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Born This Way: Is Creativity Innate or Learned?

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From the author of
Callahan Creek Creative Director and Creative Boot Camp author Stefan Mumaw finds a carnivorously-dressed collaborator to help demystify that age old question: Where does creativity come from?

I'm beautiful in my way
'Cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track, baby
I was born this way

-Lady Gaga, “Born This Way”

While clearly referring to something else entirely, the venerable pop superstar raises an interesting question, creatively speaking: Are we born this way? Is creativity innate to our humanity, a talent saved for the fortunate few, or is creativity a practical skill that all can learn and wield? We have historically viewed creativity as a magical force, a bolt of artistic enlightenment that strikes without warning or provocation. We have all experienced this form of creative jolt in some form, such as an idea that seemed to come out of thin air. In spite of this, we still believe that those we have labeled uber-creative must be receiving these inspirations with much greater frequency. Is this perception reality? Is creativity a gift that some possess while others don’t? The answer starts with how our historical definition of creativity came to be in the first place.

There’s a story about a young woman preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner that helps explain the historical perceptions of creativity’s genesis. The young woman is dressing the turkey and her husband notices that she has placed the turkey in a pan that is half the size of the turkey. Perplexed, he asks, “Why are you putting the turkey in that small pan?” She replies, “I don’t know, that’s the way my mom made it. I’ll ask her.” She calls her mom and asks why they put the turkey in the smaller pan and her mom says, “I’m not sure, your grandmother always made it that way.” So the young woman calls up her grandmother and asks the same question. The grandmother replies, “I put the turkey in the smaller pan because that was the only pan I had.”

For most of our lives, we have been told that creativity is an artistic characteristic. From parents to grade school teachers to initial influencers in our lives, we’ve been told since our earliest years that if we can draw or paint or sculpt or write, we are creative. Therefore, we’ve deduced that if we can’t draw or paint or sculpt or write, we aren’t creative. We have come to accept that this form of genius is simply the cold, hard truth of life. Some have it while others don’t. The filter of this perspective then permeates our reasoning and becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy we believe it to be. When opportunities arise to apply creativity, we have resolved ourselves to the belief that since we are not artistic, we are not creative and therefore shouldn’t engage in creative activity. It has become truth because no one has had reason to challenge the origin. If they did, they’d find that their primary definition of creativity is flawed. It is the Sandy Island of self-realization.

On just about every nautical chart, world map, and coastline atlas lies an island off the coast of Australia called Sandy Island. About the size of Manhattan, the island has been defined by cartographers since the 19th century. Even Google Earth shows its location 700 miles off the coast of Brisbane, Australia. Which would be fine if there actually was a Sandy Island. It doesn’t exist, it never has. Maria Seton, the chief geologist at the University of Sydney, led an expedition to the mysterious island and found nothing there. “Somehow this error has propagated through to the world coastline database, from which a lot of maps are made," she said. Sandy Island was presumed to exist because its historical definition was presumed to exist. Somewhere in the history of this island’s cartography is a grandmother who only had one pan size.

Creativity is not a magical force or an uncontrollable entity. Creativity is not exclusively attached to artistry. Creativity is problem solving with relevance and novelty, nothing more, nothing less. Creativity cannot be present without a problem to solve. When an artist paints a beautiful painting, they are being artistic. When they paint a beautiful painting while solving even the smallest of problems (perhaps the desire for photorealism, or the restriction of only using palette knives, or limiting the number of paints used), they are being artistic and creative. It is the problem that defines creativity, not the art.

In her book, inGenius, author Tina Seelig puts it this way, “Many people question whether creativity can be taught and learned. They believe that creative abilities are fixed, like eye color, and can’t be changed. They think that if they aren’t currently creative, there is no way to increase their ability to come up with innovative ideas. I couldn’t disagree more. There is a concrete set of methods and environmental factors that can be used to enhance your imagination, and by optimizing these variables your creativity naturally increases. Unfortunately, these tools are rarely presented in a formalized way. As a result, creativity appears to most people to be something magical rather than the natural result of a clear set of processes and conditions.”

The ‘concrete set’ that Seelig refers to here starts with a problem to solve. Creativity exists when we desire to solve that problem with relevance and novelty. Relevance requires that we actually solve the problem. This is also a common misconception about creativity, that any solution that is ‘different’ or ‘out of the box’ qualifies. This is only true if that solution indeed solves the problem. If I asked you to come up with an idea for a cereal box toy and you responded with a full-size water buffalo, that solution is not creative despite being quite unusual. It’s not creative because the solution isn’t relevant. It didn’t actually solve the problem. Novel, yes. Relevant, no. Which brings us to the second requirement of creativity: novelty.

Novelty is a subjective measure of the uniqueness of a solution. The degree by which a solution is considered novel is an inexact measurement, it is different to each person. This is why we think creativity is so magical because there’s no defined plateau an idea must reach to be considered novel. Creativity is not absolute because of this characteristic. Novelty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The key is to decide who the beholder should be.

One of the common questions I receive from designers is how to sell creative ideas to conservative clients. The problem isn’t the selling technique, it’s the definition of creative. As designers, we are exposed to infinitely more work that pushes our comfort zone, infinitely more solutions that redefine our view of unique and different. In short, our view of ‘creative’ is very different than our client’s view of ‘creative.’ We have assigned the same value to the word without finding out what our client’s version of ‘creative’ looks like. My advice is always the same: Find the client’s middle. Find out what they view as a relevant solution and then find out what novelty means to them, not just to you. This helps in defining the boundaries your solutions should remain within. This may sound counter-intuitive to the idea of creativity but that box is exactly what you need to be creative. You need the problem to solve.

So the question of whether creativity is innate or learned comes down to this: Can you learn to solve problems with relevance and novelty? The answer, quite simply, is yes. In the same way you can learn to play an instrument or learn to speak another language, you can learn to solve problems better. How? The same way you would learn to play an instrument or speak another language: practice. If you are presented problems consistently and you choose to solve those problems with relevance and novelty, you can improve creatively. We are presented problems to solve continuously, whether we’re at work or at home. We may not look at them as problems because we have devised a mechanism to solve them without conscious thought in the name of efficiency but they are problems nonetheless. We could choose to solve them creatively but we first have to recognize them as problems.

When our kids want lunch and we instinctively make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or mac and cheese, we’re missing an opportunity to be creative. When we follow the same process at work to complete a project, we’re missing an opportunity to solve a problem creatively. That’s not to say our solution would be any different than what we instinctively developed, but we missed a chance to make that decision consciously.

Creativity can be learned; it is a process that we can repeat and in that repetition, we find growth. Every one of us possesses the ability to be creative, regardless of the suppression that ability has endured over time. If you practice something with purpose and pattern, you will find that it’s not only getting easier but you’re becoming pretty good at it. We have had the ability to master it like a craft our entire lives. In some small part, perhaps we were born that way.

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