Rethinking cultural myths about creativity

Creative expression encounters obstacles, both internal and external, and rarely flows smoothly. In 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh spent nine weeks together, painting in the latter's Yellow House in Arles. During this time, Gauguin became increasingly disillusioned with Impressionism, and the two quarreled.

One of the most limiting beliefs we bind ourselves with is the thought that we are not creative. If we’re not constantly being innovative, applying paint to a canvas, writing our memoirs, or coming up with new approaches to a problem, we cannot be creative—or so we tell ourselves.

Part of the problem lies in our definition of what creativity is, and what it isn’t.

When we think of someone who is creative, we rarely picture the kindergarten teacher illustrating organic evolution by finding a spider’s nest in a classroom window frame, and having her students observe the birth process over many weeks.  We also don’t think of the college student struggling to grasp a theory, who then turns his ideas into a three dimensional graphic, making it easier for everyone in the class to understand. Or the mother who invents a new method of color-coding her calendar, augmenting her family’s organizational skills.

In other words, there are a lot of creative people in the world, but we don’t think of them as particularly innovative or unique, largely because we do not value what they have done. The only people we think of as creative are those we have heard of. They’re usually representative of “high forms of art,” which creativity expert Dr. R. Keith Sawyer says in his book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, is a bias that “must be discarded” if we’re going to recognize and value creativity.

His basic thesis is that analyzing creativity is necessary, both to recognize creativity when you see it, and so as to understand that everyone has unique, creative talents, whether or not those talents have been recognized as such by society.

He knows that when we narrowly define what it means to be creative, many otherwise brilliant, productive people are discarded or marginalized, their talents and abilities ignored. This is damaging for the individual, but one could argue that it’s worse for society, which develops intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually through innovation and change.

How should we think about creativity, then?

Here are some conventional myths about creativity Dr. Sawyer refutes:

  • Creative people get a unique idea in a flash of inspiration, and then simply act on it. Orville and Wilbur Wright were not the first to try to build a flying machine. They spent years perfecting their design, as did Thomas Edison, who had many failures before some of his inventions were patented. In fact, forgotten inventors who have never received credit for their work would counter the assertion that creativity is as easy or simple as receiving a ‘flash’ of divine guidance. It can take years to develop an idea.
  • Creative people always have great ideas. Charles Darwin, for one, came up with many ideas that lead him down false trails. When he returned from the voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, he spent years thinking about his experiences, continually updating his theories. Only after thirteen years and many moments of insight, some of which came about through mistaken ideas, did he reach a coherent theory of evolution by natural selection.
  • Creative people have radical new ideas that seemingly emerge from out of nowhere. Many innovations build on the ideas of others, in combinations previously unconsidered.  The majority of patents are in fact “combination” or “improvement” patents. According to intellectual property attorney John Lindsay“people frequently create new machines or articles of manufacture based on existing technologies. It is rare that someone creates something as new as a transistor or another fundamental building block technology.”
  • Creative people ignore convention because their inspiration springs ‘full-blown’ from their subconscious.

Abstract artist Jackson Pollock was thought to have flung paint onto the canvas in bursts of spontaneous inspiration pouring forth, untrammeled, from his subconscious. In fact, Pollock spent years learning to control his pours and splatters, to achieve the effects he sought.

The overall theme I notice when it comes to cultural bias about creativity is the lack of conscious control attributed to moments of creativity; the idea that inspiration is mysterious, a God-given gift.

This ‘god’ sometimes chooses the most unlikely people to express himself through, it seems… would that it were so; would that God, or a god, randomly shot his bolts of inspiration at you, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts across the firmament. If only creativity were that sudden, spontaneous, and mystical! It might seem to be so, but not if you spend years of your life working on your ideas, struggling to make sense of them. 

This idea of a divine source for creative inspiration takes us back to Plato, and the Greek notion that one’s daemonion, or genius loci, or genius, as the word has evolved over time, overwhelms us, compelling us to obey. The myth begins with the belief that we have no conscious control of this force, we have no idea where it comes from; we are helpless against it. When the ‘spirit calls’ or the muse summons us, we must follow. This is both a romantic, small ‘r’, and Romantic—as in the historical period—idea of how creativity works, but it’s inaccurate.

The ability to be creative stems from one's education; you cannot hope to drink from an empty cup. But it does not have to be a formal education to be effective. Largely self-taught, Van Gogh gained his footing as an artist by zealously copying prints and studying nineteenth-century drawing manuals and lesson books.

Worse, it’s culturally biased and misleading, causing many otherwise creative people to give up on their ideas long before they should, because society has taught them to undervalue their own hard work. They also give up on themselves in the process, sometimes leading to depression and despair.

This means we need better ways to communicate about creativity, ways that are not dependent on mistaken cultural biases we learned from the Greeks, only to be reinscribed in later years by the Romantic poets.

Dr. Sawyer suggests instead that we learn to take risks, and be prepared to make lots of mistakes. He also says to ‘do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work.’ One of his suggestions that I encourage is to collaborate and brainstorm; through the simple act of conversation, as in the days of Gertrude Stein‘s artistic salons, wonderfully creative ideas can emerge from what Dr. Sawyer calls “freewheeling” discussion.

Most of all, one must forget the idea that being creative is all about being ‘artsy and gifted’. It’s not. It’s about hard work, and giving one’s ideas enough time to incubate. Later on, in the life process of an idea, creativity is about taking risks, showing it to others, and talking about your ideas.

It’s more productive, therefore, to think of creativity as having a lifespan (an organic process model) than it is to think of an act of creation springing upon one, unannounced, waiting for the right moment to strike (the Divine Intervention model, which happens so rarely, you might as well go outside now and hope for lightning to hit you—which, by the way, is an apt Greek metaphor for Zeus’ ‘bolts from the blue’).

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking cultural myths about creativity

  1. Pingback: Creativity and Prepare to Crossover « Prepare To Cross Over

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