Creativity is the new buzzword in the world of work today. Everyone is looking for creativity in every department, every employee, and every job description. With so much resting on creativity, how can one truly be creative? 

Firstly, everyone can be creative. It is an ability that is inherent in everyone, and only exercising it is a matter of choice and learning. The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus throws light on some of the common myths surrounding creativity that many believe. He debunks these myths and offers a practical guide to letting creativity flourish, by changing perceptions.

The Myth Of The Out-Of-The-Blue Divine Inspiration

We have all heard how Newton discovered gravity while sitting under an apple tree. His sudden, out-of-the-blue experience led to the realization of gravity. It’s true that he saw the apple fall, but he didn’t actually discover gravity while sitting alone under the tree. He was with someone else. 

His observation sparked a scientific discussion with the person, and that led to immersing himself in years of study and research, finally discovering the mathematical formula for gravity.

The first myth that creativity comes in sudden, out-of-the-blue experiences is simply a myth. Even creative, lightening-bolt, inspirations need some amount of hard work. According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an idea is born when successful creatives move through the center of a number of insightful steps.

A seed of an idea needs to germinate with the help of the water and sunlight of hard work and deep thought, often on a number of things simultaneously. For example, Da Vinci and Edison worked on a number of projects and ideas often, because their ideas needed to develop over time.

The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus
The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus

The Myth Of The Creative Breed

Many believe that creativity is in our genes. However, creativity is neither divinely bestowed to special people nor is an exclusive resource that only a few can tap into. Scientists have been studying Einstein’s brain to ascertain if his intelligence was genetic. While they found that his brain was remarkably small in size, they found no proof of genetic markers showing creativity as genetic.

To study creativity in genes further, scientist Marvin Reznikoff studied creativity in twin children. He divided them into two groups, fraternal twins and identical twins, and gave them creative tasks to do. He found that there were differences in creativity between both, the fraternal as well as the identical twins, ruling genes out as a carrier of creativity.

Unfortunately the ‘Breed Myth’ creates prejudiced perceptions, and organizations tend to classify employees and roles into creative and non-creative. However, with changing trends and the need for creativity in all aspects of the organization, companies are giving equal importance to creativity in all areas. This bucking of traditions has shown an increase in innovation, as so-called ‘non-creative’ employees are given chances to showcase their creativity as well.

The Myth Of Timelines In Creativity

Organizations are hardwired to work in timelines and deadlines. However, to nurture and foster creativity, one has to let go of the timeline concept. This is because creativity hardly flourishes within timelines. Many organizations are now turning to a more democratic form of structure versus the traditional top-down organizational structure. This change has shown encouragement to creativity and innovation. 

Semco, the industrial manufacturer is a great example. Ricardo Semler took over the wheels of Semco from his father at a time when the company was near bankruptcy and needed innovation desperately. He immediately moved to remove the old structure of fixed teams and assignments and top-down management. By 2003, after a decade of following the new structure, Semco has made more than $200 million in revenue.

When it comes to creativity, rigid timelines restrict creative outflow and thus, innovation. In fact, creativity is known to develop better when one mulls over the job at hand and lets the mind wander.

The Myth Of The Creative Loner

People have prejudiced perceptions about creative people as ‘loners’, and that creativity and innovation as the output of one single mind working in isolation to spin yarn after yarn of creativity.

This is, however, ‘the myth of the creative loner’, and needs to be debunked! Creativity in fact gets a boost when there are many minds focussing on innovating. Moreover, it is a known fact that the people who surround you can be a source of inspiration. Therefore, having a like-minded, creatively inclined, the social network can have a catalytic effect.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, despite their differences over the personal computer, influenced each other with the Alto Computer and the PARC Company. While Jobs found his inspiration during a tour of PARC, Gates found his inspiration while working for Jobs for a short time.

Creativity and innovation need collaboration for success. Even other inventors and geniuses like Edison had a team of ‘muckers’ – a mix of engineers, machinists, physicist, etc. – that brainstormed together on some of his best-known inventions like the light bulb.

The Myth Of Characteristic

People often associate creativity as a characteristic or an ability that creative people have. However, research has shown that creativity also depends on the physical connections in the brain.

Our brains have ‘grey matter’ and ‘white matter’. The grey matter is the brain tissue that stores the information that we think, whereas white matter is the connectivity tissue that’s responsible for transporting electric pulses. Creative people have a better ability to connect the information stored in the grey matter. Therefore, it was found that creative people have more white matter that helps in connecting ideas and blending them with thoughts from different areas of the brain in a more creative way.

The truth of the matter (pun intended) is, that white matter grows the more we use it. That is why it is often seen that old ideas, existing innovation, and known information are often the basis of new creative innovative ideas.

If we take Edison’s ‘muckers’ as an example, they worked on existing ideas and technologies, stripped-down other’s machines and ideas, and gathered a whole lot of knowledge to create things of their own.

So what if one isn’t naturally creative! Creativity can be practiced and just like one exercises to build muscles, one can exercise their creative thinking skills to build more white matter!

The Myth Of Creative Freedom

People also believe that creativity needs freedom and that any constraints can restrict the flow of creativity. However, too much of anything is bad and this is true for creativity too. Too much freedom can lead to ideas running amok. Too many ideas without direction will lead to many incomplete ideas that keep piling up.

Restraints help in keeping creativity on the right path. Some amount of constraints and restrictions on time, processes, and resources can propel out of the box thinking.

Japanese Haiku is a form of poetry that restricts the poet to a limited number of syllables. The creativity and beauty of a Haiku is brought out by the restriction placed on the process of writing. It is the same with European Sonnets.

The Brainstorming Myth

We have seen or been part of brainstorming sessions at the workplace. While a large group of people sitting together, throwing ideas at each other seems like a great way to be innovative and creative, it is, in fact, a melting pot of half-cooked or useless ideas that often get tossed into the corner. 

The reasons could be many. The idea could be absolutely useless, it might not appeal to some of the group members, it could be half-cooked and might need some more thinking and working on. Often great ideas get discarded because they need time to develop, and no one sees them.

Brainstorming works, but only if there is a creative process set around it. Moreover, it needs a leader to oversee the session, set creative restrictions and constraints, and revise stormed ideas. Finally discarded ideas need to be revisited, restructured, reframed, and shaped in order to work. 

The Key To Creativity

There is no inherency or genetic make-up of creativity. No one is born creative or is naturally creative. In fact, creativity can be cultivated, nurtured, and practiced by everyone. The myths that have been debunked above, prove that all one has to do to be creative is to first understand that their knowledge about creativity is incomplete. Only then can one open their eyes and their mind to learning to be creative!