Artistic Thinking Bookshelf: The Myths of Creativity

10 Myths of Creativity that May Inhibit Creativity and Innovation in Your Classroom

David Burkus’s The Myths of Creativity: The Truth about How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Add your favorite titles to the Artistic Thinking Bookshelf.

A quick quiz will help you know if you need this book. Answer yes or no to the following questions. Do you believe that:

  • creative insights primarily occur in a flash and are triggered by external events?
  • creative ideas are typically unique and wholly original?
  • there is a direct correlation between expertise and creative ability?
  • creativity is best cultivated with rewards and external incentives?
  • creative individuals usually toil in isolation as they follow personal visions?
  • creative environments work best without constraints or conflicts?
  • the public is eager to support innovation and creative souls?

Burkus Myths of CreativityIf you said yes to any of these questions then you buy into one or more of the popular myths of creativity. The more yesses the more you need David Burkus’s The Myths of Creativity: The Truth about How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.

While academic and enlightening, The Myth’s of Creativity is also a fun read that draws on engaging behind-the-scenes stories. Organized around 10 popular, but unfounded myths about creativity, each chapter opens by describing a view of creativity that the reader will oftentimes recognize as their own. Then Burkus drops the hammer, informing you that not only is that not correct, it is oftentimes exactly opposite of reality. He proceeds to use a rich mix of classical and contemporary anecdotes and case studies to illustrate his point, and buttresses this with contemporary studies and research findings. The recurring theme throughout is

If we want to be more creative, if we want our organizations to be more innovative, then we have to learn from these companies and individuals, use the wealth of empirical research at hand, and rewrite the myths of creativity.

And even though The Myths of Creativity is tailored to business communities, it offers educators ideas for cultivating creativity in the classroom. By debunking the common myths of creativity, Burkus establishes some guiding principles that would be as effective for classrooms as they are for boardrooms. In describing best practices, Burkus highlights the importance of collaboration, brainstorming properly, establishing parameters, and providing effective critiques and feedback.

In addition to offering guiding principles, The Myths of Creativity does have one chapter that might be especially relevant for high school students. Chapter 4, “The Originality Myth” explores how innovators have historically borrowed, sometimes heavily, from others. In illustrating this point Burkus recounts a time when Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism and Mark Twain offered her support explaining, “all ideas are second-hand, consciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” High schools across the country discuss the evils of plagiarism. Typically, schools jump ugly on this topic, emphasizing the systems they have for catching plagiarism and the resulting punitive measures. While our art classes oftentimes teach students to steal like artists, writing instruction, an equally creative pursuit, may actually be stifling creativity by scaring students from building on the other’s ideas. This chapter may bring some much-needed perspective to this discussion. When students read how inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs found “inspiration” in the works of others, students may come away with a deeper appreciation for how to navigate this important issue.

While it doesn’t describe specific classroom strategies, The Myths of Creativity is a great introduction to current research on creativity that teacher book study groups can adapt and build on. Here are a few quotes you can try on for size.

The dangers of buying into unfounded myths

Like many traditional myths, the myths of creativity are useful for putting our minds at ease. They seem to explain our world and our creativity (or sometimes our lack thereof). Even if they are not a perfect explanation, embracing the myths is better than shrugging one’s shoulders and admitting naïveté. However, as is true of many other myths, embracing them too tightly can hinder our understanding of reality. The myths of creativity might feel helpful, but stubborn belief in them despite evidence to the contrary will hinder us from achieving our creative potential. Once we know the truth, however, we can discard these myths and better prepare ourselves and those we lead to produce real creative thinking. If we want to generate truly great ideas, we can’t rely on heuristics or mythology. Instead, we need to closely examine scientific research into the creative mind and study the examples of the most innovative companies and people. We need creativity in organizations, but we need more than just myths of creativity.

Cultivate research-based ecosystems that sustain creative thinking

This four-component model [Teresa Amabile’s model] of creativity pulls back the veil on what many believe to be a mysterious and sacred endeavor. Creativity is less the outcome of a divine blessing or visitation and more the result of designing the right ecosystem and filling it with properly trained people with diverse perspectives. While the creative mystics may still pray to the muses or look jealously on the blessed, the implications of this empirically based model are clear: under the right conditions, anyone can be creative. Everyone can generate great ideas.

How unfounded myths take on a life of their own

The Ancient Greeks created the muses, who received and answered the prayers of ancient writers, musicians, and even engineers. The muses were the bearers of creativity’s divine spark. They were the source of inspiration. Over time, the Greek influence on the Western world ensured that the legend of the muses continued on. During the Enlightenment, many of the leading thinkers of the 18th century sought to re-establish a “cult of the muses” as a means to further their own intellectual pursuits. Voltaire, Danton, even Benjamin Franklin while in Paris attended meetings at a Masonic lodge named Les Neufs Soeurs, or “the nine sisters.” Our modern culture still feels the effects of their efforts in words such as “museum,” whose original meaning was “cult place of the muses,” but has since come to refer to any place where public knowledge or creative works are displayed.

A natural resistance to creativity and disrupting the status quo

Creative ideas make people uncomfortable. It turns out that, at least subconsciously, we can have a hard time recognizing ideas as both new and useful at the same time. This cognitive dissonance between creativity and practicality may actually create a subtle bias against creative ideas.

The persistence and hard work required to advance innovation

It’s not enough for people to learn how to be more creative; they also need to be persistent through the rejection they might face. All of the ideas mentioned in this chapter were eventually adopted. When they were, it wasn’t just because of their creativity, at least not at first. It was the persistence of their creators that moved them from idea to innovation. Likewise, it’s not enough for leaders to make their teams more innovative. Leaders need to get better at counteracting their own bias and recognizing potential innovations sooner. We don’t just need more great ideas; we need to spread the great ideas we already have.

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