Teresa Amabile: The Science is Clear – Passion for Your Work Drives Creativity

Teresa Amabile, one of the world’s leading experts on creativity, has spent more than 35 years researching what makes people creative and innovative. And the answers may surprise you.

If you are over the age of twenty, you might have been taught a very conventional way of thinking. Chances are you went through an education system that equated intelligence with logic and reason, and likely gave the so-called soft subjects like art a much lower rank. Even if you studied creative fields like literature, you were no doubt evaluated on how well you ‘critically analyzed’ the works you read. If you studied law, you would have been trained to consider reason so superior to emotion that it relegated the term passion to the dungeon of society, equating passion with crime itself, as in the common legal expression, ‘it was a crime of passion.’

TERESA AMABILE, Speaking at TED - courtesy of hbr.org

Teresa Amabile, speaking at TED: 35 years of research confirms the fuel of creativity is not talent, but passion.

It’s not hard to see why society, until recently, paid little attention to whether people actually feel passion for the work they do or whether they’re engaged by a sense of purpose.

Science now shows this has all been a giant mistake.

According to Amiable, the consistent conclusion is striking. It is passion for the work, or what psychologists call intrinsic motivation. “Without it,” Amabile says, “no amount of talent will yield great performance. For 35 years, we have been exploring how motivation affects creativity. In studies involving groups as diverse as children, college students, professional artists, and knowledge workers, we have found that people are more creative when they are more strongly intrinsically motivated — driven by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and a sense of personal challenge in the work they are doing.”  1

Further, Amabile’s research has also confirmed that most human beings are creative. “Contrary to popular notions that creativity is the sole province of a few rare geniuses,” she says, “creativity appears across most levels of human ability.” 2 It follows that creative potential is everywhere. It’s a matter of bringing that potential out in people.

On the flip side, the research has also shown that the usual creativity killers do just that: they kill creativity. In particular, the “organizational impediments” that can kill intrinsic motivation and creativity are “political problems within an organization, extremely negative criticism of new ideas, and an emphasis on maintaining the status quo.” It’s not hard to understand how bureaucratic organizations become stale and even anti-innovation.

Amabile points to photographer Craig Tanner as an example of how the presence of passion and purpose can serve not just as a source of creativity, but can actually be transformative. Tanner, now an accomplished photographer, wrote of passion’s transformative power in this way in 2008: “Long-term, focused, practice powered by the energy of passion […] leads to amazing transformations. The bumbling beginner becomes the exalted expert. The trapped and depressed become the liberated and empowered.” 3

Perhaps most surprising of all, science now is merely affirming what humanity has known intuitively for a long time. The artists and spiritual teachers had it right a long time ago. One of the most inspiring examples ever written was penned over 2000 years ago, by the Indian spiritual teacher Patanjali. It’s virtually the same message science now confirms:

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds, your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties, and talents come alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”

Whether you call it passion or purpose or psychology’s term ‘intrinsic motivation,’ don’t expect much creativity or innovation without it.

The message is now crystal clear. If you really want to take innovating seriously, get a little less serious. Put aside logic and reason for a moment. Make sure you’re first inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project. Then go ahead, let your thoughts break all their bonds.



  1. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, “Talent, Passion and the Creativity Maze,” HBR Blog, February 27, 2012.
  2. Amabile, T.M. & Fisher, C.M. (2009). Stimulate creativity by fueling passion. In E. Locke (Ed.) Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior (2nd Edition). John Wiley & Sons: West Sussex, U.K., 481-497.
  3. Craig Tanner, “The Myth of Talent,” Blog: The Mindful Eye, October 24, 2008.