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Can Anyone Be Creative? Here’s What Research Reveals

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Over the centuries, people have sought to understand, explain and harness creativity. Multiple cultures had or have Gods of creativity, such as Apollo, Saraswati, Hephaestus, Sadv, Ptah, and many more.

Creativity has also been thought to be triggered or inspired by Muses. A muse can be a person or personified force. Other people have attributed creativity to monotheistic divine inspiration.

More recently, creativity was thought to be an attribute or human characteristic that some people inherited from their ancestors, and others did not.

Such latter approaches led to the creation of ‘creativity tests’. Alas, they ran into the most common problem in the social sciences: how to define what it is we are trying to understand and measure.

What is creativity? Sounds like a simple question. It is extremely hard to define. For instance, are we defining creativity in terms of the person or their output? What are the elements or dimensions of creativity? How can we classify them if we can define them?

Is creativity ‘originality’? Albert Einstein said: ‘Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought’. How do we define that? Must the idea be original in an absolute sense? Or original to the person or to the context?’

Is creativity defined by the level of ‘elaboration’? Again, how do we define that? Is it the degree to which the idea is fleshed out to the extent that others can understand it? Or is it the extent to which the realisation plan has been formulated?

Does creativity involve a level of ‘flexibility’? Does ‘flexibility’ mean the extent to which any idea can be applied in different domains and contexts? Or does it mean the extent to which a person can demonstrate flexibility of thought?

Is creativity defined by the level of ‘fluency’? Does that mean the number of different uses for the idea? Or does it mean the range of impact that the different uses have? Does it mean that one good idea successfully implemented, with one use, is worth less than an abundance of dross?

Creativity, whatever it is, is poorly correlated with divergent thinking. Here too, there are problems of definition: what is divergent thinking? Creativity is even less correlated with IQ (whatever IQ maybe).

In short, since we can’t define it well enough, we are unable to meaningfully assess creativity.

In the face of our inability to define, assess, or measure creativity, it will come as no surprise that the most reliable of all the unreliable ways to assess whether someone is ‘creative is by the collation of self-reported creative activities and accomplishments. If someone has created cartoons, books, workshops, models, articles, theories, songs, plays, novels, businesses, etc., they have demonstrated their creativity.

In other words, we can best assess a person’s creative abilities, in the real world, by gathering evidence of their creative abilities in the real world.

It makes me shudder to think of how much research money has been wasted coming to that obvious conclusion.

Not all creative research has been wasted. Here are some of the useful findings.

The more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be creative. Many creatives and geniuses have observed and commented on how education seems to kill creativity.

  • ‘The creative adult is the child who survived’, Ursula Le Guin
  • ‘The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education’, Albert Einstein

As society is becoming better educated, levels of creativity as measured by creativity ‘tests’ are decreasing. Perhaps there is something detrimental to the creative process in the systems we have in place. Perhaps the ‘comply to qualify’ approach seen in almost every education setting stifles, suppresses, or impairs creativity.

There seems to be no difference in creativity levels between men and women. Both have been responsible for world-changing inventions. Creative output seems equal between genders, but ongoing sexism seems to determine the extent to which some of those creative ideas are turned in to reality.

Creativity seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; those who think they are not, are not, and those who think they are, are. That may be caused by people acting on their beliefs:

  • Since I am not creative, there is no point in trying.
  • Because I am creative, I have confidence I can come up with something; I’ll have a go.

Sylvia Plath summarises that difference in seven words: ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’

Creativity seems to benefit from the practice effect: people seem to be able to create more after they have been trained to create more.

In response to creativity training, people who are already creative do not improve their ability to create as much as those who started off being less creative.

Creativity research seems to have been blighted by the ‘determinist’s error’. That is, the research community views the world through a paradigm that impairs understanding; the assumption is that something inherent ‘determines’ a person’s level of creativity.

If there is any determinism at play, I think it is this: people’s level of creativity is determined by whether they have chosen to be creative; whether they have chosen to believe they can be creative.

In short, creativity seems to be a choice.

People who see themselves as non-creative perceive creativity as a ‘feel good activity’. People who are creative, (as measured by their historical output), perceive creativity as chosen, deliberate and systematic.

Creativity seems to be more prevalent in those people who are most comfortable learning from failure. That may be a creative pre-requisite: creativity involves a lot of failure.

‘There is no innovation and creativity without failure’, Brené Brown

The creative process is fragile and can easily be derailed or destroyed by just a moment of negativity.

If you want your creativity to see the light of day here is another useful piece of advice from professor E=MC2 himself: ‘Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.’

Only a tiny percentage of new ideas work in practice. The failure rate is high. Most of the creative ideas that are implemented result in incremental improvements, and most of those are system or process enhancements.

It is estimated that 1 in 400 musical theatre scripts makes it into production, and 1 in 400 of those will be a Phantom of the Opera level success. Creativity involves taking risks. As George Lois pointed out: ‘You can be cautious, or you can be creative, but there’s no such thing as a cautious creative.’

Creativity is going beyond what is. In almost any field the wisest are those who are aware of their own ignorance; they are aware of what they don’t know, and in some cases, can’t know.

Creative people are happy to be ignorant. Becoming aware that they don’t know something is a moment to rejoice; it gives a direction in which to look for or generate ideas; it flags up a problem to be solved.

Such people continue to study and learn way beyond even the most advanced text books or academic papers. For some, how to answer the key unanswered questions in their field is hugely important. They have gone beyond being consumers of knowledge and become creators of knowledge. Others feel most alive when doing something never done before, or solving previously unsolved problems, or revolutionising a complacent or moribund industry.

Creative people at the cutting-edge of any field are more interested in the questions of today than the knowledge of yesterday.

‘Don’t listen to the person who has the answers; listen to the person who has the questions.’ Albert Einstein.

Creativity in any field comes from the questions people ask. ‘To raise new questions requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.’ Albert Einstein.

The obvious question, then, is: how do I get myself in a position to ask an idea-generating question?

Here are the steps that I uncovered in my research into creativity

Step 1: Direction. Choose a direction in which to look for or generate ideas.

Step 2: Method. Choose a method to generate or look for ideas.

Step 3. Ask questions based on the direction and method you have chosen.

Step 4. Ideas will flow.

Step 5. Improve the ideas. Few ideas are perfect when first generated, or found.

Collate and improve them; build on them; refine them. That is the point at which creative thinking skills give way to implementation.

Here is an example.

  • Step 1: Choose a direction. We will go for aviation, specifically air passenger transport.
  • Step 2: Choose a method. Of the thousands available, let’s adopt ‘problem identification’, specifically, parts of the process that people find unpleasant or inconvenient.
  • Step 3: Ask question/s. Which parts of the aviation experience do passengers (you) find most unpleasant or problematic? (Note that the question draws on the direction and the method previously chosen.)

Answers to questions:

Check-in. Waiting in long queues. Security checks. Being forced to walk needlessly huge distances through a deliberately designed maze of shops selling items I have no interest in. Poor information in airports. Seats being uncomfortable on planes. No means of supporting my head when I want to sleep. 

Choose a problem to focus on. Let’s choose the head support problem.

Repeat Step 3: Ask questions. What would provide support for your head?

  • Step 4: Ideas flow. Neck support? Head-shaped hollow in the headrest? Wings on the headrest?
  • Step 5: Improve the ideas. What could make the wings work for everybody, regardless of head shape/size/height, etc.?

Idea improvement: make them adjustable or spring-loaded?

Does this work? Yes. That is the chain of events that took place and led to the introduction of adjustable wings on headrests on passenger aircraft.

Can anyone be creative?

Yes, if they believe they can and are willing to learn how to be creative.

How quickly can people become creative? In the workshops I run, clients are guaranteed to be generating commercially relevant ideas within a few hours. How?

By learning the steps above: learning how to choose an appropriate direction in which to look for ideas.

By learning which are the best methods that work best in various contexts. By learning how to craft questions that lead to the generation of ideas.

Once mastered, the techniques above can be used to generate ideas systematically, reliably, on demand, in real time, for life.

In four words we can summarise creativity: creativity is a choice.

Creativity is a choice which becomes progressively more self-fulfilling: the more we choose to be creative, and are creative, the more we believe we are creative, which makes us more likely to choose to be creative, which in turn… and upwards goes the virtuous spiral.

  • ‘You can’t use up creativity; the more you use, the more you have’ Maya Angelou

What will you choose to create?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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