The Myths of Creativity

Summary Written by Joel D Canfield

The Big Idea

YOU are the muse

"[Harvard Business School professor Teresa] Amabile's assertion is that creativity is influenced by four separate components: domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant processes, task motivation, and the surrounding social environment….The final influencer, social environment, is the only component that exists entirely outside the individual."- The Myths of Creativity, pages 6 & 8

As a writer and writing coach, I know the greatest enemy of art: the great bully Resistance, called out prominently in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Creation is such a visceral act that our unconscious looks endlessly for ways to sabotage us. Burkus calls us all out by naming 10 myths we tell ourselves to excuse inaction. In each case, he shows us that while it’s easier to invoke the myth than do the work, the solution is to turn that around: do the work, and invoke the Muse – you.

Insight #1

10 Reasons to Stop Waiting and Start Creating

"We don’t need to rely on belief in an outside force to generate great ideas. We have everything we need inside ourselves."- The Myths of Creativity, page 5

1. The Eureka Myth

o Myth: If you’re in the right place at the right time, your idea will manifest itself when triggered by something outside your control.

o Reality: Creative people share a similar creative process which includes preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. It is not a gift, but the result of the right kind of hard work combined with a wandering mind.

2. The Breed Myth

o Myth: Creative types are born that way. You are or you aren’t.

o Reality: Of our 5 primary personality components (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) only openness has a measurable correlation to creativity. Our openness isn’t fixed but can be learned or expanded. There’s no compelling evidence to support a genetic component to creativity.

3. The Originality Myth

o Myth: Great ideas are the unique creations of single individuals.

o Reality: Most great ideas and inventions can be directly traced to previous thinking and in many cases great ideas occurred simultaneously to more than one person (the telephone, calculus, the personal computer.)

4. The Expert Myth

o Myth: Those with the deepest knowledge in a domain are most likely to have breakthrough ideas.

o Reality: At a certain level expertise leads to narrowed thinking and can decrease creative output. The toughest problems are often solved by people at the edge of a domain, those with enough knowledge to contribute but enough ignorance to take innovative paths.

5. The Incentive Myth

o Myth: The output and quality of creativity can be increased with incentives.

o Reality: Study after study shows that extrinsic motivation decreases creativity.

6. The Lone Creator Myth

o Myth: Creativity is a solo performance; innovations come from a single person working fervently on the new idea.

o Reality: Both Thomas Edison and Michelangelo had large teams of workers supporting them. Edison’s inventions were almost all the result of teamwork. Michelangelo’s art (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for instance) often involved a team rather than being solo efforts. Great ideas often grow from the differing experiences and perspectives of groups.

7. The Brainstorming Myth

o Myth: One great idea will creative innovation, so generating as many ideas as possible leads to success.

o Reality: Brainstorming is part of the creative process, but must be done correctly (it rarely is) and only adds value as part of a larger creative process. See Gem #2 below.

8. The Cohesive Myth

o Myth: Great ideas come from teams which work in perfect harmony, suspending criticism.

o Reality: Creative abrasion, properly managed, can result in as much as a 25% increase in creative ideas.

9. The Constraints Myth

o Myth: Creativity needs total unbounded freedom because constraints dampen it.

o Reality: Research shows that constraints promote creativity, whether they’re imposed artificially or exist naturally. One example is the 12-tone musical scale which resulted in the greatest explosion of musical creativity in human history.

10. The Mousetrap Myth

o Myth: If you develop a brilliant idea the world will embrace it: the old “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” axiom.

o Reality: Most people have a hard time seeing how the novel can be useful. Innovative ideas are rejected all the time.

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Insight #2

Brainstorming Done Right is One of 8 Stages

"When he had processed all of the available research, [professor R. Keith] Sawyer concluded that as individuals and teams seek to produce creative work, their output comes as a result of moving through eight distinct stages."- The Myths of Creativity, page 130-131

Brainstorming the way you’ve always seen it done is almost certainly brainstorming done wrong. The entire process in many companies is to gather folks in a room and toss out ideas. These ideas are either (1) totally unfettered and uncriticized, or (2) subject to the whims of the senior person in the room, carefully self-edited to avoid embarrassment by deviating from the company line. While the latter is obviously a waste of time, the former only has value when done as part of a bigger process – a process which isn’t necessarily linear. Burkus describes Professor Sawyer’s research findings:

1. Find and define the problem. Creativity often comes when you identify a good problem or ask a question in a novel way or formulate a challenge and just the right way to lead down a surprising path.

2. Gather relevant knowledge. Generating and evaluating novel and useful ideas require a substantial amount of knowledge about the domain.

3. Gather potentially related information. Knowledge of the domain is vital, but sometimes the best solutions also involve ideas and concepts from outside to give them to me.

4. Take time off for incubation. As discussed in Chapter 2, the unconscious mind needs time to process and associate all the information in new ways.

5. Generate a large variety of ideas. After incubation, ideas and connections are brought back to the surface so the conscious mind can give them proper attention.

6. Combine ideas in unexpected ways. As discussed in Chapter 4, many creative ideas are the result of new combinations of existing ideas or inventions.

7. Select the best ideas. Generating novel ideas is wonderful, but effective creators must be able to identify which ones are also useful in order to pursue those further.

8. Externalizing the idea. Creativity is never a complete process; ideas develop, transform, and evolve as they interact with the outside world.

The Myths of Creativity, page 130-131

Sawyer makes it clear that this is not a linear process, but an iterative network of paths. Note that what we normally consider brainstorming is simply one of the 8 stages, and requires good problem definition, gathering relevant knowledge and related information, and mental incubation to have maximum benefit. It must be accompanied by novel idea combination, sorting, filtering and selection of the best ideas, and rubbing the idea against the world at large to see how it reacts.

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David Burkus

David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the founder and host of LDRLB,(pronounced “leader lab”), a podcast that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy.

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