all you do is talk to and work with other investment bankers, what are the odds you will create a truly new and different strategy? Probably very low.

But what if you looked beyond your initial circle of colleagues? What if you started asking teachers how they invest their time and resources to produce a high performing student? Or what if you spoke with military leaders in order to understand how they invest their resources, their human capital, and their time in young officers to produce great future leaders? Now, if we ask that same question, what are the odds you will create a truly new an different investment strategy for your bank? Probably much higher.

Different perspectives and different experiences can yield very different ideas. Make it a priority to meet someone different from you.

Prototype or test your ideas

Stop thinking of your ideas as fully baked. Every idea you have can be thought of as a hypothesis. Just like we learned in grade school, we should always test our hypothesis with an experiment. Each time we conduct an experiment, we put forth a new prototype or idea to test. I do this all the time as an engineer when I’m designing some new hardware device, such as a new antenna for our missile defense system. Every time, I learn something new by observing what worked, what failed, and what surprised me. But you don’t have to be an engineer to prototype your ideas.

Let’s take a look at our political elections, for example. Politicians use the primaries as their experiments all the time. They prototype new political ideas at different events, such as town hall meetings, debates, and TV appearances, so that they can gather feedback from voters on what works and doesn’t work.

The key takeaway for you is to test out your ideas on other people, gather feedback, and iterate your idea by building on the feedback and/or ideas of others.

Brainstorm like a Design Thinker

As an engineer and innovation consultant, one of my favorite approaches to being creative and innovative is to use design thinking. This is a human centered design approach that emphasizes the generation of lots of ideas, rapid prototyping, and diverse perspectives. One of the ways we generate lots of ideas is to brainstorm using the following rules from OpenIDEO:

  • Defer Judgment: The best way to let ideas flow is to table our critiques to encourage positive emotions in our participants. According to Barbara Frederickson, an expert researcher on emotions, when we experience more positive emotions we actually become more creative.
  • Encourage wild ideas: Wild ideas serve two purposes. They push you out of your comfort zone into new and different areas, and they can also create a fun environment where we are more likely to experience positive emotions.
  • Build on the ideas of others: Some of history’s most creative and innovative people built on the ideas of others. Microsoft’s first Windows interface was built on the first Apple interface. Good ideas are always around us, so look to build on those ideas and make them better.
  • Stay focused on the topic: Stay on point or you risk losing focus for the topic at hand.
  • One conversation at a time: When people speak over each other you can’t hear what they are saying. If you can’t hear what they are saying, then chances are your creative ideas are not being heard either.
  • Be visual: A picture is worth a thousand words. You don’t have to be an artist to make your point; a simple stick figure picture can make all the difference in the world when trying to communicate your idea(s).
  • Go for quantity: To come up with one really outside the box, creative idea, you need a lot of ideas. In my experience, with 4-6 people, you can generate north of 100 ideas within 30-45 minutes of brainstorming.

After you have a long list of ideas, then use judgment to figure out which idea or ideas to prototype first.


Want to practice your creativity? Check out the OpenIdeo design challenges. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

Who knows? Perhaps your perspective is just the different one needed to make something new happen.

Editor’s Note: This articled was commissioned for the character strength Creativity in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.




Kelley, T. & Kelley, D. (2014). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Crown Business.

Kelley, T. & Kelley, D. (2012). Reclaim your creative confidence. Harvard Business Review.

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.

Kashdan, T. (no date). How Curious? Will Help You: An Essay. HarperCollins Canada.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, Sir K. (2006). Schools Kill Creativity. TED talk.

OpenIDEO: “OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good.”

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Child within courtesy of dankos-unlmtd
Curiosity courtesy of Steve Wilson – over 4 million views Thanks !!
Model Rocket courtesy of Wavy1
Talk to people with different experiences courtesy of thisisbossi
Try prototyping courtesy of Waag Society
Brainstorming courtesy of jurvetson

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Judy Krings 24 November 2014 - 7:29 pm

Great insights and behaviors to jack up creativity. Your article reminds me of a super huge hydraulic crane lifting creativity to new heights. We have tons of opportunities to look at life through so many lenses. Thanks much for your added applications to enhance creativity.

Great to have you quote Marty Seligman and Todd Kasdan. I see how Todd and his wife raise his kids to explore under every nook and cranny in their environment. What fun to follow psychology in action developmentally. Todd has helped so many of us soar our creativity and acceptance and willingness to stretch and make friends with all our strengths and emotions.

Thanks, again, Thomas!

Julián Sáez 24 November 2014 - 8:31 pm

Hi Thomas! Excellent article. I think that also an important aspect about how we can be more crative is to look at how we are educated. Did you see Ken Robison TED talk “How School kills Creativity”? http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en

I think that to change how we educate our children is esential.

I am electrical engineer too and passionate about Positive Education 🙂

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 24 November 2014 - 10:26 pm

What a fun article! Definitely, as my kids come up with “wild and crazy” ideas, my role has been to point out only things that are truly dangerous (especially when cooking and matches are involved) and then to help think ahead, plan and trouble-shoot. Generally, we let the kids lead. Very inspirational – and helps me be creative and a little bolder in my own endeavours as well! Thanks for sharing and for your insights!

Judy Krings 25 November 2014 - 8:17 am

Hi, Julian and I totally agree with you schools desperately need to look at new research and apply it, BUT, we all know how futile that seems to be. I was so lucky over 40 years ago to teach special education kids and have no restrictions on individualistic teaching. Each kid had his/her own way they learned best and I could focus in it. Did we ever have fun! And they were NOT sitting in their seats bored. I am so happy I did my Ph.D. research on creativity.

Lisa, your kids are super fortunate to have creative, humorous, and diligent you was their mom. I learned so much about life and learning, albeit the hard way some days from have a physically sick and later diagnoses ADD kid. We had to find flexible ways to navigate his world. And it made us all the closer.

Many thanks for a terrific discussion.

Seph Fontane Pennock 25 November 2014 - 11:57 am

Great insights Thomas. Just wanted to stop by to say thanks.

Please keep it up!



Tom H 25 November 2014 - 5:23 pm

Thanks for all of your comments/thoughts everyone! I really appreciate it. I love creativity and innovation and I get super jazzed writing about it. If anyone wants to write a joint article or something bigger – let me know. Bringing in other perspectives and experiences helps me keep pushing ideas further.



Don Duitz 6 December 2014 - 6:48 pm

Thanks for the fine article which I skimmed but will definitely go back and study. ANOTHER, GREAT book on creativity is CREATIVITY, INC. about the growth of PIXAR from a personal standpoint of one of the founders.


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