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How You Think of Creativity Matters!

What are your creativity assumptions?

Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

Freestyle Frisbee: handstand catch by Claudio Cigna

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

What sorts of moves are possible when catching a Frisbee? And how might our beliefs about flexibility and improvisation limit what we see as attainable?

Beliefs are powerful shapers of who we are, and of the aims, small or big, that we strive to realize in our lives.

Some of our beliefs are familiar to us: they are clear, we know we have them, they come readily to mind, and are easily expressed. But not all of our beliefs are so familiar. Some of our beliefs have a more implicit existence. They are intricately interwoven with our experiences and what we have inferred or assumed, sometimes with little or no conscious awareness.

Where do our beliefs about creativity and the creative process reside on this continuum of explicit versus implicit beliefs? What do we hold to be true about how new insights and new ways of acting come to be? Do we think of creativity as something that is fixed and stable and “trait-like” — such that we either have it, or we don’t? Or do we see creativity as something that can be learned, developed, and improved with practice, guidance, or experience?

Teaming up with a colleague in Japan, two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley asked how a person’s beliefs about the nature of creativity — whether they saw creativity as fixed or rather as amenable to change and development — related to their creative problem solving and achievement.

In their first experiment, students who more strongly endorsed a view of creativity as fixed showed significantly less interest in creative thinking, and subjectively perceived themselves as having less creativity. On a test of divergent thinking these students also came up with significantly fewer responses, and their responses were lower in originality, than did fellow students who saw creativity as changeable. So the students' beliefs about creativity carried over into their behavior, with those who believed in the malleability of creativity proving to be more creative.

In a second study, the researchers turned to a large representative sample of Japanese adults spanning a wider age range and demographic characteristics. They asked the participants about their beliefs about creativity and their creative activities across their lifetime. Those who saw creativity as changeable (rather than unchangeable) were significantly more likely to report one or more creative achievements in the visual arts, music, poetry, or scientific discovery.

What other sorts of beliefs might we have about creativity and the creative process?

Two powerful beliefs may be our beliefs about where and how creative thoughts emerge. We may tend to overly simplify creative thinking as being entirely “in our heads” and as mostly taking place in “sudden bursts of insight.”

But this is to overlook the many prompts, prods, and possibilities that are continually entering our minds (and our creative search) from outside of us — through our interactions with one another, and with externally-carried symbols and forms of all sorts, such as words, drawings, sketches, bits and pieces of our earlier "thoughts" that physically persist outside of us and outside of our mind. It also neglects how creative ideas progressively emerge and assume new shapes across time, and across space: through iterations and modifications and large and small tweaks and restarts and moves.

To think about:

  • How changeable (versus fixed and "trait-like") do you think creativity is?
  • How might thinking about your beliefs about creativity — and where and when creativity emerges and evolves — open new possibilities for you?
  • What could we (as individuals and teams) do to be more creatively inquiring about our beliefs about creativity itself?