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Creativity: Myths and Misconceptions

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Sebastian Campanario, who writes for La Nacion in Buenos Aires, recently sent me three questions for an article he was writing on myths about creativity. I thought I would reproduce those questions and my answers here.

SC: You have said that scholars tend to focus on one type of creativity. What do they ignore?

DG: This is by far the greatest error in the scholarly (and popular) understanding of creativity. The scholars who study this believe there is only one kind of creativity, in which young artists and scholars make sudden and dramatic discoveries through highly deductive leaps. I call this conceptual creativity, because it depends heavily on formulating new abstract ideas. Great modern conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso, Rimbaud, Godard and Dylan. But what this analysis completely misses is that there is an entirely different kind of creativity that depends on long and painstaking accumulation of evidence, and extended development of techniques that convert this knowledge into new innovations. I call this form of creativity experimental, because it is the result of patient trial-and-error processes. It generally arrives gradually, and much later in the innovator's life, than conceptual innovations. Great modern experimental innovators include Darwin, Cezanne, Proust, Le Corbusier and Solzhenitsyn. It is not merely by chance that their great innovations came later in their lives than the conceptual innovators listed above: their entire way of thinking, and learning, is different.

SC: In what disciplines do you see the biggest misconceptions about creativity?

DG: The biggest misunderstandings about creativity have been produced by psychologists. Beginning in the 1950s, and continuing today, a series of eminent psychologists have argued that creativity is the exclusive domain of the young, and that wisdom is the enemy of creativity. They are wrong. Conceptual creativity is generally the domain of the young, who can make radical new discoveries without being constrained by established habits of thought, and whose thinking is not careful or balanced. But experimental creativity is the opposite. It is generally the domain of older scholars and artists, who have had longer to accumulate knowledge and develop methods of analyzing it, and their discoveries are usually the product of balanced and judicious thinking -- wisdom.

Strangely, economists have failed to study creativity. Economists who study economic growth virtually unanimously agree that technological change is by far the greatest source of growth. Most important innovations in all activities are made by individuals, or small groups. In view of the enormous importance of innovation for the economy, we might assume that economists would devote a great deal of attention to understanding how great scholars, entrepreneurs and artists make their discoveries, so we could teach people to be more creative. Remarkably, however, economists have shown no interest in studying the technology of innovation. I think this is a major failing of our discipline. The study of creativity is simply too important to be left to the psychologists, who have done such a bad job of it. And the topic is extremely important: this is not merely an academic debate, because it involves how we should change our educational systems, and how we should allocate research funds. It is also important to any individual who wants to improve the quality of his or her own work.

SC: In your daily work, do you use any techniques to be more creative?

DG: I don't believe in tricks to increase creativity. I am an experimental person, and significant experimental creativity depends above all on hard work -- knowing as much as possible about the subject you are studying, and developing your ability to analyze and summarize your knowledge. Other people can help you learn methods of analysis, and help you develop your own skills, but the most important thing is to understand how to learn on your own, then putting in the time to do this. I have had great teachers and colleagues -- scholars who were themselves great innovators -- and the most important thing I have learned from them is the example of how great an effort is involved in doing genuinely innovative work.

Thanks to Sebastian Campanario for these questions.