Creativity: Hardwired Or A Skill to be Developed?

Creativity regularly pops up as a coveted capability as individuals and organizations alike look to manufacture ‘eureka’ moments, insights or original ideas that will 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 strengthened and trained through specialized exercises. A recent study for example urged traditional thinkers to purposefully examine our reactions and perspectives with a view to reframing our existing perspectives. The researcher argued that ‘If we can practice or train that flexible-thinking muscle, it may help us be more creative over time’. Not surprisingly this view has spawned an entire industry with training 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 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.
Now 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 book 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 elsewhere. While this is hardly the stuff of legendary eureka creativity, it is perhaps the most efficient way for most of us to exhibit modest creativity. 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.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.
Contact Robert by email at [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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