There’s a common thread among the highest-achieving scientists, artists, and novelists: They’re more open than the rest of us.
In short, the more open you are to experience, the more likely you are to do great creative work in your career.
One of the Big 5 personality traits — along with conscientiousness, agreeability, extroversion, and emotional stability — openness to experience speaks to how much or how little you get excited about new information.
At a neurological level, it has a lot to do with dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.
“The essence of the whole domain has to do with a particular kind of dopamine projection,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.
Openness is about “valuing information,” he says. “People with high openness show high dopamine projections at the potential of acquiring information.”
In other words, the higher you score on the “openness” trait, the better it feels to learn new things.
Kaufman, who made a splash with his book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined,” has found that openness can be further separated into four factors.
• Explicit Cognitive Ability: This factor consists primarily of traditional measures of intelligence (i.e., IQ tests), including fluid reasoning, mental rotation, verbal analogical reasoning, and working memory.
• Intellectual Engagement: The essence of this factor is a drive to engage in ideas, rational thought, and the search for truth.
• Affective Engagement: This is essentially a preference for using emotions, gut feelings, and empathy to make decisions.
• Aesthetic Engagement: This is a preference for aesthetics, fantasy, and emotional absorption in artistic and cultural stimuli.
Notice the word engagement here. Openness to experience is about the way information activates you.
Folks with high intellectual engagement are driven to discover ideas as a scientist does. Those with affective engagement are driven to investigate emotions as a poet does, and folks with aesthetic engagement are driven to find beauty as a painter does. You can’t be high in all of these, Kaufman’s research indicates; you’re either drawn to the more conceptual or nonconceptual parts of life.
Openness to experience is a “very active process,” Kaufman says. “That’s what genes do; that’s what dopamine does — they energize.”
Psychologists have different accounts of how that energizing happens.
One theory is that it has to do with “latent inhibition,” or your mind’s tendency to filter out information as irrelevant. In one study, Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson found that college students who were high creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced instead of enhanced latent inhibition. People with high openness tend to have low latent inhibition, and thus more original ideas, or so the argument goes.
Then there’s the quality of absorption. People who have a high openness to experience enjoy learning new things, which means they will be more likely to get into the state of flow — that just-right feeling where your skills meet your challenges — when grappling with their work. When you’re flowing, you’re continually stretching your skill set, thus allowing for more and more creative achievement.
But that flowful growth requires that you fit yourself into the right situation. Since having a high openness to experience means that you spend a lot of time investigating your own intellectual and emotional life, it means that you need to get away from other people’s demands on your ears, eyes, and mind.
This can be difficult, given that American office culture doesn’t exactly value people turning the scarce resource of attention onto themselves.
“People who want to explore their inner experience need solitude to do so,” he says, which requires the things we usually — and perhaps falsely — associate with introversion, like peace, quiet, and freedom from distraction.
Then it’s just a matter of letting the joys of curiosity take over.
“A lot of us, in school, get that joy knocked out of us because of bad end results, like an F or a C on a test,” Kaufman says, “but the intrinsic enjoyment value of seeking information is what activates dopamine and energizes us.”
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