Is creativity something you’re
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
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
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
The foundation for creativity
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.”
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
- Redefine the problem
Don’t accept what
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
Combine inputs from your environment in novel ways.
The author of the
became the basis for the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
was inspired by watching
Tiger and other cartoon characters interacting with real kids in TV
to distinguish your good
from your bad ideas.
This is where
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
everything about your domain in order to be creative
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
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
Some people have new
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
(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
take sensible risks and be willing to grow.
“You can’t defy the
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
motivation, not just extrinsic reward
Find out what you
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
are interactive, not additive.
To be creative, you
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
reward you for what you like to do.
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
decision about a way of life that fosters creativity.
“Many of the
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.
For those who want to
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.
the Crowd: Cultivating
Creativity in a Culture of Conformity by Robert J. Sternberg
Lubart. Free Press, 1995.
The Psychology of Optimal
Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Harper & Row, 1990.
Your Dream: Discover and
Achieve Your Life Purpose, A Step-by Step Program by Joyce
Creative Spirit by Daniel
Goleman, Paul Kaufman & Michael Ray. Dutton, 1992
Creativity: Using the
of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas by Edward De Bono.
and the Accountable Life by Nathaniel Branden. Simon &
and Creative Thinking by
Carole Wade & Carol Tavris. HarperCollins College, 1993