De-mystifying Creativity: the real strategy to empower the creative you

My latest book purchase is Allen Gannett’s “The Creative Curve: How to Develop the right idea at the right time” .

I came across this book first on one of my favourite podcasts “Learning Leader” (episode 268) where Ryan Hawk interviews guests and tries to help us to understand how to reach and attain excellence in leadership.

To be honest, I am only a few chapters in and already dismayed about the number of myths that he mentioned in the book; the assumptions and stories that have been made about particular people, like Mozart and Paul McCartney and what the truth behind their creativity.

Why what you know about creativity is plain wrong

These assumptions have cumulated over time to define who is and can be a ‘genius’ and now form a part of what Allen calls “the inspiration theory”.

This theory assumes that a) creative geniuses are people who just have “it”, and b) creative geniuses are lonesome weird characters who receive insights in a sudden flash (often during a shower).

As Allen notes, this theory dominates our beliefs that

“creative genius is innate- we’re born with it, or we aren’t, and being a bit “different” tends to come with it” (p. 21).

This is very similar to Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset where people are often told and assume that since they do not seem to possess a particular skill, they are likely not just have it.

Yet, as Allen is looking through history, reading peer reviewed articles, and interviewing people deemed creative, the picture that emerges about creativity is much more mundane as to what it takes to master a skill and be recognised as special or genius.

Mozart practiced piano every day since he was 3-years-old and only composed his first original piece at the age of 18.

Not at the age of 4 as the common story goes but at the age of 18.

If you do the numbers, it took him 15 years of gruelling daily practice to write his first master piece.

It took Paul MacCartney a process of 18 months to come to the final version of the song “Yesterday”.

And no, contrary to the popular belief, no great writers have pieced together an award-winning earth chattering novel on a napkin in a train.

Most of these people have worked hard, relentlessly on achieving something they or their families have believed in.

Yet, we remain hooked on the idea that we have no control over creativity:

“The traditional view of creativity implies that we all exist in a world of indefinite possibilities, and must wait for a novel idea to cut through the noise. We are told that serendipitous moments can occur unpredictably, anytime, while we are in the shower, on our commute, or in the boardroom” (p. 19).

Neuroscience, and the work of Danny Kahneman and Gary Klein, have shown that these flashes of insights do occur but mainly because our system 1 (unconscious processing) keeps progressing our ideas even if our system 2 (conscious processing) is taking a break from a particular topic.

But to get insights,  you need to do the work.

Having long showers and waiting for a flash of insight is a foolish strategy (and environmentally detrimental as well).

What both Morten Hansen and Allen Gannett note is that what you need to excel is actually purposeful practice.

This means a lot of work but done with a different focus.

Purposeful practice leads to creativity

What this means for people like you and me is that purposeful practice is key if we want to excel in something.

Not the number of hours only that you put in but specifically how you choose to spend those hours of practice.

Allan is quick to note that not everyone can excel in everything but those who have really have had a different way of approaching learning and excellence.

This involves monitoring that practice, learning on daily basis, and really investing time, finances, and focus on what one aims to be and become:

“research shows that exceptional talent is not always the result of winning the genetic lottery, but instead the outcome of immense amounts of structured, purposeful practice” (p. 57).

This is very much similar to Morten Hansen’s insights from Great at work again where we see the top performers and most effective leaders embracing this notion of “purposeful practice”.

It is about monitoring one’s own behaviour, reflecting on how your behaviour and way of working is perceived by others, while truly focusing on what you want to achieve with passion and purpose.

Sounds easy right?

Isn’t this what most of us aspire for: to be more creative, more effective, and more successful?

But what Allen’s book in particular shows is that this is possible through the recognition of what he calls the “creative curve”.

The dark side of the inspiration theory

The book is a great contribution to the emerging and much necessary literature on debunking some of the common myths and assumptions aka heuristics that we have developed over time about particular concepts.

The dark side of the inspiration theory is that as long as we all buy into it, we seemingly cannot develop excellence in creativity if we a) don’t have the genetics and b) are not weird enough.

To be honest, I have enough to deal with and I don’t really want to become weird (of course open to interpretation) just to reach the creative side.

Allen’s book has really given me a lot to think about in terms of how I view creativity and how I can actually start creating space and possibilities both at work and at home.

Given creativity is out there for grasping, I recommend you have a pause of reflection and think about which strategies you could implement in order to make the most of what you can be.

Leave a Reply