Four Myths About Creativity

By A. Michael Shumate

Some of the things you hear about creativity are as fanciful as frog feathers. Now, I’m not claiming that frog feathers aren’t real, maybe they are. All I know is that frogs of my acquaintance have no feathers. Likewise, many of the notions floating around in modern culture about creativity are quite different from my experiences.

Sometimes it helps define something by eliminating things that are confused with it. That exercise will be particularly useful in our discussion of creativity. So, let’s talk about what creativity isn’t.  Let’s “de-myth-tefy” creativity.

Myth #1: Creativity is doing whatever comes into your head.

While it is true that there are brainstorming techniques that do just that--elicit anything that pops into the participants’ minds--this isn’t the basis of true creativity it’s just randomness. And while spontenaety is a positive quality in many art forms, spontenaety for its own sake is still not the basis of real creativity.

Myth #2: Creativity is doing whatever you want without regard for others.

There has been a culture of elitism that would have you believe that this is so. This attitude dates back to at least Renaissance times. It became accepted to give special license to supposedly creative people. It was a concept of celebrity status that considers these artistic folks were somehow above the average person and above the normal rules of conduct.

Michelangelo was certainly one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, he really bought into this notion of artistic entitlement and milked it for all he was worth. He was given to being moody and grumpy. A very talented artist contemporary of Michelangelo’s, named Raphael, used to poke fun at him for his anti-social ways. Raphael even painted a large fresco titled The School of Athens, which shows Plato and Aristotle in earnest conversation in a setting where lots other great philosophers and artists are conversing. Raphael painted himself and a few of his artist friends in a little group at the side of the scene. Front and center in this fresco he put Michelangelo, sitting on a step and sulking. Raphael, who was an excellent artist himself, had very little patience with Michelangelo’s putting on “artsy-fartsy” airs.

Unfortunately, we still uphold the same artists-are-different delusion today. It’s a notion fostered by self-indulgent persons who want license to act badly. Sadly, it is well-engrained in our society, but it ought not to be. Creativity is no license to be self-centered, moody, selfish or rude, any more than being wealthy or famous should give folks license to be boorish or inconsiderate.

Myth #3: Creativity just happens when you are inspired.

The ancient Greeks believed that there were goddesses, called the Muses, who gave artists inspiration. The word, “inspire” means to “breathe in” or “inhale,” and the word “inspiration” originally implied being “breathed upon” by the gods.

Many people today may not believe in literal muses, but some still believe that creativity involves waiting for “inspiration” to light upon our shoulders and give us ideas. The notion that the truly creative individual can only create when “in the mood” is both undisciplined and untrue. It is the battle-cry of the lazy and under-achievers. The real creative geniuses of our world have worked at their craft, whether they were in the mood or not. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

Myth #4: Creativity is just breaking the boundaries.

That is the shallowest myth of all. Just breaking boundaries serves little purpose in and of itself, unless it solves a problem. To be sure, many a creative solution requires a new approach, but a new and different approach just for its own sake doesn’t constitute a creative one.

So what is creativity then? In the final analysis, creativity is the ability to solve problems.

There. That was easy.

That’s really what it’s all about. But when you have a problem there are always constraints, limitations and boundaries that come as part of the problem. Part of creativity is having clear vision to correctly perceive a problem and the constraints around it. That vision will also see real limitations as separate and different from imagined limitations.

Let’s say you’ve got a glass jar with a metal lid that won’t unscrew. You could smash the jar to separate the lid from the jar, but that’s hardly a creative solution. Nor is it a suitable solution. One of the real constraints of this problem is that, most of the time, the jar needs to remain intact after it’s open or its contents would be ruined if mixed with broken glass.

A creative solution might be that you pry a bit all around the edges of the lid to break the seal it has on the jar. You could run some hot water over the lid, but not the jar, to get the metal lid to expand a bit more than the jar and loosen up. You could wrap rubber bands around the lid and around the jar to increase the traction of your grip.

Some people think that a solution must be new and different in order to be creative. How superficial. Being new and different is not the necessary ingredient. Solving the problem is what is necessary. (By definition, “new and different” has already been done.) So don’t worry about it.

Often a genuinely successful solution can be discovered by entertaining non-traditional ideas; but not just because the idea was non-traditional.

When the Linux group was considering how to keep from being swallowed up in the Microsoft world, someone suggested, “Let’s make it free.” A crazy idea, but they did it.

3M made a new adhesive that didn’t stick very well. Instead of discarding it, they built a whole industry on it. And the Post-it Note™ was born.

In any problem, there are primary concerns and secondary concerns. The real creativity comes in separating secondary concerns, and, if necessary, sacrificing them in order to accomplish the primary concern.

Creativity is not only demonstrated in the arts, but in every area of human endeavor. It is what gives us solutions to every problem. From agriculture to politics, from computers to child-rearing, from business to education. Creativity is needed everywhere.

We all have creativity, even if we don’t know it. If we have ever solved any problem, we have demonstrated creativity. That’s what creativity really is.

This article may be freely reprinted as long as the copyright notice and credit block below remains intact.


©2006 A. Michael Shumate
Author of “Success In The Arts: What It Takes to Make It in Creative Fields”
Speaker on issues of Success in the Arts, Talent, Creativity, Getting the Breaks and more: