Monday, 16 March 2015

“Creative people are born not made” and other copouts that keep you from being remarkable

From all the myths on creativity this is, no doubt, one of the most pervasive. Its success in becoming part of our collective imagination is due to a single, yet terribly influential belief that gives an almost mystical role to talent—‘raw talent’. My point is that creativity is neither in the brain nor in the body--also not in  society. In a word, it is not a thing, it is a process.

Spotting the ways in which this deeply held belief in 'raw talent' negatively affects our behavior is actually not diffcult.

Think, for example, about the response that most people give, when asked whether or not they would say that they are creative individuals:

‘No… I have never been the creative type… I never was into any of that artsy stuff’.

But, what do we mean when we say things like 'artsy' or even 'talent'?
Creativity we seem to think is some mysteriously cool stuff that allows people to do even more cool stuff.

Such belief, one quickly realizes, makes of creativity a sort of hovering abstract attribute which would somehow materialize in different activities—sometimes painting, sometimes playing an instrument, and sometimes dancing ballet. For the believer in the powers of 'creative stuff' practice is inconsequential or secondary: Picasso was born a Master painter. Creativity, from this point of view, is supposed to be an energy of sorts that lives in some realm that is prior to the activity itself—perhaps within an individual’s soul, mind, or spirit.

You may at this point be thinking: ‘Ok, maybe the idea lacks sophistication, but is it really such a bad thing? Not everyone is a sociologist or a philosopher you know…’. 

I agree with you, the real question is how this affects people’s ability to be creative, right?

Well, this is where the real damage lies and it comes to light when we pay attention to the effects it has on both, the so called ‘creatives’ and the other ‘square’ or uncreative individuals. Most of the believers fall on the latter category. For them they simply acquire a sense of defeat about creativity, which, fact, works as a powerful resistance against creative work. These are the same people that will tell you, when given the opportunity to be creative: ‘I’m not the person for the task’, ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I am not one of the office’s creative people…’ ‘Maybe he [while pointing to someone with frizzy hair] can help you’.

It is this attitude of insecurity or contempt for creative work what is the real hindrance, no matter what the work or the type of organization at stake. This is not to say that the role of those aspects of our lives we don’t really choose for (education, parents, geography, and luck) is negligible, but rather that thinking and working creatively is most of all a practice or a habit, which comes about through repetition.

Repetition is what allows for mastery to be acquired: an artist, who can draw wonderfully realistic portraits in minutes, is able to do so because of the hundreds if not thousands of portraits she has made in the past. Like with any activity—from driving a car to playing tennis—it is hours of dedication and repetition what truly account for what we normally refer to as talent—the 10,000 hour rule for Gladwell’s Outliers. When it comes to creativity, furthermore, talent is indeed essential but it is not sufficient on its own—not all artists are innovators, and not all are pushing the lines of their disciplines. In the cases of people like Picasso, Matisse, Hopper or Warhol, just to name a few, their true truly experimental and innovative phases came only after they had acquired mastery over the techniques necessary to render a flawless painting (or a flawless design in the case of Warhol). Talent, we must realize, is but the starting point behind creative work; talent is what comes to light after the ten thousands hours. It is what allows for experimentation to be less of a leap of faith and more of an experiment in the scientific sense, hence, more of a discovery that may at first raise more questions than answers, but which in any case allows for progress to be accounted for, to be visible.

This same engrained belief is also responsible in convincing us (namely managers) that creative work is a black-box, which implies that it is a process that cannot be accounted for or properly understood. Instead of recognizing the hard work that is needed to acquire a talent, because it makes us feel insecure about our own sense of dedication and perseverance, we put a black-box in its place. Given that we cannot simply replicate the results of someone who has mastered a technique, we decide—out of frustration—that creativity is a sort of uncontrollable fluke, which cannot be learned or taught, and which cannot be made into a central part of an organization’s way of doing things. If your manager or your CFO tells you that in order to encourage creativity the company must sacrifice on productivity and efficiency, then you can be sure that they are the type of believers I have been talking about.

So, next time you hear yourself repeating the myth, remember that you can be creative, and that by doing so you are not giving up on structure, accountability or reflection.

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

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