Four Myths About Creativity

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Much has been written and spoken about creativity. A lot of it is dry academic stuff, using big words and obscure concepts to describe this most intriguing thing called creativity. There’s also a fair bit of folk legend on the subject. Some of those ideas on creativity are as fanciful as frog feathers. I’m not claiming that frog feathers aren’t real, maybe they are. All I know is that all frogs of my acquaintance have no feathers. Likewise, many of these notions about creativity are quite different from my experiences.

Let’s look at this subject anyway.

What Creativity Isn’t
Sometimes it helps define something by eliminating things that are confused with it. That exercise will be particularly useful in our discussion of creativity. Let’s dispel some myths.

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 is not the basis of true creativity. We’ll come back to brainstorming later.

Myth #2: Creativity is doing whatever you want. We live in a culture of elitism that reenforces this myth. It originated in Renaissance times. It became an accepted practice then 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. 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 for the Pope titled “The School of Athens,” which shows Plato and Aristotle. The face of Plato is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, who Raphael honored. Other great philosophers and artists have the faces of other contemporaries that Raphael admired. He even painted himself (looking out) with a few of his artist friends in a little group at the right 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 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 ingrained in our society, but it ought not to be. Creativity is no license to be self-centered, selfish or rude, any more than being wealthy or famous should give folks license to be boorish.

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 meant to be “breathed upon” by the gods.

Many people today may not believe in literal muses, but they still insist 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 and is the battle-cry of the lazy and under-achievers. The real creative geniuses of our world worked at their art, 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.

What Creativity Is
In the final analysis, creativity is the ability to solve problems.

There. That was easy. That’s really what it’s all about.

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 you can’t open. You could smash the jar to separate the lid from the jar. That’s new and different, 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.

If you stop and think about it, “new and different” has already been done.

So don’t worry about it.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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