Can Creativity Be Taught? 73% Of Creative People Say Yes

Fast Company polled its Most Creative People to better understand their muses, inspirations, and creative processes. The good news is that 73% believe creativity can be learned—but you may have to shake up your routine to get there.

"It is important that any account of creativity should recognize that, in a sense, there is something necessarily mysterious about it, so that even those who are creative are at a loss to explain it," concludes a study from the British Journal of Education Studies titled "Can Creativity Be Taught?"

Considering the importance of creativity to society's advancement, many have tackled the question, and states have even tried to develop standardized tests for it. But the best people to ask are creative people themselves. To that end, a recent poll of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business found that 73% believe creativity can be learned, with many citing the importance of being open to new experiences and unfamiliar ways of thinking—in other words, embracing the mysterious.

Here are some of the insights they shared.

More than a quarter of creative respondents credited their parents for focusing their creative abilities, while teachers and even media—as in, the creative output of others—had a significant influence. But a full third of those polled said their creativity was primarily self-taught—coming from their own inquisitiveness and desire to create something new. And sorry, bosses—while it's important to support your employees' creativity, only 4% gave primary credit for their creative ability to superiors at work.

This recent argument against eating lunch at your desk should probably be heeded—not a single one of our Most Creative People said they have creative breakthroughs during meals (and it's more enjoyable to give that slice of pizza your full attention, anyway). Having a breakthrough at a desk during normal working hours did scarcely better (2%), but the private zone-out environment of the shower is the ideal idea birthplace for 19% of respondents. The top answer makes an argument for night owls and unconventional work hours—29% of creative people polled have most of their breakthroughs late at night.

So what are important qualities for creative people to cultivate? Thatgamecompany cofounder and creative director Jenova Chen says that "creativity is not talent but attitude," and other creative people seem to agree—a whopping 35% of respondents said that the most important quality in a creative businessperson is a willingness to kill ideas they love. Having a lot of those ideas in the first place was most important to 28% of people polled, and being an easy collaborator topped the list for 29%. Being a good manager? Important to business, but not necessarily to creativity.

While there's not unanimous agreement on whether creativity itself can be taught, our Most Creative People have a lot of thoughts on how to tease it out and encourage new ideas.

An overwhelming number of those polled tied increased creativity to breaking out of patterns, exploring new environments, and being open to the unfamiliar. LittleBits founder Ayah Bdeir advises to "look outside your field—the most creative solutions come at the intersections of disciplines," while WET CEO Mark Fuller suggested to "take things you have learned that seem completely irrelevant and ask yourself how to apply them to the challenge at hand." Similarly, Fashion.me cofounder Renato Steinberg says that "creativity happens when you get two people or two things that don't seem connected and find a way to connect them." Some, like freelance creative director Megan Sheehan, thought we were asking the wrong question—she believes that creativity is inherent, and "there might be disciplines that can make you more productive, but not necessarily more creative." But the most welcome news for many of us: some of the most common pieces of advice to bring out creativity were variations on "take more naps."

Even the most creative people get stuck, and need a way to refocus or unfocus to get back on track. Many of the people we polled are inspired by physical movement—either exercise, like going for a walk, dancing, or taking a hike, or traveling to favorite hideaways or foreign lands (Tokyo seems to be a particularly motivating locale). Adam Sadowsky, president and CEO of Syyn Labs, is a strong advocate of letting your inner kid loose, explaining that he is most inspired by "playing with children, swinging on a swing, making fireballs, taking things apart." And then, of course, there's the value of actual mind alteration—coffee and wine were muses for many, and Impending Inc. CEO Phil Ryu admitted that "pot spaces me out in exactly the right way."

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4 Comments

  • dt

    A resounding "yes" to the question, "Can creativity be taught?" I have been teaching people to be more creative for over 20 years, not only in the US, but in other countries as well, including China. Students report that the class has enhanced their creativity with concrete examples. Students who thought they were not creative found that they were; students who thought they were creative found themselves more so. Creativity per se is not so much taught as unleashed as people develop some understanding of creativity, barriers to creativity, the creative process, and techniques to spur their creativity. My research shows that in business, it is important to give people permission to be creative and to let them know that it can be applied to strategy formulation (http://bit.ly/1BLuiZh ), strategic decision making (http://bit.ly/1wpiCIN), negotiating (http://bit.ly/1u0nu96), organizational learning (http://bit.ly/1qXjJyF), etc., not just to developing new products and services.

  • “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will” – George Bernard Shaw

    Furiously unplug while you’re incubating your project. Spend time with yourself in solitude. It is the fertilizer for your creative crop. Dorothea Brande in her classic, Becoming A Writer, writes, ”Prisoners who never wrote a word in the days of their freedom will write on any paper they can lay hands on." Incubation is one of the four pillars of creativity.

    We are all born as creators. The trick is to tap onto that part of us that puts a "ding in the universe." A simple way to do that is to pay heed to the voice within. If that voice says, "‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”. Such is fierce longing of the force that lies dormant within you...It is contagious, it affects everyone around you. http://www.sarmisthatarafder.com/2/post/2013/05/creativity-demystified.html

  • Sebastian Quevedo-Busch

    It doesn't need to be tough, it inherent in every person to begin with. It's not about teaching how to be creative but how to channel it the right way so the output has a usable value, not to different when someone learns how to draw, compose, ...