Fact: You Too Are Perfectly Capable of Producing Creative Work
”It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” — Albert Einstein
The concept of creativity can be wildly misunderstood.
Most people would not consider themselves creative. It is a common belief that creativity is a combination of intellectual capacity and in-the-moment inspiration. Although there are some natural capacities prone to creative work, the broad assumptions behind the creative process need reframing.
It took me a while to understand this.
Growing up, I was not the creative one in a family of accomplished painters, architects and fashion designers. That was creative stuff, not what I did. However, in recent years I have discovered that creativity (and problem-solving, creativity’s close relative) is less about the crazy spark of inspiration and more about cultivating an interest you can get to love, setting the right creative processes, and a lot of perspiration. With all my limitations, I have shown to myself that I can also create when I mix genuine interest, creative tools and consistency.
This post is my modest contribution to the debate. We will be going through:
- The popular myths and misconceptions,
- The essential elements that need to be present for creativity to flow in our everyday life, based on scientific evidence, and
- A series of simple — yet powerful — practices to unleash our natural creative output.
Let’s dive right in.
Myth #1: Creative People Produce Only High Quality All The Time
“Artists who create freely and correct later are productive. They are happy. And they are the people who have a body of work to show for their efforts. When we erase until the paper tears, or see our children doing this, we must halt the obsession. Perfectionism is not a quest for the best — it is the pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us we will never be good enough. Perfection is egotism parading as virtue. Do not be fooled.” — Julia Cameron
Let’s take William Shakespeare. YouGov made an analysis on the popularity ratings of various Shakespeare’s plays, which you can check below.
Romeo and Juliet, for instance, has been read or seen by more than half of the British population. Most people consider that one of his greatest pieces. And yet, he was able to follow that up with Pericles, which most of you never heard of. Rightly so, as Pericles has a popularity reading of only 1%.
Is expertise all there is to creativity? Are creative people producing great quality all the time? Clearly not.
You can be creative if you silence your inner censor, focusing on producing of a large body of work rather than perfection. Take risks, practice and commit to producing the right volume which ends up paying over time. Creativity is, in some way, a numbers game.
Myth #2: IQ Has a Significant Role in Creativity
Beyond some basic intellectual ability, IQ has nothing to do with creativity. The studies by the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research, at UC Berkeley, conducted by Frank X Barron in the 50s and 60s, prove this.
Barron brought some of the most creative people of his generation to UC Berkeley and assessed their conditions and personality. He concluded that IQ wasn’t the special sauce of these creative geniuses. He described highly creative people as ‘’both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner than the average person’’.
What appeared as a consistent character trait in these studies was a 1) higher-than-average ego-strength, 2) a natural resistance to conformity and 3) a high capacity to take risks.
Myth #3: Creativity is Based on a Linear Process
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep” — Scott Adams
People driven by a natural resistance to conformity tend to show above-average resilience. This is important, for creativity is based on trial and error in the long run.
A well-known example is Thomas Edison. He made 1,000 failed attempts while inventing the lightbulb. When prompted about this fact, he said “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Furthermore, a statistical analysis by Professor Dean Keith Simonton found that Thomas Edison had more failures than anyone else in his generation. And yet he also made the most revolutionary invention of his generation.
We cannot embrace a creative life and think of it as a linear process. It is the messiness that we must embrace. But are we bound by the statement “Creativity is what creative people do”? or can we go further and determine a set of objective conditions that determine our ability to be creative?
Let’s take a look at the science behind the creative output.
What Does Science Have to Say, Instead?
The Componential Theory of Individual Creativity determines that most humans with a basic capacity can produce moderately creative work in some domain and that the environment determines the level and frequency of such output.
According to this theory, it is the overlapping of three key elements that determine our basic ability to produce creative work.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. The Key Ingredient: Intrinsic Motivation, Our Internal Driver
“One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves.” — Jeff Bezos
Teresa Amabile, in her 1997 paper “Motivating Creativity in Organisations”, points our at the power of Intrinsic Motivation, the enjoyment and sense of challenge of their work independently of any external rewards, as a primary driver of creativity. This is the classic “loving what you do”, reflected in Michael Jordan’s “love of the game” contract clause.
2. The Supporting Substance: Developing an Expertise
Expertise is the combination of technical knowledge, memory and talent development. In its absence creativity does not exist, as we are not able to be creative on any random field we choose, but only in that one that we are very familiar with.
Expertise tends to be a longer-term consequence of Intrinsic Motivation. Expertise goes hand in hand with a sense of enjoyment for a particular activity, as people rarely deepen their knowledge in fields that they don’t enjoy spending their time on.
3. The Tools and Processes: The Creative Skills
“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Welcome to the “how-to” section of today’s article.
We will discuss how to implement an appropriate cognitive style and the adoption of practices and processes (Heuristics) for the exploration of new pathways.
There is plenty of research supporting that some simple strategies can, in fact, facilitate creativity and problem-solving:
- Provided that new ideas are the result of creating new relationships between old concepts, then regularly applying freewriting and other brainstorming techniques can help us unleash different perspectives and drafting potential solutions for a problem, building those new relationships. For instance, try holding paper conversations about a problem with your imaginary mentor (i.e. discussing an issue with Steve Jobs or [your favourite CEO]. How would he solve this?); or write for 10 minutes about a topic you are struggling to find a solution for, starting from the facts you do know and challenging every assumption. See where that writing leads you.
- Embrace non-sense. The power of the “what-if” questioning to cancel your auto-limitations. Ask yourself “What if I knew the answer to this?” “What if I was not limited by [this or that] external factor? “What if I had all the money in the world, would I still do [this or that] job?” “What if my boss could not help me, how would I do this?”
- Play the volume game to your advantage: if creativity is about the volume of output and not about intellectual censorship, then to come up with a good idea we need to discard 100 bad ideas first. That is why I force myself to come up with a list of 10 solutions to a problem or an idea I may be working on as I journal every morning, no matter how absurd they are. Most days two or three of the lot are worth exploring.
- Use your subconscious process. The classic “genius idea in the shower” is the result of a process, not a random event. When trying to create something or when tackling a problem, we will usually start with research and gathering of information, followed by the deep conscious work on the alternatives apparently available to us. But surely you will get to a place in which you are no longer progressing. At that point, take your attention off it completely, even if it feels wrong to stop working on it. Go for a walk, cook something, play with your kids. Anything works, just trust the process. That is when the subconscious mind takes over, continuing to work on the issue in the background. It will allow new relationships between the old ideas to develop in the back of your mind, and most often than not the solution will pop in your head without warning.
- The proverbial “sleep on it”, a powerful variation of the subconscious mind technique. Thomas Edison was famous for his short creative“power naps”. At some point during his day, while working on a problem, Edison would stop to take a nap. He placed a notebook and a pen close by, and sit on a chair or a sofa holding a handful of ball-bearings. He then would fall asleep for a few minutes, only to wake up when the ball-bearings in his hand spilt on the floor. Then, he would immediately pick up the notebook and write down whatever was in his mind at that moment, which usually helped him break through the problem at hand.
- Don’t cultivate skills only. Cultivate themes as well. I first read about this in Josh Waitzkin’s book “The Art of Learning”. Waitzkin is the genius kid featured in the film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, who after retiring as a chess player took on the martial art Tai Chi and went on to become World Champion from scratch. He now helps top finance professionals perform consistently at their peak ability. The basic concept here is that creativity is a theme and not only a set of skills. You can improve your ability to produce creative work by cultivating a creative mindset in all areas of your life, beyond working on the specific skills.
If building a skill requires for us to progress from 1) conscious thinking to 2) proactive doing to 3) unconscious being, then complementing your skills training with the broader adoption of a theme aligned with your aspiration is a powerful way to internalize the process.
We Are All Born Creative, But There is a Decision to Make
The key to leading a moderately creative life is not relying on your genius spark when it comes, or following a correctly ordered process. It is not aiming for top quality all the time, and it is most certainly not about having an IQ of 150.
To be creative, we need to make a decision. It won’t just happen to ourselves:
- We need to start by adopting the mindset: anyone is capable of producing creative work. Hopefully, this article has shown you that you have the elements in you already. In addition to this, we can also cultivate creativity as a theme, and not only as a skill.
- And we need to follow with action: devoting time to something that you love, a field in which you can develop expertise. Nurturing it by learning and experimenting with the right tools and processes.
You will reap the rewards if you consistently use the above and apply yourself to the production of volume, a large body of work in your field of interest. And remember, leave your inner censor at home while at it. He is the only one who believes you cannot be a creative person.