Creativity: Hardwired or A Skill We Can All Develop?

September 17, 2009

This week the Globe and Mail published an article titled “How to Shine Again After A Year of Gloom” in which employees as well as candidates looking for jobs are urged to emphasize their creativity as a means of differentiating themselves in the marketplace. This is great advice, provided you are one of the few people who actually are creative. For everyone else it is disengenuous and a waste of time.

Creativity pops up as a coveted capability in tough times as individuals and organizations alike strain to manufacture ‘eureka’ moments, insights or original ideas that will pull them out of their doldrums and catapult them into a brighter tomorrow. And much has been written about this mystical capability/attribute and the extent to which in can be instilled or developed in everyone. For many, creativity is a cognitive muscle, one that we all possess and which can be built and strengthened through specialized training and exercise. Not surprisingly this view has spawned an entire training industry with books, workshops, videos and consultants dedicated to showing each and every one of us how to become innovators in our own right.

But for others this is nonsense. To them, creativity is best conceptualized not as a muscle but rather as part of an electrical wiring system. And either you are hard wired with it, or you are not. They see creativity as a set of inherent qualities that enables those it inhabits to bring together ideas, thoughts, memories, images and the like and make sense of them in an altogether different way. This requires the ability to take in diverse ideas and thoughts, some seemingly irrelevant, trivial or on the surface unrelated, that most of us would ignore or discard. These thoughts are then cognitively tossed about triggering occasional connections and the birth of novel ideas. What would be a maddening, distracting cacophony of mental noise to most of us is to the creative crowd a symphony of sounds. It is as though the cognitive lodgings of the creative are laid out in a manner which allows a greater number of diverse visitors to enter and mingle in a stress-free manner.

Intelligence is not irrelevant. Processing horsepower and the ability to generate mental bits and pieces of information are the base materials from which new combinations are generated. But while intelligence matters, it is the ability to make associations and connections that differentiates the creative from the rest. It is also the ability to make connections with applicability or use. All of this is beyond the scope of a one day workshop.

But before cursing your misfortune at being born in the shallow end of the creativity gene pool, keep in mind that there is also a correlation between creativity and mental illness. Some creative types cannot filter or rid themselves of all of the bits and pieces of thoughts that float and sometimes crash in their heads. Others see linkages everywhere, perhaps even conspiratorial linkages that torment them to no end. Still others generate streams of incongruous, odd or irrelevant connections with almost stunning uselessness. Bipolar illnesses are also associated with creativity as some people appear to be most productive in highly charged periods of mania.

In his new book titled Borrowing Brilliance, entrepreneur/scientist David Kord Murray recounts the time he was asked by his employer to create an innovation training program for his company. After studying hundreds of noted creative thinkers, he concluded that the easiest way for most people to become creative is to take ideas from others, in fields distant from their own, and apply them to their field. In fact, the farther away the ideas are borrowed the more innovative they are likely to appear when applied. While this is hardly the stuff of legendary eureka creativity, it is likely the most efficient way for most of us to become even modestly creative. That said, even such larcenous creativity requires that knowledge to be gathered and borrowed from places unknown, and then contemplated for connections not obvious at the outset. And no matter how many books we read on creativity, a select few of us will prove to be better at this process than all of the rest of us combined.

Robert Hebert is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group (www.stonewoodgroup.com). He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777