Being Creative about Creativity

This article originally appeared in The Truth Seeker

Is creativity something you’re born with, something you either have or don’t have--like blue eyes or a short nose? Do creative ideas just zap you like lightening bolts from Zeus or can you cultivate your own creativity?

I can tell you what psychologists say. Many would agree with Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart, who write: “People are not born creative, rather creativity can be developed.”  Other psychologists say that we are born creative but that it gets knocked out of us when we are children or by our environment. But, regardless of these disagreements, most psychologists would agree that creativity can be cultivated. Sternberg, the senior author of the book, Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity, is not some New Age flake dispensing fluffy pink affirmations. He’s a Yale psychology professor with a list of research credentials that go around the corner and down the block so he and fellow psychologist Lubart can assert with some credibility that you can choose to be creative and you can take steps to become more creative.

Sternberg and Lubart, as well as others writing on the topic all agree, however, that it takes hard work and critical thinking to develop (or redevelop) your creativity. If you wonder what critical thinking has to do with creativity, don’t assume that being critical just means tearing down someone else’s arguments. Critical thinking, write psychologists Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, “fosters the ability to be creative and constructive—to generate possible explanations for findings, think of implications, and apply new knowledge to a broad range of social and personal problems.  You can't really separate critical thinking from creative thinking, for it's only when you question what is that you can begin to imagine what can be."

The foundation for creativity is believing in yourself and having the courage of your convictions. But first, you have to know who you are and what you believe in.  Joyce Chapman, author of Live Your Dream, a manual on discovering your life purpose, warns us: “If you don’t have a dream, your life will be about your problems.”  You can choose to be a passive victim or you can take responsibility for creating your life and discovering your purpose.

Doing what Chapman calls “mindcleaning” is a crucial step. Get rid of negative beliefs and attitudes (i.e., “I don’t know how,” It’s too hard,” “It’s too late to get started”) that limit your thinking and develop new habits and attitudes (i.e., staying focused, persistence and determination) that support your potential. Take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. (Ask yourself questions such as: What did you like to do as a child? When do you feel most highly energized?) Don’t assume that creativity is only expressed in obvious ways like writing and artistic efforts.  You can learn to be creative in whatever area your strength is in, whether it’s painting, auto mechanics, computers, or rearing children. Nor is creativity an all-or-nothing thing. Just because you’re not a creative writer doesn’t meant that you can’t be creative in your own domain of strength.  If you know who you are, what your strengths are, and you believe in yourself, you can then take steps to develop the creative potential you have.

    Here is what Sternberg and Lubart recommend:

  • Redefine the problem
  • Don’t accept what you’ve been told about how to think. Question traditional assumptions. Be willing to ask questions and wonder. Then be willing to formulate the problem in new ways. Even the great scientist Lord Kelvin thought flying machines were impossible. Fortunately the Wright Brothers paid no attention.

  • Look for what others don’t see. Combine inputs from your environment in novel ways.
  • The author of the novel that later became the basis for the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
    was inspired by watching Tony the Tiger and other cartoon characters interacting with real kids in TV commercials.

  • Learn to distinguish your good from your bad ideas.
  • This is where more critical thinking comes in. Don’t become so enamoured of your ideas that you can’t tell something dopey and lame from an idea that will really make a difference. Be willing to accept feedback from sensible people whose thinking you respect.

  • Don’t think that you have to know everything about your domain in order to be creative
  • .
    Yes, it’s true that you have to achieve a certain level of expertise or knowledge. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, and even Sternberg himself in his discussion of creative intelligence, both agree that a certain minimal level of expertise in a given field provides you with the springboard for expanding beyond mere competence into creativity. If you aren’t fluent in French, you can’t write French poetry. Even Picasso learned the basics of painting before going off and doing his own wildly imaginative thing. But given that minimum level, sometimes too much knowledge can interfere with redefining the problem in new and creative ways.  If you don’t know too much, you won’t know that “it can’t be done.”

  • Cultivate the big picture
  • Some people have new and potentially useful ideas but only at the level of details. Those with a more global style--people who are able to step back and get the bigger picture of how things work have a better chance at an overall novel solution to the problem. In the area of IQ testing, many psychologists have had useful ideas for new items on the tests, but Sternberg and fellow psychologist Howard Gardner both stepped back and asked the question: is there more to intelligence than what these tests are measuring?  By asking this larger question, they were able to come up with creative new ways to think about intelligence and what it really means  Sternberg, with his theory of triarchic intelligence (analytic, practical, and creative intelligence, as opposed to the merely analytic components measured by current IQ tests) and Gardner’s concept of seven intelligences (musical, spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic).

  • Be prepared to overcome obstacles, take sensible risks and be willing to grow.
  • “You can’t defy the crowd and then expect it to ignore you,” write Sternberg and Lubart. “More likely it will try to get you to join it. And if you don’t, the crowd will throw obstacles in your way.”  You have to be willing to persevere, take risks and work very, very hard. The book industry is replete with examples of writers whose work was rejected by dozens, even hundreds of publishers, before they finally made a breakthrough. M.J. Rose’s erotic novel, Lip Service, was rejected time and time again by publishers who couldn’t figure out who the  audience was. But she believed in her book and kept plugging away. She self-published it, found appropriate reviewers for it, and put the reviews on her web site. Her efforts paid off. It recently became the first self-published novel to be chosen as a selection by the Doubleday Book Club and she is now on the national TV talk show circuit.

  • Discover and tap into intrinsic motivation, not just extrinsic reward
  • Find out what you really love and then do it.  The much-touted “Do what you love and the money will follow” may or may not turn out to be true but if you are creatively happy, the monetary reward is far less important. We all know people who make lots of money but are bored and unhappy and we all know people who having fun with what they do, even if they’re not rich. If you can’t be both, which would you rather be?

  • Resources needed for creativity are interactive, not additive.
  • To be creative, you have to have some of the necessary internal resources. Compensation for lack of some of these resources only works up to a point. Below a certain level of knowledge, intelligence, intrinsic motivation, or whatever, a person is not likely to be creative no matter how much of some of the other resources they may have.  A person who is a terrible writer is not going to sell a novel, no matter how hard they try; a person living in a war-torn country is not in a position to be creative no matter how talented they are. 

  • Find or create environments that reward you for what you like to do.
  • When the responsibilities of your present environment drag you down, what do you do? Give in and just suffer quietly? Or do you ask yourself how you can redefine the situation to change a problem or chore into a stimulating opportunity? If you find yourself in a boring, dead-end job or a stultifying intellectual environment, are you willing to take the risk to find a new job or a new set of friends or activities?  You need to recognize that you have some control over your environment.

  • Make a conscious and deliberate decision about a way of life that fosters creativity.
  • “Many of the resources for creativity needed to become creative become available when a  person decides to make them available,” write Sternberg and Lubart. “Although the ability to redefine problems is not a matter of decision, openness to redefinition of problems is.”  The point they make, one shared by many psychologists, is that your beliefs and your attitudes have a tremendous impact on your behavior. You can make the choice to be more creative if you want to. The responsibility for being creative is yours.

    Recommended Reading:
    For those who want to explore the idea of creating creativity in greater depth, the following are some of the many books you may find helpful. They’re far from the only ones but they’re places to start.

    Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity by Robert J. Sternberg &
         Todd I. Lubart. Free Press, 1995.
    Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Harper & Row, 1990.
    Live Your Dream: Discover and Achieve Your Life Purpose, A Step-by Step Program by Joyce
         Chapman. Newcastle, 1990.
    The Creative Spirit by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman & Michael Ray. Dutton, 1992
    Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas by Edward De Bono.
         HarperBusiness, 1992
    Taking Responsibility: Self-Reliance and the Accountable Life by Nathaniel Branden. Simon &
         Schuster, 1996
    Critical and Creative Thinking by Carole Wade & Carol Tavris. HarperCollins College, 1993