Elephants in the Room of Creativity and Innovation Talk



If you feel like you know “how creativity REALLY works” don’t read this article – it might kill your vibe.

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” Nicolaus Copernicus

The contemporary philosopher Dan Dennett once asked the following rhetorical question: “Do you need a theory to ride a bike?” I think we can say the same thing about creators and creativity. Artists make art without knowing how the science of creativity works and entrepreneurs launch companies without consulting creativity researchers, right?

If you look around (outside of Academia) you might notice that business, science and education are calling for an injection of more systematic and practical advice on how to foster creativity. Don’t believe me? Read a random job description for any management position – “creativity” pops up as a highly demanded trait. Still not convinced? Consider that when researchers in a 2010 study asked CEOs from 60 countries and 33 disciplines “what is the most important quality of an effective leader?” creativity was the most common answer.

The problem, to continue Dennett’s metaphor, is that we are about to start “building bike paths” across various domains (education, business, etc) without knowing how to ride a bike. I have a bad feeling about it. We still don’t know how to apply what we know about human creativity well. The research is still narrow, provisional and fragmented. My biggest nightmare is that we will stitch what we do know into a Frankenstein-ish set of bogus principles and use it to start testing people in schools and in the workplace. You think I’m exaggerating?

In “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined,” Scott Barry Kaufman demonstrates that when there is a popular demand for evaluating intellectual potential, research is flattened and ironed into tests that are blindly administered. Kaufman discusses the pitfalls of IQ testing, but the same problem applies to assessing creativity.  By implementing semi-truths about how to foster creativity in different environments we might stifle creativity all together. We need to first investigate what we know.

There are a few elephants roaming around the “creativity talk” room that we (creativity people) don’t like to talk about. They are difficult to tame, but ignoring them might backfire. Let’s take a quick look at each:

1.     The “wobbly” definition of creativity.

Believe it or not, we don’t have a unified definition of creativity. So, what exactly, are scientists talking about here, and what are they trying to explore?  I’m not here to deliver yet another Alex Berezow-style tirade about the lack of science in psychology. (I fully share Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar’s point of view in that department. We do not need a strict scientific definition of creativity to start researching the subject matter; sometimes a trial-and-error approach is enough.) But, we should remember (that to paraphrase the words of Immanuel Kant) experiment without theory is blind, theory without experiment is just a mere intellectual play.

Psychologists define creativity as an object or idea that is original and valuable (or has functionality)- it’s known as “the patent office definition of creativity”. But, we tend to forget that in many domains, the “value” of a product is measured against specific factors: (marketability, cost of manufacturing, potential profit, etc.). It’s difficult or even impossible to establish the value of a creative object or idea without the context.  For instance, what’s valuable in the visual art world might be worthless in advertising

(Let me put my “philosophers hat" on for a moment. At it's core – that definition contains a logical error called Ignotum per ignotus, meaning "the unknown by the equally unknown.” It occurs when someone attempts to prove something unknown by deducing it from something else, which is also not known).

So how do we measure “originality” and “effectiveness”? “Original and effective” to whom? A researcher? Does this sound  fishy to you, or is it just me?

Another thorny feature of creativity is the distinction between big C and small c creativity.  Big C creativity focuses on creative geniuses past and present—Beethoven, Einstein or Jeff Bezos. Small c creativity is about the creativity average people display. It’s obvious to me that it’s impossible to distinguish between “small” and “big” C creativity in real time. As Hegel once said: “the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk”. That is, only time reveals “big C” ideas from “small c” ideas.

Ok, let me put my Public Relations specialist hat for on a second: I kindly advise researchers against equating the value of an idea with its popularity; almost any idea can become popular given a big budget and aggressive campaigning—especially if the idea resonates with popular trends. This occurs in all creative domains, from art to science. That “attention” often lasts 15 minutes, to use Andy Warhol’s famous phrase, and it rarely correlates with the greatness of Einstein, Galileo or Picasso. This is the most popular video on youtube of all time. If we use popularity to measure the value of ANY creative output – please, just kill me now. (btw if you think that we don’t have “Gangnam style revelations” in science you are dead wrong).

I will come back to “the definition” problem in my next article. Now, let’s inspect the second elephant.

2.     Methodology.

When a bunch of great scientific minds are in one room the question of “methodology” always pops up. That’s exactly what happened at one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, “Culture, Mind, and Brain”(UCLA),” where anthropologists, experimental biologists and ethnologists questioned the validity of the sample in psychological testing. Rightly so, the participants of most psychological studies (grad students!) tend to be a homogeneous group. This is critical to remember when we extrapolate any findings to a general population. This is not an attack; it’s just a gentle reminder that researchers should be cautious before they generalize their findings - particularly when they talk about fuzzy concepts like “human creativity”.

 3. A sugar-coated vision of creativity- things “creativity preachers” don’t like to mention.

Creativity doesn’t always come from “positive thinking” and joyful experiences. In many cases, the opposite is true. Some great works of art were created fast and under distress. Other art is a form of self-therapy or self-expression that taps into deep, unpleasant experiences.

Creativity in business is not all rosy either.  Many companies are the product of the founder’s unbounded ego (nothing “positive” about that). The history of innovation is brutal as well. Recall the productive but nasty arms race between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. The competition between scientists and engineers is sometimes more conducive to progress than a happy science story.  So, please explain to me why we couple creativity and positive thinking?

Here are two byproducts of that false marriage: 

·      Creativity preachers are constantly encouraging their audience to “follow their dreams.” Every time I hear this message I can’t help but think about the legions of young and promising kids who want to be actors, musicians, inventors… Unfortunately, some of them do follow their dreams but to the point of misery and even drug abuse. Take a look at the faces of these young people in Paul Jasmin’s photos from his fantastic album “Lost Angeles”. In the foreword, Jasmin explains the following: “Here are the ‘tarnished angels’ that hang out on Hollywood Boulevard or in local motel rooms, that have come to L.A. looking for the American dream, Hollywood style, and have quickly discovered it takes more than just desire to succeed.”

Creativity requires more than a dream. In many cases, people struggle to turn their dreams into reality not because they lack ambition, motivation or imagination, but because they lack the necessary skills and knowledge. Too few opportunities and bad luck are two other obstacles. Creativity-in-action is more like the art of survival than daydreaming – you have to choose your tools wisely and “pivot” if necessary to find another, better solution.

·      Remember that wildly popular myth about how mastering any skill requires 10,000 of deliberate practice? That "rule" might have some validity in certain disciplines (read a corrective article written by Malcolm Gladwell here). Now, we have modified the findings: creativity requires constant and steady progress – if you produce a lot you will get there! Don’t get me wrong; perseverance, practice, grit and motivation are indispensible traits. But sometimes we tend to forget that changing a routine might be better for ideation than wrestling indefinitely inside the same paradigm. Steady progress is awesome, and statistically speaking it might ring true. The chance of producing something original is possible, but we must remember that doing the same thing over and over again makes us prone to heuristics and habits. Changing the environment might be more helpful than intense labor. Sometimes creativity requires a drastic change of perspective, which might be accomplished by “changing the current perspective” rather than “steady progress” and routine. I’m not saying “always”; I said “it might”.  This conclusion segues us nicely towards the fourth “elephant in the room”.

4. Creativity and freedom of expression - the overlooked relationship between creativity and freedom

Highly creative people tend to despise the status quo. In some cases they are eccentric and rebellious (see here). Artists and entrepreneurs, for example, dropout of school disproportionately compared to other professions.  Is this a failure of the education system…  or do creative people struggle with classroom learning? Or, are they just uncomfortable inside any institution? We should address these questions before we start tweaking curriculums – it all might backfire.

5. The myth of “innovation islands”

We tend to think creativity in business only comes from Silicon Valley.  But in fact human ingenuity is wide spread and you can find it in the most unexpected of places.  Not all of those places are pretty, politically popular or even legal.  The black market, for example, is not only economically viable but highly creative and produces huge amounts of economic value. Without it hundreds of thousands of people would not be employed... Please check out the Misfit Economy project.

THE MISFIT ECONOMY from invisible sessions on Vimeo.

Human ingenuity is widespread and not confined to one type of environment. Creative gumption is a mode of survival and some of its most impressive creations have nothing to do with designing yet another technological miracle. Take a look at the controversial yet extremely insightful documentary “How to Make Money Selling Drugs.” How do you like them apples?

6. Iconoclast  – not always “a nice guy”.

I hate profiling people. Human potential is impossible to quantify and any efforts to profile creators is silly talk. But, in “Iconoclast,” Gregory Berns discusses the common traits of iconoclasts, aka “paradigm shifters”. They tend to have a higher threshold for fear, good social skills (which might be disguised as the ability to manipulate), and a low need for external validation – they really don’t care what people think about them.  They are “calculated rebels” at their core, and it makes sense - how else can you actually stick to your guns and carry on in spite of obstacles and harsh treatment from the status quo? Creativity is destroying one modus operandi and building a new one. Change is extremely hard to implement. Everyone possesses ideas – what makes some people successful might be their ability to implement them. Sometimes, the ability to make ideas happen might be fueled by their “psychological makeup”. In my dictionary it’s called “balls of steal”, and it might sacrifice boundless empathy or the need to please people.

Last, but not least - The biggest elephant in the room is the least obvious:

7. The lack of a smart, interdisciplinary approach, which, by the way, might implode creativity studies altogether.

Creativity exists in reality, not theory (see my previous remarks about definition and methodology), so to make sense of creativity research we have to pay attention to context. The problem is creativity is a cookie cutter discipline that stems from a hodgepodge of research from science, the humanities and practical wisdom.

Social sciences are completely unprepared to respond to the challenges of explaining more complex, vital topics. I fully agree with Nicholas A. Christakis - when he cries out for a deep reform in how complex human affairs are analyzed and measured: He writes in “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences

“It is time to create new social sciences departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science”.

But real, smart interdisciplinarity is easier preached than done. In today’s world of diabolically fragmented scientific research, and humanities suffering from “erectile dysfunction,” we should spend more time thinking about how to change the status quo. Confronting, rather than ignoring the elephants in the room of our research projects might be a good start.


Shout out to the wonderful team of The Creativity Post (Scott Barry Kaufman, Elliot Samuel Paul and Rebecca McMillan) and Sam McNerney for helping me put my unruly thoughts in order.

Milena Z. Fisher, Ph.D. (@MilenaFisheris a philosopher (Nietzsche scholar), an entrepreneur, co-founder of The Creativity Post and an avid snowboarder. 



Tags: creativity debate, creativity in action, creativity research, creativity studies, definition of creativity, innovation, interdisciplinarity, methodology, milena z. fisher, misfit economy, philosophy of creativity, social sciences

blog comments powered by Disqus