Beyond Extroversion: The Inner Playfulness Of Genius

When people talk about creativity, outgoing personalities invariably come into the picture. It seems to be commonly accepted that extraverted, playful people tend to be more creative. But is that really true?

Mozart and Newton personify the boundary-pushing, Big-C Creativity in very different disciplines of music and science. They both made immeasurable contributions to their fields and inspired many others over generations to follow their footsteps. But not only were their domains vastly different, their personalities were too. 

Mozart was an extrovert with a bawdy sense of humor, who loved to party, drink and play pranks. He often got into trouble due to his eccentric behavior. Newton, on the other hand, was a socially awkward introvert. He had few friends and preferred to spend time alone. 

Of these two – Mozart and Newton – who do you think was more creative?

The question is obviously ridiculous. Both of them were creative giants who radically transformed their own fields. While externally they couldn’t be more different, internally they were likely much more alike. 

Most people mistake extroverted, playful people as being more creative but that is not necessarily true. It’s not the external playfulness that matters but the internal playfulness with ideas – something that both extroverts and introverts are capable of doing. Creativity emerges when you take ideas and perform mental transformations on them like changing boundaries or combining with other ideas, or in other words, when you playfully manipulate them. Someone could be a playful person on the surface, but without doing the internal playful work with ideas, they are not going to come up with groundbreaking ideas. 

This playfulness with ideas is what makes Mozart and Newton similar. With Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart pushed the boundaries on what an opera was expected to be at the time. He wrote it in German instead of Italian, he used an unexpected and controversial setting of a Turkish harem, and the opera incorporated elements of Turkish music. Those were controversial ideas at the time but eventually the opera became a huge success. Similarly, in his cannonball thought experiment, Newton pushed the limit of projectile motion which allowed him to make the connection between planetary motion and objects falling on Earth. He had to simplify objects, reducing them to mathematical points to prove that the same universal law of gravitation worked for all objects. According to an anecdote, when an admirer asked Newton how he made his discoveries, he replied “By always thinking unto them.”

So, if extraversion doesn’t predict creative output, is there any other personality trait that does? 

The trait of “Openness/Intellect” – one of the Big 5 personality traits – is the only trait that shows a consistent relation to creativity. A study by Kaufmann and others found that “artistic creativity draws more heavily on experiential Type 1 processes associated with Openness (e.g., perceptual, aesthetic, and implicit learning processes), whereas scientific creativity relies more heavily on Type 2 processes associated with Intellect and divergent thinking.” Incidentally, their study did find an unexpected correlation between extraversion and artistic creativity but not scientific creativity. 

When companies strive to make a more creative and innovative culture, they often fall into the same trap. They focus on external things – like foosball tables or bean bags – to create a fun, playful vibe in the hope that it will lead people to think more creatively. Their interviewing and hiring processes tend to favor extroversion. But without creating an environment where offbeat ideas are encouraged, debated and experimented, groundbreaking innovation is not likely to happen. Companies might think that they encourage play but what they create is a playpen and not a playground. 

Mitch Resnick, Professor and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, uses the metaphor of playpen vs playground to differentiate the different kinds of play they support. A playpen might have interesting toys to play with but it is a restrictive environment with limited autonomy and freedom of exploration, whereas a playground promotes open exploration, problem solving and creativity. Needless to say, a playpen stifles creativity while a playground nurtures it. 

To build more innovative cultures, companies need to hire people who are curious and open to new ideas, which isn’t related to extroversion or introversion. And then they need to create intellectually stimulating environments where people can freely play with ideas, debate them with others and explore their potential.  

Growth and Creativity Mindsets

As a graduate student, Carol Dweck was deeply influenced by Martin Seligman’s work on understanding depression. In experiments conducted in the 1960s, Seligman found that when animals are given a painful stimuli without the ability to control the situation, they become passive – a condition he called learned helplessness. This sparked Carol Dweck’s interest in human, and more specifically, student motivation.

She noticed that not all people show learned helplessness when faced with adversity and asked, “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

Her work with students over the next several decades led to the theory of Growth Mindset, which is now transforming educational outcomes. She found that students who believed that their abilities can improve with effort (growth mindset), outperformed those who believed that their intelligence is fixed (fixed mindset). This effect held for different subjects areas including math and science.

Growth mindset is especially important in creative work since such work often requires higher levels of perseverance. As she points out, “In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by growth mindset.

But there is also growth mindset about creativity, or in other words, the belief that creativity is not innate and can be developed just like any other skill. Research studies have found that when it comes to Creativity – people can hold both a fixed and growth mindset at the same time. They view great creative accomplishments, or Big-C creativity, as a fixed trait and believe that smaller levels of creativity, or little-c creativity, is malleable. In other words, people believe that Einstein was successful because he was exceptionally gifted but their own (limited) creative potential can be improved by putting in effort.

In an approach similar to the growth mindset, we teach children in our programs how their brain works as an associative engine and how that can help in coming up with creative ideas. In other words, everyone is capable of becoming more creative with some effort.

Apart from growth mindset, Creativity is also influenced by other beliefs and attitudes that help in different aspects of creative problem solving (collectively referred here as the Creativity Mindset). Some of these attitudes, and how we try to encourage them, are highlighted below.


Openness to Experience, which includes six dimensions, has been found to be the strongest and most consistent trait to predict creative achievement. One dimension, intellectual curiosity, has been found to be the best predictor of scientific creativity. Openness leads to the ability to seek diverse information and reconcile multiple perspectives which then often results in unique solutions. We encourage openness by building a collaborative environment where students take each others feedback and perspectives in improving their own solution.


Having a non-conforming attitude means having the confidence to pursue ideas outside the mainstream norms. It helps people find uniqueness in their ideas, an essential component of creativity. One activity we use in building a non-conformist attitude is challenging commonly-held assumptions. We play games where students pick an assumption, reverse it, and find ways and situations in which the reversed assumption would be useful.


Being playful means taking things lightly and having an exploratory approach. A playful attitude enables flexible thinking and has been found to correlate with creativity. To build playfulness, we often use improv games as warm-up exercises.  The cognitive processes that underlie improv are the same as those used in creative thinking.  A research study found that improv comedians produce 25% more creative ideas than professional product designers.


In the end, both the growth mindset and the creativity mindset result in behaviors that are essential for high creative accomplishments. By fostering these mindsets in children and teaching them creative thinking skills, we can give them the tools to unlock their full potential.