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Can you learn to be creative?

Creativity & Innovation, Learning

We believe that creative thinking is not purely a God-given gift; it is a skill, which can therefore be taught. Granted, some of us may be more naturally able to call on our creative talents than others, but we can all add to our creative abilities in order to reach our creative potential. Let’s look at the evidence.

It is easy to assume that people are either creative or they’re not, that they’ve got it or they haven’t. However, nothing in life is ever that simple and all the evidence indicates that creativity is not fixed. Creativity can be learned. It can be fostered and enhanced in oneself and in others.

Just as importantly, un-creative habits can also be un-learned.

What does this mean?

Consider a creativity test carried out in 1968 by creativity researcher, George Land. Initially designed for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists, Land used the test to measure creativity of children aged five. He retested those same children when they were ten and again at 15. What were the results?

  • 5 year olds: 98%
  • 10 year olds: 30%
  • 15 year olds: 12%

Furthermore, when the same test was given to 280,000 adults, how did they score on creativity? 2%.


Land’s response: “What we have concluded is that non-creative behavior is learned.”
 (Source: George Land and Beth Jarman, Break Point and Beyond)*.

There are many people who think that the current educational system and workplace culture are largely to blame. They think institutions stifle creativity, that people stop being curious and asking questions and so their creativity tails off. That’s the un-learning creativity bit.

So how do we un-learn that un-creative behaviour and how do we learn to be more creative?

There’s little point going on a one-off course that teaches creativity and it’s then back to work as normal. In order to encourage creativity in the workplace, individuals, managers and organisations need to work on building a culture of creativity.

What is a culture of creativity? It’s when people are encouraged to try new things, ask questions, challenge assumptions, work on different assignments, take time out of everyday working life and look at work afresh. That’s just a few ways workplace creativity can be enhanced. Organisations need to get people off the treadmill, stop them doing their job as it has always been done and get them to think about how they could do things differently and what could be improved.

No creativity experts are claiming that everyone can be a creative genius, such as the likes of Einstein, Steve Jobs, Shakespeare or Mark Zuckerberg. Some of us are exceptionally creative but many of us just have the ability to be creative. It’s that germ of creativity that needs to be nurtured.

In another piece of research, Merton Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeymon studied creative abilities in 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins. They tested the twins for creativity and intelligence, and failed to provide convincing evidence of a genetic component in creativity.

The Innovator’s DNA, by Clayton Christensen, Hal Gregersen and Jeffrey Dyer, talks about five discovery skills that characterise the innovators of the world, those who use their creativity to the max. Those skills are associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. The book bases its theory on its own research – they compared roughly five hundred innovators with roughly five thousand (normal) executives.


Most of these skills are obvious. Just two need expanding on. Associating relates to the practice of making connections across questions, problems and ideas that are seemingly disparate. Networking is not networking in the social, business-advancing sense, but more a case of mixing with like-minded individuals, people who challenge perceptions and help get the grey matter working.

Creativity tends to be infectious. Increase your own creative outlook in the workplace and others should soon follow.

* To hear Land’s TED talk on creativity and this research, see https://youtu.be/ZfKMq-rYtnc.

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