I recently had the pleasure of listening to a fascinating lecture by Sir Ken Robinson on creativity and education courtesy of the TED lecture circuit. It got me thinking about my own rather bumpy path to discovering my own creative abilities and skills. Much of what is in the lecture perfectly sums up what I now know to be true – both about myself and others.
Until I was about 16 or 17, I believed I was completely incapable of creativity or imagination. Whatever analytical skills I did or didn’t have (I wasn’t very self-confident at the time), I thought the ability to create something new or interesting was beyond me. Creativity was the province of geniuses, I thought, those few savants who had been blessed with incredible abilities. The rest of us, myself included, could only marvel at other people’s genius.
All this began to change for me when I was given a book called Creative Chess as a present. While the tips for chess play in the book were good, the ultimate message of the book was far more powerful. It showed me how creativity is not (just) an inborn gift, but also one which can be grown and developed – a skill as well as an instinct.
The author Amatzia Avni, an Israeli organizational psychologist, argued convincingly (at least for me) that creativity is a mental skill like any other – it has its own logic, concepts and methods. Avni lays out exactly what methods one needs to use to think creatively and what psychological “blocks” one must remove to release creative thought from its cage. You too can be creative – and here’s how – was the book’s message.
One of the main “blocks” to creativity which the book mentions, and which Sir Robinson emphasizes in the lecture, is the fear of making mistakes. We have all been so thoroughly trained to avoid being wrong that we oftentimes avoid good ideas just because no-one else has done them. Better safe than sorry, after all. Look at how swiftly people are punished for mistakes (I mean mistakes here, not deliberate negligence) in politics, the military and public life in general. We are a society that punishes risks.
This is unfortunate and frankly stupid. We would like to believe that innovation come somehow fully formed without errors. This is a false and self-defeating notion. For every good idea, there are hundreds of bad ones. For every battle plan of successful generals that worked, there are many that were lackluster or failures.
One need only look at the works of the creative geniuses of the arts to see this. Every successful published piece of music, art or visual media represents piles of discarded ideas and rough sketches. Even when pieces are published, sometimes they don’t succeed. Is this a reason to give up? How much poorer would we be, if creative artists punished themselves for their first errors by depriving us of their later masterpieces?
Another error I made about creativity was the belief that creativity meant making something from nothing. Avni demonstrated quite the contrary – creativity means taking existing elements and ideas and mixing them around. Look closely at any creative effort, and you will find that it drew on existing material. It does not sprout fully formed from nowhere.
This doesn’t mean that all of us will necessarily be that successful or amazing in creative efforts. However, this is already a question of the degree of creativity within all of us, not its existence. Being creative is part of being human, and to suppress it simply because we may not be Da Vinci-level polymaths is to deny a big part of what makes us what we are. So let us let go of our fears, and join in the creative process.