Debunking Myths about Creative Thinking

One of the trickiest things about discussing creativity is its personal, subjective nature. If I claim that whatever I’m doing is creative, who are you to contradict me? Or, if I feel that creativity isn’t something I’m capable of, what does it matter if you feel differently? For some people, the idea of teaching creativity might seem inherently redundant. You are either a ‘creative’ person or you aren’t.

I don’t agree with these views – but I can see why some people hold them. For young children, creativity is inherent in play and learning. Children are innately inclined towards what is sometimes termed divergent thinking, which entails the free-flowing generation of different ideas. By contrast, it takes time and practice to develop convergent thinking, in which one particular idea is developed while others are discarded. Teaching convergent thinking is one of the primary tasks of education, and this makes it easy to see divergent thinking as a ‘natural’ attribute that people simply possess to varying, innate degrees.

The problem with this mindset is that it associates only divergent thinking with creativity, while assuming that only convergent thinking can be taught. This brings us to the importance of unlearning a number of faulty assumptions:

  1. Creativity isn’t just about artistic acts, or only undertaken by ‘creative’ people. Any task that entails the exercise of judgement and skill has some creative element to it.
  2. Creative thinking doesn’t have to be big, bold or strikingly original. It most often involves modest, everyday things: conducting a lively conversation; coming up with a fresh angle on a familiar question.
  3. Creativity is not so much a single, spontaneous act as a process. It is something that can be learned, taught and practised, and encompasses convergent and divergent ways of thinking.

This last point is the most important of all. It is only too easy to be paralysed by the belief that creativity is an all-or-nothing business: that an original, creative inspiration either arrives out of the blue, or doesn’t. In fact, the opposite is far closer to the truth. The more someone relies upon creative thinking in their day-to-day life, the more likely they are also to rely upon a step-by-step process to help and support them. Here is the American author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison discussing her creative process in a 2014 interview:

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure – which is important; some people don’t – and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work … It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it.

Morrison’s words are at once remarkable and salutary in their alignment of literary creativity with the language of scientific research: information, data, laboratory, experiment, procedure. She produced some of the most eloquent and profound accounts of African American experience ever committed to prose. Yet, in this instance, she chose to frame her creativity in terms of information being meticulously analysed; of a repeatedly refined experiment.

She chose, in other words, to foreground the fact that underlying even the greatest creative works is a structured process, full of false steps and necessary corrections.

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