Can Creativity be Learned or is it a Trait Reserved only for Geniuses?

While 2020 was a weird year full of restrictions, almost as if the whole world was procrastinating, I had the pleasure of joining the Forward Festival online stream and throwing my brain out there, symbolically speaking. And one topic in particular caught my interest. 

Max Siedentopf talked about creativity and the stigma of copying ideas. I always felt like (still do sometimes, to be honest) I needed to be fully original. I didn’t want to “recycle” ideas and wanted to come up with new, out-of-the-box ones. Which left me struggling so I ended up creating nothing instead. 

Many creativity enthusiasts suggest that if we want to “unleash” our creative capacity, we only have to set up certain conditions and let it naturally “happen.” This may entail informal workspaces, non-hierarchical organizations, flexible working hours, and diverse/hip spaces.

Yet…is that really it? Is that enough to foster and grow creative thoughts and ideas? I want to believe it’s a yes, but from experience I feel like this can be part of the process but not the entire solution. 

In this post, I want to define the term “creativity,” I want to show you that failure is actually a great option, and I want to share how to go about cultivating creativity as a skill.

 

Let’s define creativity 

Creativity is such a mythicized word. It’s no wonder. Since studies about it began, they’ve been mostly focused on so-called geniuses, further instilling the belief that creativity is unreachable for “average” people.

Before going into more detail on how we could actually cultivate and grow creativity, let’s define and discuss the word and meaning behind creativity. Let us demystify this intangible noun. 

“Creativity requires originality and effectiveness” is the common definition I found. Why isn’t it enough to be original when being creative? Your ideas may be original, unusual, novel, or unique, but if they have no use or value to others it may stay nothing more than an idea. 

 

George Washington Bethune made a good point when he stated (quote from 1839):

“It would be a poor summing up of a life upon earth, to find that all the powers of an immortal intellect had been devoted to the amusement of idle hours, or the excitement of empty mirth, or even the mere gratification of taste, without a single effort to make (wo)men wiser and better and happier.” I agree.

Therefore, when being creative or having an idea, we should keep in mind that it should be useful and – as a bigger goal – transform the world either through art or products and services. In short: It should make the time you invest in it worthwhile. 

Thought exercise: Think of an acute problem you’re having right now. Next, think of 5 absolutely ridiculous solutions to it. Write it down and store it away! Revisit this exercise for inspiration or reread old results.

 

Failure is not an option – or that’s what so many of us are taught.

Take Edison’s inventive strategies. They were to build and test a large number of alternative solutions to a problem. He ended up with many failures. Without these inconclusive outcomes, he wouldn’t have found the rare creative gems. Therefore, one key to creativity should be to develop more resilience to fight this frustration. 

Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns to look at things in a different way. A creative, therefore, seems to be more sensitive to gaps and unsolved issues in the environment, which means that creatives see the missing links. 

Never forget that ideas may be generated and come to life in isolation BUT “the nature of individuals’ creations is generally shaped by the norms and conventions of the community to which they belong as well as try the pressing issues that those communities want to address.” (Haslam et al., 2016).

 

Let’s get serious about cultivating creativity

Creativity, like many skills, can be learned and needs to be practiced. Core abilities and skills, which will enhance your creative spirit, are as follows (as stated by Tepper & Ku):

  1. Train to approach problems in non-routine ways using metaphors and analogies.
  2. Ask yourself “what If” and reframe issues: What if a restaurant couldn’t sell food anymore – how could it adapt to the change?
  3. Observe, observe, and observe, and listen to see new and unexpected patterns.
  4. Risk failure (one of the hardest in my opinion). Especially in times of ambiguity and uncertainty.
  5. Accept critical feedback and revise and improve ideas.
  6. Collaborate! Bring people, power, and resources together to create novel ideas together.
  7. Become a great storyteller to communicate ideas to others by using visual, oral, written, and other media-related means. 

 

Sounds nice, but what can you actually do to become more creative and at ease with that state of mind? These are my favorite recommendations. 

First, don’t push it. Sometimes you need to copy first to actually understand and define your style. Just because your idea is inspired by another idea doesn’t make it bad or boring. Proof: “Same, Same But Different” by Max Siedentopf. It’s a great starting point to get into the routine of creation! Don’t be scared to copy at first and find your voice through trial and error. 

Second, collaborate. I understand – artists are loners and introverts and you can only create by yourself. What? No, I disagree. I’m an introverted person and, nevertheless, I meet people and it so happens that I’ve been working with Katharina Höppel and Patricia Vincent on various projects. Some are still in the works, others were random creative endeavors, others were planned, and sometimes it’s just a verbal exchange, which helps me see my idea more clearly. It’s fun, so try to stumble upon people like this. Online or offline – doesn’t matter. If you’re open to it, they’ll come into your life. Be patient but also accepting when they arrive! You can also talk to your current friends and see if one of them is willing to start creating together.

Third, play the game of “what if” or “why.” Every child goes through a phase in their life when they start asking questions. They want to understand the world and test how far they can go. Why not wake up your inner child and try to think outside the box? You want to make an idea better, more innovative? Ask questions. Let’s say you want to open up a restaurant in these uncertain times. Ask yourself: What would an online restaurant look like? What could a restaurant sell instead of food? What would happen if we take away the tables? It’s about finding weird concepts and writing down the answers. Something might come up and you might come up with a once-in-a-lifetime idea that actually works.

Creativity will not only be accessible to everyone but be the prime skill and talent for all human beings (Corazza, 2016). I therefore recommend to start adding creative thought into your skillset. That skill may be a life-changer in the future!

 

Sources: 

Potential Originality and Effectiveness: The Dynamic Definition of Creativity, Giovanni Emanuele Corazza (2016)

Bethune, George Washington (1839). Genius. Casket, 8, 59–69.

The Collective Origins of Valued Originality: A Social Identity Approach to Creativity, S. Alexander Haslam, Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno, Tom Postmes, and Lise Jans (2016)

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