There are so many myths about creativity. In fact, most of what you believe about the brain and its seemingly magical attribute of creativity is wrong. Michael Gelb, author of How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, reports that 95% of what we know about the brain has been learned in the past 20 years. It takes decades for new scientific findings to reach the average person, so most of us are still operating on old data. Here are 11 myths about creativity that are just flat out wrong.
Myths About Creativity
#1. Only a few geniuses are truly creative. This is so wrong that I wrote a book about it. You were born creative. When humans swung naked out of the trees onto the Serengeti plain, we had to be nimble and creative to fight off the predators and to think our way to the top of the food chain. Now, does having this innate ability mean you can paint like Monet, write like Hemingway, or compose like Bach? Not necessarily. What it means is that humans – all humans – are able to put disparate pieces of information together and come up with something new. Some have dubbed this “little c” creativity, as opposed to creativity in the arts and sciences.
#2. Creativity is relegated to science and the creative arts. Creativity is found in all human pursuits, not just science and the arts. Your talent may be in intuitively knowing how to deal with people, or in coming up with new ways to market a product. That, too, is creativity. It is creativity of a different type and perhaps a different scale, but creativity nonetheless.
#3. Creativity is a right-brained attribute. Um, no. While it is true that the right and left sides of the brain do work differently, the hemispheres are connected and work in tandem. In fact, a study in which scientists scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people indicates that you can’t categorize individuals as either right- or left-brained. Creativity, “results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks”, according to another study reported on by Scientific American,
Instead, the entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification– consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.
#4. Inspiration occurs in a Eureka moment. While it may appear to the outside observer – and even sometimes to the person experiencing the Eureka moment – that it occurs in a blinding flash of lightning and a cloud of smoke, nothing could be further from the truth. Was an apple hitting Isaac Newton in the head the sole cause of his theory of gravity? No. Creativity is not a passive process, although many times we do experience these creative sparks while thinking about something else. Newton had long been obsessed with gravity and had devoted hours of reading and study to it before his inspirational flash. I’m not saying the Eureka moment doesn’t happen, just that it is the final piece of a much larger puzzle.
#5. Creative ideas are always original. Actually, very few ideas are completely new or original. Most are derivative. As mentioned earlier, humans are adept at combining disparate ideas and making something new, if not original. That is why it is so important for anyone pursuing a creative enterprise to read and study outside their field of expertise. One of the creativity generating ideas I use is to look at a problem as if I were a child, an engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, or even a zombie.
#6. You can’t learn creativity. This is one of the most pervasive myths about creativity. We all are born creative, but there are some people who have a hard time bringing their creativity to the surface. Many of our problems are rooted in our childhood when some adult told us that we were not artistically inclined. I remember having an art teacher tell me that because I was left-handed that I would never be creative. Really? Maybe you also had a similar experience. The good news is that you can turn this around. A NY publishing company had two teams, one of which consistently cranked out creative ideas while the other team lagged. The publisher brought in a team of researchers to study the problem and figure out why this was happening. After several months of study, the researchers had the answer. The creative team members believed they were creative and so they were. While the non-creative team members were not creative because they didn’t believe they were. I teach a number of exercises to help boost your creativity in problem solving. Let’s say that you work at a battery-powered product company and you have been given the assignment to figure out how to eliminate the need for disposable batteries. You might begin by asking what can be substituted for the batteries? What other process would work better? Maybe solar cells would work or even a built-in hand-crank generator.
#7. Only experts in their field can be creative in that field. Another one of the myths about creativity is the one about creative experts. If you’ve been around a large company you probably have seen a team of so-called experts brought in to solve a problem that most likely could have been solved less expensively and better by asking customers what they would do to fix the issue. Actually, it is often those who aren’t familiar with a problem who do best a finding creative solutions. They are not hampered by the knowledge of what has been done in the past, nor of why their idea can’t be done.
#8. Children are more creative than adults. Studies have been done that show when presented with a problem children come up with nearly 10 times more ideas than adults. Does this prove they are more creative? I don’t think so. I believe they just haven’t been stifled by that third grade art teacher yet. We don’t get less creative as we age, we just stop believing in our creativity. And we also need time and a range of experiences to come up with the best ideas. Much has been written about prodigies like Mozart, who composed so many pieces before he was 18. Yet, none of these works is considered his best. It took time for his knowledge to congeal and for his style to come to full fruit.
#9. Brainstorming is a great way to generate creative ideas. Not so much. This is one of the most widely held myths about creativity. In my experience with brainstorming in ad agencies, the worst ideas came out of brainstorming sessions. We would bring in a diverse group of agency employees – from accountants to creatives – and expect them to come up with killer ideas. It never happened. Here’s why: people who don’t do this sort of thing often are intimidated by those who do. They are afraid of being ridiculed for their ideas. Now, if you can remove the judgmental aspect of brainstorming, you can improve the product. Here’s one idea I teach: state the problem succinctly and then have each person write his or her idea on separate pieces of paper. Those go into a bowl, then each participant draws one out. Next, each person tries to add something to the idea and puts it back into the bowl. After about half an hour, the facilitator pulls the ideas out, reads them to the group and has them vote on the best ones.
#10. Deadline pressure encourages creativity. If you think brainstorming is a great idea, you probably also believe myths about creativity like this. A study reported on by Fast Company found that people thought they were more creative when the pressure was on but the facts did not substantiate this belief. Actually, the study reveals,
People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of time-pressure hangover — when people were working under great pressure, their creativity went down not only on that day but the next two days as well.
A study done by Harvard Business School adds an interesting wrinkle. This study also found that people were less creative under severe time pressure but that creativity itself is independent of time pressure and relies heavily on the working environment. In other words, if those working on a project thought that it was worthwhile and meaningful, their creativity did not suffer as much under the time crunch.
#11. Money boosts creativity. Research shows that an environment that is supportive and values creativity is a more important driver of creativity than cash incentives. A diary study asked participants how much they were motivated by rewards. In most cases, participants said that they rarely think of their pay in that regard. A number of studies show that creativity is driven more by personal satisfaction and joy, and that those who are internally driven come up with better ideas. Teresa Amabile has done a number of studies for Harvard Business School on this subject. She had creatives submit projects they’d done for their own pleasure and those done for a fee. A panel of judges reviewed the pieces without knowing which were commissioned and which were done for sheer pleasure. Those done for pleasure received consistently higher quality ratings from the panel.
That’s my 11 myths about creativity. Do you have any others?