The Fallacy of the Creative Type
Creativity is a skill that everyone can develop if they understand its process.
Posted March 30, 2018
The fallacious “creative type.”
It drives me crazy. Whenever I mention my research on creativity, people invariably tell me how they wish they could be creative. When I ask them why they think they can’t be, they explain how they are not like the “creative types” that they hear and read about. They basically say something like: “I read about [insert famous person here] and their [insert quirky characteristic here]. They used to [insert weird habit here]. Some people’s brains just work differently!”
What bothers me so much is not that this statement has the truth value equivalent of a weight loss pill ad. It is that the people who say this to me (and believe it) are often students who have a great deal of creative potential. They have shown it to me in their work. But when they adopt this mindset, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy—they don’t think they fit the creative stereotype, they therefore ignore their creative potential and wind up not being that creative, as they predicted. How much creativity is lost because of this?
I am not just talking about inexperienced undergraduates, by the way. I am talking about very accomplished people who I teach in executive programs. I am talking about star hedge fund managers, navy seals, accomplished editors, and directors of corporate/governmental divisions. These are people who, despite their own evidence to the contrary, really believe that there is a rare and special creative type, and that they are not one of them. It’s a waste to think like this. So why does it persist?
The validity of the special creative genius has been debunked by science. But while types may not be special, there are still types. And this reinforces the idea that creative potential is a fixed capacity rather than an expandable one.
The fallacy of the fixed
If you look at the American Psychological Association’s ontology of concepts, “creativity” is under the broader term “personality traits,” and most of the related terms are about people’s traits (e.g., gifted, intelligence, openness to experience). While this characterization makes creativity more commonplace, it still makes it a type—a creative person is a smart person with high capacity for divergent thinking and an openness to experience. When creativity comes from your personality, you are again stuck with whatever amount of creativity you were born with.
I should mention that there is a lot of research on situations and experiences that can make a person more creative. Having lived abroad, living in a city, being a novice, working with diverse others…these are just some of the commonly cited ways that creativity can be increased. But wait. Look at this sample of attributes and what do you see? Features that again make types. Now a creative person is a novice cosmopolitan expatriate who works with someone from a different ethnographic group. What is the mid-career person who lives in the suburbs to do?
Maybe it is time to look past what people creative people “are” and to look more closely at what they have to do. What people can do is best characterized as skill, and creativity should be one of these.
The purpose of this blog
Jeff Loewenstein and I wrote The Craft of Creativity precisely because we felt like a lot of creative potential was wasted. For example, businesses look to hire creative people, despite the inconsistent and unimpressive relationship between personality and creative performance, rather than trying to develop their individual creative skills. And when we examined the fields that have to teach creativity to those who will work within them, there was definitely a skillset to learn. Composer Jesse Guessford said, “When students come in, they have no process.” It was a sentiment echoed by Drew Davidson, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. Creativity has a process; it is a skill because you can get better at that process.
But it is not a simple process, nor is it something that can be reduced to 5 easy steps. So in this blog we will discuss the different ways that you, the reader, might apply the many tools and discoveries we found while writing our book to improve your creative skill.
So what is there to learn? Lots of things. How to identify when creativity is actually likely to be useful is a set of skills. How to develop insights into actual working innovations is a set of skills. How your craft (i.e., your non-creative skills) can actually help you to be more creative is a set of skills. This last one implies that novices are NOT more creative, and it also demonstrates that part of what we need to learn is which ideas we should abandon.
There are a lot of ideas that are simply wrong (beyond the creative type) that we will need to give up. That novices are more creative is one of them. That creativity is only used for certain things or in certain fields is another. All the different types of people we spoke to - accountants and artists, mechanics and musicians, doctors and dancers—ALL of them described their creative process in identical ways.
What does that process look like? Tune in next time for another exciting episode of The Craft of Creativity – The Psychology Today Blog. Next time we will talk about what it means to be creative in the first place, as creativity is not always as novel as you might think.
1. For a general discussion see Sawyer, R. K. (2011). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. Oxford University Press.
More specifically, see Singh, J., & Fleming, L. (2010). Lone inventors as sources of breakthroughs: Myth or reality?. Management Science, 56(1), 41-56.
2. Cummings, A., & Oldham, G. R. (1997). Enhancing creativity: Managing work contexts for the high potential employee. California Management Review, 40(1), 22-38.