Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Design

Born This Way: Is Creativity Innate or Learned?

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?
Like this article? We recommend

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.

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive:

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020