This article was originally published on September 29, 2014, on Linkedin
Of course creativity can be taught!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last week, Jason Thibeaultposted an article claiming that creativity can not be taught. Now, I’m not saying that it’s easy, in fact it can be a tremendous amount of work, but impossible? Not even close.
And there’s a good reason why, which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, I’d like to point out a fundamental flaw in most of the arguments I’ve seen regarding this topic. No one agrees on a definition of what creativity is. Which is odd because, even accounting for variations, the dictionary seems pretty clear. For example, here are three definitions that are quite clear:
Dictionary.com (as posted in Jason’s article) – “The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”
The Oxford online dictionary – “The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.”
Webster’s online dictionary – “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas”
Most of the “definitions” I’ve read in other articles tend to imbue creativity with a sort of magical quality, an ethereal, intangible something that can’t quite be put into words. Even Jason headed in that direction when he leaned too heavily (in my opinion) on the importance of the word “transcendent” in the definition of creativity. I can understand that, because when we look at the results of truly creative thinking, it can be awesome. Not “this smoothie is awesome“, awesome, but rather “this work of art is so majestic, compelling and frighteningly beautiful that it leaves me trembling within myself” awesome. There is something absolutely amazing about the results of masterful creativity.
But look at the definitions again. At the root is ‘the ability to create’. If you want to add the qualifier that the created item must be new and/or transcendent, that’s fine, but it should be noted that both new and transcendent are subjective terms dependant on context. For example, the first time someone thought of toasting bread, and added butter to it, something new was created, and many people will agree that a good piece of buttered toast can be transcendent. However, if you don’t care for toast, there’s little transcendence. Or if you’ve seen toast before, it’s not new, although it may be for the person who discovers it for the first time in their life.
Anyhow, for the sake of our discussion, whenever we speak of something created, we’ll assume it is also new, and transcendent.
That being the case, teaching someone to be creative is like teaching them to talk. It’s a natural ability that we develop as we grow, and master consciously later in life. We don’t teach babies how to talk. We surround babies with examples, we encourage them, we show them how we talk, and hope that they mimic us. When they get older, we send them off to school to learn the alphabet, basic sentence structure, and so on. Then we can teach poetry, story writing, and narrative. We can extend their training with voice lessons, and acting studies. All along the way, we offer examples, and try to get them to follow along. That, put over-simplistically, is teaching someone how to talk, from the first time they say “mama” to when they move audience to tears with a powerful soliloquy in a Broadway play.
So, then, why can’t we teach creativity?
We can. And, we do! We surround children with colors and shapes, and praise them for the things they come up with. “What a lovely picture! Hey! Look at you hitting that drum! Listen to her sing, isn’t that sweet?”
Often, sadly, the training stops far short of what we put forth in training math, english, and so on. But to say that it can’t be taught is frankly lazy. It’s a way of getting us off the hook for not teaching people how to think creatively. If we continue to surround a person with examples of the creative process, encouragement to try and praise for their efforts, we will be teaching them to be creative.
Jason and I went back and forth a couple of times on email after his article, and it turns out that we agree on quite a bit. The biggest difference is that he seems to hold that we mustn’t try too hard to be creative in fear of blocking the very thing we are trying to achieve. I contend that we can all be gardeners of our creative minds, working the soil, mixing in nourishing compost, watering, weeding and in general, taking care of it. Then, as with any other thing learned, our brains will process the seeds we plant and we can enjoy the fruits of creativity.
If we fail to do that, then we are just wandering through the forest hoping to find a piece of fruit growing somewhere there. And that’s a good way to be hungry more than you want to.