Does creativity come from nature or nurture?

Is it possible to learn to be creative, or is great creativity a natural gift possessed by a lucky few which the rest of us can only admire?

In recent years IBM did a Global study and interviewed 1541 CEOs, general managers and senior public sector leaders from 60 countries. They asked what was the most crucial factor for future success for navigating an increasingly complex world and creativity came out top. So these influential people see having a creative mind and approach most critical – that’s how important creativity is.

As the son of a highly creative person, who has latterly become a fine artist I had always been told when growing up that the artistic side must ‘run in the family’. Somehow I was more disposed to a creative profession because of my Genes. But studies undertaken into the creative abilities of identical and fraternal twins have shown little evidence of a genetic component in creativity.

So maybe it’s more nurture than nature. Certainly if you are brought up around people who are constantly creating, as I was, then it’s something you can learn from and aspire to. Also, the belief that it did indeed run in the family gave me a confidence to produce things that maybe I wouldn’t have had without this conviction. I remember my dad teaching me about perspective at an early age which meant my work had a depth that other children’s drawings didn’t have, which made me feel I had an edge to my work.

Pablo Picasso once said “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” So maybe we can look at young children for clues. Four year olds everywhere in the world, if nurtured in a safe and loving environment where they can express themselves, are innovative, inquisitive and imaginative. They can freely express themselves in many creative ways, be it drawing, painting, using modelling clay or building blocks, or in speech. They often think totally differently, and do the things that innovators do. I was constantly amused and amazed at the kind of things my sons would come out with at that age, often showing creative, funny, lateral thinking. And here’s the thing – we were all four once – so maybe we all have more creative capacity than we give ourselves credit for. We just need to allow ourselves the space to explore the ideas and techniques, the confidence to experiment with our more wild ideas, and to not be discouraged if things fail – it’s how we learn and improve after all. And children play. It’s no coincidence that modern companies like Google encourage their employees to take free time to work on their own projects. 

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson did a TED talk in 2006 in which he said that creativity is being quashed by education. It’s a popular talk and has been viewed nearly 50 million times. He argued that current educational practices crush student’s innate creative talents and that we need to radically rethink our school systems to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. But is it true that our creativity is being stifled by education? A test was developed in 1966 called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking and run again 5 times since. Analysis of the data showed that Creative thinking scores since 1990 have significantly decreased. The decrease was most significant between the ages of 4 to 8… when education usually starts! It seems as we are asked to conform to groups and to fit in and not stand out, our creativity and uniqueness is curtailed. However, I don’t think that learners should be encouraged to go on wild creative flights of fancy at the expense of traditional learning and good old fashioned knowledge. You won’t be able to creatively solve a problem until you fully understand the problem first. You can’t push a boundary until you are fully conversant with where the boundaries are at the moment.

So, once more formal education is done, how can we re-learn the free ways of creative thinking that we once had as small children? Nowadays creativity is being taught, with creative studies courses available at universities around the world. Students are being taught to spot problems that need solving and to use their original thinking to create smart solutions. Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Centre for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College in the US says “The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative”. “That’s why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities, the marketplace is demanding it.” Puccio is an advocate of ‘brainstorming’. The brain has a tendency to stay in an analytical state where it tends to focus on one solution and ignore other options. Brainstorming is about allowing the brain to make unusual connections that might produce a novel solution to a problem. “It’s about forcing the brain to give up old patterns and search for new ones. That’s often what happens when inventors make a breakthrough,” he says.  Interestingly, studies have also shown that people in a relaxed mood are more likely to arrive at creative solutions and even that people are more likely to solve puzzles lying on their back rather than standing up! 

Creativity training has been shown to significantly improve creative attitude, creative performance, and creative problem-solving skills. Programmes that focus on teaching the core cognitive strategies for managing our creative side seem to be most successful. As I understand it, the main skills taught are the process of splitting the creative process into different areas, firstly idea generation, then evaluating the ideas, then learning tips to sell the ideas to others, and finally tips on how to action the ideas and turn good ideas into great solutions. All these tools and skills are doing is building on the innate creativity that is within all of us. It’s mainly about learning how to unleash our creative side and hone the outputs into something useful or innovative, something that ‘works’. People who take the courses are often surprised by their own creativity, some have never thought of themselves as creative but find they have a lot of creative characteristics.

So in summary we all have the potential to unleash great creativity in whatever field we choose to work. In my view, it’s a case of allowing ourselves to explore new ideas, keep an open mind, and not be afraid to fail. This way we can all get in touch with our inner creative guru! 

You might find these steps helpful when faced with a problem that nay require a creative solution:

  1. Relax your mind in whatever way you find does this best. Maybe playing a game, gentle exercise or taking a walk. It may be good, if working in a team to play together. This helps us build trust with each other so we can share those ‘wilder’ ideas!
  2. Don’t dismiss ‘bad’ ideas too soon. Allow yourself to think freely without constraints like ‘it will never work’. Critical thinking can come later.
  3. Don’t give up. Creativity requires daily practice and time. It’s a process, not a single event. Sometimes it takes days, months, even years to crack a problem or question. If the answer doesn’t strike you right away don’t panic.
  4. One way you can helpfully gauge how creative you are is to take the Reisman Diagnostic Creativity Assessment (RDCA). The RDCA evaluates users on factors that have emerged from years of creativity research, including novel and original ideas, fluency of ideas, flexibility of thought and tolerance of ambiguity. The assessment is available for download as a mobile application, free of charge, from Apple’s App Store.