Does the word creativity raises images of half-crazed geniuses who cut off their ears, paint masterpieces, party like mad and die of drug overdoses? These stereotypes may make good movie plots, but do they correspond to reality? Is this really what creativity is like? Let’s examine some of the myths.
Myth One: Creativity Comes from the Unconscious
Well this one is easy to understand: it certainly is difficult to say where creativity comes from. You can’t look under the hood of consciousness and watch the motor in action. Even neuroscientists looking at real-time MRI’s can’t see creativity happening.
Saying that creativity comes from the unconscious is like saying that a mystery comes from a mystery. Not very helpful. The unconscious is a notoriously vague term. Does it just mean the workings of our brain that we cannot sense? Does it refer to the regions unilluminated by the torch of attention? Is it simply a term referring to all that stuff down there that we don’t experience actively? You can’t really sense where the nerve impulses that initiate muscle response originate. That, however, does not cause you to say that tennis comes from the unconscious.
Myth Two: Creativity is a talent
According to this paradigm, you are either born with it or not. It’s up to fate or the gods or God. It’s like having blue eyes. Talent is present or absent in a measurable quantity like IQ. You might tweak it a bit, but don’t expect big differences.
This is the biggest lie of ‘em all! Why? Because this belief has such a pernicious effect. If talent is fixed at birth, why bother? Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck writes, “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.” Dweck’s conclusions are not based on rah, rah self-improvement boosterism; they are based on three decades of pains-taking research. When putting together the iPhone team, Scott Forstall of Apple chose people who were ready to “to make mistakes and struggle.” These are the kinds of people that will be great members of an innovative team.
Myth Three: Children Are More Creative Than Adults
This one is quite attractive. If you are not creative, blame your parents! Blame your third grade teacher! They drummed it out of you. You were once wonderfully creative, but the oppressive, repetitive, soulless system squeezed all the juice out and left you dry, analytical and clinically left-brained.
It is very pleasant and quite convenient to blame someone else, but let me issue a challenge. Name me one significant work of art produced by a child! If you named Mozart, forget it. His youthful works are well-wrought clones of twenty other minor Austrian composers. He was precocious, but Mozart would only be a footnote in musical history if he had died at age 18. Schools and society don’t squash creativity; in fact, they make it possible.
Sir Ken Robinson says that schools should do more to teach creativity. I quite agree, but it is essential to know how creativity actually occurs before we leap into the breach with proposals for curriculum reform. Below is Sir Ken speaking. It is quite amusing, but I suspect that he is enamored with the myth of childhood creativity
Myth Four: Creativity Represents the Inner Spirit of the Individual
This one is quite attractive. If the song is sad, the fans are keen to know what caused the heartache. The notion that art is the expression of an artist’s emotions is an almost universal delusion. If creativity were merely a matter of expressing emotions, then two-year olds would be the masters. Met any two-year old artists recently? When several hundred people work on a film project, whose inner spirit is represented? When Apple developed the iPhone, whose inner spirit was revealed?
Myth Five: Creativity is a Form of Therapeutic Self-Discovery
Freud had a lot of bad ideas about how the mind works, but his ideas on artistic production are beyond bad; they are insidious. In Freud’s view, art is a fantasy world based on illusion driven by unfulfilled sexual desires. Like almost all of Freud’s theories, this one is completely unfalsifiable and hence untestable.
It is true that music and art can be used as therapeutic methods, but so can aerobic exercise. One of the greatest innovative achievements of the 20th century was the American space program. It would be quite absurd to say that 500,000 engineers, scientists, technicians and astronauts were releasing unfulfilled sexual desires and going through a therapeutic process of self-discovery. They weren’t lying around on couches relating dreams; they were putting in massively hard work and making small incremental innovative steps that led to a man stepping out on the moon. (Ah, but those blastoffs, you say: titanic ejaculations, male hubris gone completely berserk!)
Myth Six: Creativity Is Spontaneous Inspiration
More lightening, thunder, smoke, special effects and booming Wizard of Oz voices. We love the notion of spontaneous inspiration and if the facts clash with our comforting myths, well, just ignore the facts.
Ideas, concepts, images, tunes, and phrases do pop into consciousness for no apparent reason, but scientists have discovered that creativity is mostly conscious, hard work. You put one word after the other or one pencil stroke after the next. Good improvisers can seem to pull scripts out of the air, but anyone who does it consistently well has to practice, practice, practice. A great athlete may make an amazing play, but she has also practiced, practiced, practiced.
Mozart’s ‘spontaneous inspirations’ were no accident. Mozart’s father was a brilliant teacher and wrote an important treatise on violin playing. We still read it today. Mozart worked incredibly hard and was enormously productive. He came out of an era in which the musician was related to the craftsman. Craftsmen don’t wait for spontaneous inspiration; they get to work. The Romantic poets, such as Coleridge, have thrown dust in our eyes with their tales of spontaneous inspiration. Coleridge scholars have discovered that Coleridge want through a long process of revision to end up with his classic works of ‘spontaneous inspiration.’ Relying on thundering epiphanies is rather like heaping up the logs and waiting for lightening to strike. The lightening may strike, but what happens if the wood is too wet?
Myth Seven: Many Great Creative Works are Unrecognized in Their Own Time
Van Gogh’s career supports this tale, but name me another great painter who fits this pattern. The simple fact is that painters up until the mid-19th century worked on commission and a painter’s contract specified a variety of specific details. In the film Goya’s Ghost there is a nice vignette that illustrates this point. Goya is painting a portrait of Brother Lorenzo and informs his client that hands cost extra. Why? Hands are difficult to paint. Brother Lorenzo then places his hands inside the folds of his robe. Creators in all fields must work with clients and customers. Those who are unable to do so will not have successful careers. The only alternative to meeting the needs of an audience is to obtain a university position and fantasize that your drivel will someday be acclaimed.
In science, the notion of the unrecognized genius is sheer nonsense. First of all, that’s just not the way science works today. Dean Simonton studies scientific productivity and has found that 10 percent of scientists produce 50 percent of scientific articles. There is a very high correlation between scientific productivity and creativity. The best scientists, the ones who are widely sited, are highly productive and creative. This success enables them to attract top students and big money.
Myth Eight: Everyone is creative
Well, I am not so ready to pounce on this one and deliver a series of vicious karate chops. To answer this one we have to dive into the turgid waters of definitions and boundaries. What is creativity? My response is both quite democratic and highly elitist. Let’s be very generous about what can be considered a proper realm for creativity. Creativity can be finding a better route to work, a more satisfying way to structure your webpage, or a more delicious muesli and fruit combination. Some people call this little ‘c’ creativity. I submit that there is a continuous scale from little ‘c’ to the big ‘C’ of discovering the double helix shape of DNA or writing MacBeth. This scale is comparable to my touchdown passes on the beach and Peyton Manning’s tosses in the Super Bowl. Creativity is for everyone, but a field sets the standards for worthwhile contribution. In a competitive arena, these standards can be stratospheric. Be creative, but also be realistic about the value of your contribution.
Myth Nine: Creativity is the same as originality
This is perhaps the myth of modernism. In most cases, we should rate creativity and innovation by quality, not by originality. A film in which a chorus of fat women dressed as iguanas chants insults in pseudo-Mayan, would be original but not creative. Why not? Because creativity is recognized by the community of experts in the field. Creativity occurs in a domain, whether it is competitive iceboat construction, open source social network software, Hip Hop or Hollywood thrillers. Each of these has an intensely involved group of professional and deeply committed amateurs. In none of these is it a case of anything goes. Each sub-culture is committed to quality and high standards in its domain. Original ideas can create lots of excitement, but quality trumps originality any day. Just think about going out for dinner. It’s really cool to have a dinner cooked by a highly originally chef, but only if the meal is good. Originality in cooking is not enough.
Myth Ten: Creativity only applies to science and the fine art
I am happy to be completely democratic here. I see no reason to make arbitrary distinctions. If there is a domain that a critical mass of people cares about well then, let ‘em be creative. The history of art, for example, shows us countless examples of genres that were not initially accepted by elites, but have gradually come into the mainstream. Movies, jazz and photography were all on the sidelines initially. As fans and critics began to articulate just what is unique, visionary, or excellent in these art forms they gradually moved into the mainstream of acceptance. Domains, genres, and fields go through periods of innovation and stagnation. Possibilities open up and then are exploited. Comic books morph into graphic novels. Computer programmers become interested in genetics. Sting sings music from the time of Shakespeare. Let the market place of ideas define what creativity is.
Some important ideas in this essay derive from Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation by R. Keith Sawyer. Conversations with Keith Hill also influenced my thinking, particularly on quality and originality.