Ten Myths of Creativity

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Ten Myths of Creativity

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Myth #1: Only a few people have the special gift of creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Edison. Steve Jobs. Marie Curie. Did these people have creativity, but the rest of us don’t?

That’s the view held by many people. They believe the myth that says only a select few are gifted with the special providence of creativity. The rest of us are doomed to a life of mundane, uncreative dullness.

Fortunately, this idea is a myth. The truth is that everyone is creative. It’s a natural, innate ability that we all possess.  We all use imagination. We all are curious about some things. We all solve problems that are new to us. We all create worlds, mental models, and paradigms in our own heads.

To be sure, some people hide their creativity. Some people have had it squelched by a teacher that is overfocused on facts and single correct answers. Sometimes creativity is suppressed by a dysfunctioning family system. Sometimes people are too afraid of rejection to share any creative ideas.  There are a number of reasons why creativity may not be apparent—but creativity itself is a natural talent that we all possess. And, like any talent, sometimes we use it, and sometimes we don’t.

Creativity can be suppressed. However, it can also be cultivated, nurtured, and helped to blossom. And in a rapidly changing world, where people are faced with problems that no one has ever faced before, the skills of creativity are becoming increasingly vital.

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Myth #2: Creativity can’t be taught.

This myth says that creativity is static and fixed. We’re born with a certain amount of it, and we have no ability to increase it. We live with whatever amount we have.

At one time, people viewed intelligence this way, too (and some people still do). Intelligence, they said, was fixed at birth. You were born below average, average, or above average, and nothing will change that. However, research has shown time and time again that intelligence is not fixed. It’s malleable, shapeable, and can change rapidly. Kids who were below average in one grade can be above average in another grade—or another subject. The research has made it clear that when teachers believe that intelligence is shapeable, their kids will do better. When teachers believe that intelligence is static and fixed, their kids tend not to grow.

The same is true of creativity. It is shapeable and teachable. We can squelch and squander kids’ creativity, or we can nurture and cultivate it. Unfortunately, a series of alarming studies over the past couple decades has shown that children are more and more reluctant to be creative. This is probably due to a school system that is overfocused on grades, factoids, and assessment. Teaching methodologies in many schools are designed only to improve test scores. These methodologies often decrease creativity and long-term educational curiosity.

The truth is that creativity can be nurtured and cultivated. We can help children practice their creativity skills and become more confident using those skills. And, it’s not difficult to nurture creativity. All we need is the will to do it.

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Myth #3: The arts are the best ways to teach creativity.

When most people think of creativity, they think of the arts and drama. They think of drawing, painting, and perhaps a musical and dramatic performance. When people equate the arts with creativity, they often downplay their own creativity by saying something like, “I’m not creative, I can’t even draw a straight line.”

Drama, painting, and drawing can be great ways to learn creativity. They can be great ways to express creativity. But they are not the only ways. The truth is that creative thinking and creative expression can be found in any discipline or topic.

But just because people are a good painter or good at drawing does not mean, ipso facto, they are creative. Some paintings simply copy someone else’s work. Some drawings are derivative of other drawings. Sometimes musical expression is neither novel nor useful. Just because someone is good at art does not make them creative.

Creative thinking can be a part of any discipline—from the hard sciences to the deep philosophy. Albert Einstein came up with new and novel ways to understand the universe. Sigmund Freud came up with creative ways to think about the human mind. Jacques Cousteau dreamed up new ways to share what was happening under the oceans.

Creativity can and should happen in any subject, discipline, or topic. Creative solutions can and should be found to every topic. It is trans-disciplinary—thinking that is not a part of any single discipline, but spans all disciplines.

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Myth #4: Schools don’t have time to teach creativity.

By anyone’s estimation, classrooms are overbooked. Trapped by requirements to teach a certain number of minutes in this topic or that topic, every waking moment is jammed with something. Some people look at creativity and say, “it would be nice, but there’s no more time in the school day to do any more.” These people look at creativity as yet another discipline.

Creativity doesn’t have to be another subject—it doesn’t have to take more time out of the school day. The truth is that creativity is a way to teach all the other subjects more effectively. Creativity is the way the brain hooks into a new subject. Teaching creatively is a methodology that teachers can use to effectively deliver new information. Creativity is absolutely critical as new information is applied, transferred, and extended.

Creativity could be it’s own subject. And if the goal of the school is to increase the creativity in children, then teaching creativity as a subject is a good idea. However, creativity is more often a way to teach other subjects. If we don’t teach with creativity, then our teaching becomes very inefficient and ineffective. Without creativity, we could spend all the time in the world on math and history, but children would retain very little of the information.

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Myth #5: Creative people are depressed, dark, and neurotic.

This myth has been around a long time. It is reinforced whenever we hear a story like how Edgar Allan Poe was depressed, or how Ernest Hemingway committed suicide. We hear that Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear. These high profile cases cause people to believe the myth that creative people are all depressed or mentally ill. Some people have even taken the myth further, and suggested that depression will somehow make you more creative.

Of course, sometimes creative people get depressed, just like anyone else. The truth is that depressive states shut down creativity. Depression does not enhance creativity. Neuroses, depression, and mental illness have no correlation to creativity.

However, creative people are often bored and restless. Sometimes they get discouraged when they can’t seem to find a suitable place to express themselves. When creative people take tests that gauge happiness, they often don’t score high. This is because they tend not to be complacent, and they are good at seeing what could be.

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Myth #6: Creative insight always comes in a flash.

Sometimes, indeed, it comes in a flash. One of the first models for creativity said that people have a flash of creative insight after our unconscious and subconscious stew on it for a long time. However, this flash of insight isn’t really the whole story.

The truth is that creativity is hard work. Creative insight doesn’t just blast out of our heads like an erupting volcano. Creative insight usually comes after a long period of study, thinking, and hard work.

Great composers have many, many discarded songs. Great painters throw away most of their work. Inventors hit many dead ends. Creativity is never a single act of insight. It’s almost always a long, tedious process that requires huge amounts of study, preparation, and inhuman amounts of persistence.

Researchers have conducted brain scans of people who are thinking creatively. They find that the electrical activity of the brain leaps around the brain—it’s constantly fluid. It jumps back and forth between the logical regions and the ideas regions. Creativity, like intelligence, has no center in the brain. Creativity leaps from connection to connection.

The brain’s activity is microcosm of creative insight. That flash of insight only comes after long periods of study, thinking, and work.

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Myth #7: Teachers can encourage creativity with a hands-off style.

Some teachers think that they can assign a creative project and then go back and sit at their desk. This is not an approach that encourages creativity. The truth is, teachers must be just as engaged in creative activities as in any other type of teaching.

Teachers need to be available to help kids when they get stuck, and to support them when they are doing well. A perceptive teacher will be able to tell if kids are stuck, or just deep in thought. The ways the teacher engages with the students will be different based on their learning need, but the teacher must always be engaged.

Some teachers might assign a coloring sheet… there are many reasons why a teacher might do this, but teaching creativity is not one of them. Some teachers might give an assignment to “draw whatever you want to draw.” Again, there might be many reasons for this, but by itself, this probably won’t help kids be creative. Most kids will simply draw whatever they drew last time it was enjoyable. The envelope hasn’t been pushed.

A teacher who teaches creativity helps kids push the envelope. The teacher has to read children to know whether they are not pushing enough or pushing too much. The teacher has to engage with kids to watch their thinking, their interactions, and their creative thought processes.

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Myth #8: Creativity is just fluffy fun, not very useful in real life.

Some people think of creativity as pasting rainbows on bulletin boards and drawing pictures of blue dragons. Some people think of creativity as vaguely interesting, but mostly useless in the real world.

However, in survey after survey of business leaders, creativity is identified as a top skill needed in business world. With the world changing so quickly, businesses are faced with problems that no one has ever seen before. Organizations need people who can generate creative solutions to new problems.

Business leaders also see innovation as critical for survival in the marketplace. Innovation is simply applied creativity—taking a creative idea and making it profitable. Organizations desperately need creative employees who can generate ideas and turn the idea into a useful product or service.

The best way to approach a rapidly changing future is with people who are creative and optimistic. Organizations need people who can fluently use creative skills. Schools become the most important places to teach and nurture creativity, building students’ confidence regarding these important skills. There’s a myth that creativity isn’t useful; but the truth is that skills of creativity are desperately needed in all aspects of society.

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Myth #9: Creative expression equals chaos and wild children

Some teachers think that if we let kids be creative, they will lose control. Children will be running, screaming, swinging from the curtains and wreaking havoc. Some teachers fear losing control of their classrooms above all else, and so this myth is particularly enduring.

There are many reasons for wild classrooms. Too many children in the class. An exciting day coming up. A teacher who hasn’t taught social skills. A teacher who is either too rigid or won’t enforce rules. Creativity however, is not a reason to have a wild classroom. Certainly, some teachers with poor classroom management have called their chaos “creative.” However, creativity doesn’t happen in wild classrooms. Creativity comes from focus, not from chaos. Focused children are huddled around a project. They might be happy and exuberant. They might be quiet because they are struggling with a problem. But the truth is, chaos is not a component of creativity.

Think of some historical exemplars of creativity. Have you seen any pictures of Albert Einstein and his colleagues swinging from the chandeliers? Have you heard stories of Thomas Edison and his employees racing through his labs on bicylcles, breaking windows and knocking things over? Probably not. These historical exemplars were known for their studious focus. They studied long and hard—often in unusual ways, often in playful ways, but their focused study was always a precursor to a creative insight. Long periods of study and focused thinking are almost always necessary before creative vision. Study and focus are precursors to creativity, not chaos and wild behavior.

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Myth #10: Special, secret activities are needed to teach creativity

The truth is, cultivating creativity isn’t difficult. It’s simply a matter of nurturing what is already there. It’s taking the innate skills of creativity and letting it blossom—like giving sunlight and water to a flower seed. We nurture those creativity skills when:

  • Give some freedom and authority to pursue the topics they enjoy.
  • Give ill-structured problems, and let them create solutions that have more than one right answer.
  • Create a classroom culture that respects ideas and welcomes new and different thoughts.
  • Encourage kids to be curious and imaginative.
  • Encourage moodling, the slow, inefficient playfulness with ideas.
  • Be genuinely excited for kids as they pursue new ideas and new topics of interest.

By the same token, it’s not difficult to squash creativity, either. Teachers and parents can squash creativity when:

  • Kids are interested in something, but we don’t let them pursue their interests.
  • We care more about evaluation and assessment than the slow, uneven process of learning.
  • We overfocus on facts, memorizing, and academic knowledge.
  • We give them the idea that everything has only one right answer, and getting the wrong answer is the worst thing.
  • Discourage playfulness, curiosity, and imagination because they are not productive.

We encourage creativity when we have develop relationships with kids, build a culture, and offer a few activities that can help kids think in new ways. It’s a process that is not secret, complex, or difficult.

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