People have a lot of different beliefs about creativity. And some are just plain myths. Here are some common myths and realities about creativity.
Which side of the brain is responsible for creativity? If you said the right-side, you get partial credit. For decades the right-brain meme has dominated articles on creativity. Creative people (thought generators) were often described as right-brained. Analytical people (logic-driven) were called left-brained.
It’s true that the two hemispheres of the brain function differently. And it’s also true that the spontaneous processing of those Aha! Insights involves more of the right hemisphere. This is especially true for emotional processing. But these insights represent just one type of creativity. And it doesn’t mean that ONLY one side of the brain was involved.
The right-brain myth stemmed from brain lateralization research in 1981. The technology at the time provided imprecise measurements that are now being fine-tuned. Rather than simply trying to engage your right-brain to think more creatively, it’s more about the ability of the different parts of the brain to work together. In 2017, an international research team discovered that top percentile creatives had stronger connections between the left and right hemispheres of their brains. Therefore, the more you can use your whole brain, and the more you can connect insights with data, the more you can stimulate creativity.
The Eureka Myth
The Eureka myth is the belief that creativity comes from a subconscious flash of insight. The myth conveniently glosses over the time and hard work that precedes the insight. Sir Harold Evans, in HBR’s The Eureka Myth, discusses the problems with this fallacy.
The trouble with the eureka myth is that it causes managers and investors to overestimate the pace of invention and underestimate the fortitude required to move from the early stages of discovery to a marketable product. Thomas Watson, Jr., is one of the few who took—and took sustenance from—a more realistic view. In the 1950s, Watson struggled to move IBM from punched cards to computers, “something a hundred times faster that we didn’t understand,” he later wrote. What kept him going through this grueling process? He thought of the Wright brothers, moving doggedly from one problem to the next, “any one of which could have grounded them for good,” as Watson told it. In the popular imagination, the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk kicked off the age of aviation. But as Watson, a wartime pilot, knew, it took four more years of hard, secretive labor before the Wrights were able to demonstrate flight that was sufficiently sustained to convince a skeptical world.
Books often glamorize the moment at which a problem is solved by a particularly inventive solution. But without giving thought to the time and resources to get to that point, creativity may actually be diminished.
The DNA Myth
Many people believe that they are not creative because they were not “born” creative. A few studies of twins suggest heredity is involved to some extent, but effort can be just as important. In fact, creativity can be amplified when you build a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
Carol Dweck, in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains that when you believe intelligence, creativity and other human qualities are unchangeable (fixed), you limit your ability to excel. On the other hand, a growth mindset allows continual evolution through experience, education, and personal effort. In the book, she quotes Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist: “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures … I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.”
Ingenuity can be learned, even though it is true that not everyone will become a gifted artist. You can nudge yourself to become more imaginative by purposefully building your capacity for life-long learning and brain development. Just as you may exercise your body to become brawny, you can flex your creative brain by being open to new experiences and perspectives.
The “I-am-too-old” Myth
There is no expiration age at which creativity shrivels and wilts. In 2011, George Weiss invented the word game Dabble. He was 84 at the time, and was believed to be the oldest mobile app inventor in America. Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing bifocals in 1784, at the age of 78. While Thomas Edison filed most of his patents when he was in his 30s and 40s, his patents continued to 1931, the year he died at the age of 84.
The flip side of “I-am-too-old” is “I-am-too-young.” This may not be as big of a stigma because youth is correlated with most characteristics of creativity (curiosity, resilience, open-mindedness, etc.). However, they may lack some relevant domain-knowledge. The key then is to work with others.
Take 13-year-old Gitanjali Rao, for example. The Colorado grade-school student was named America’s top young scientist (at age 11) in 2017 for designing a small, global device for testing lead in drinking water. Two years later she had earned a spot on the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. According to the NPR article about her, she was motivated by the Flint water crisis. She worked with scientists in the water industry to create a working prototype consisting of a card-deck-sized box containing a battery, Bluetooth and carbon nanotubes. Data is sent to a smartphone app. A lab manager at Denver Water is working with Rao to test and improve the device.
The Creativity-can’t-be-Learned Myth
Similar to the DNA Myth, this misconception arises from the belief that creativity is a magical, mysterious, unstructured essence. There are no concrete rules that work universally.
Nevertheless, experts know that the rhythm of divergent-to-convergent thinking stimulates idea generation and refinement. They know that incubation is an important part of the process. And they are aware that flow, iteration and goal-setting can be instrumental. These are concepts that can be taught and adapted to fit individual styles.
Don’t trap yourself into believing that you have to be like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs to be creative. Yes, you might be inspired by them, or learn new tactics from their examples. But to be creative, it’s best to springboard from your authentic self, your own creative Soul. What do you care about, or for some reason have heightened interest in, that can spark your creativity? And then get to work.