The cult of creativity is making us less creative

Creativity isn’t always reflected in brainstorming sessions.
Creativity isn’t always reflected in brainstorming sessions.
Image: Reuters/Ilya Naymushin
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You may have noticed that creativity is all the rage—and not just among artists. American culture, and indeed the world, has become obsessed with manufacturing creative kids, who will turn into inventive workers, who will then become the innovative leaders we need in these rapidly-changing times.

All this obsessing over creativity would be fine if we were actually good at fostering inventiveness. But as writer and teacher Diana Senechal points out in her new book Mind Over Memesmany schools and employers are going about it all wrong. By attempting to instill creativity, she argues, we end up killing it.

As creativity is increasingly touted as the “premiere skill” of our time, Senechal argues, there’s little interest in just letting this ability develop independently. Instead, it is being quantified, dissected and tested, taught and measured.

For example, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning—a collaboration between education, business, community, and government leaders in the US—insists that kids must be educated in the ability to think quick and come up with unusual solutions to respond to future employment in a transforming landscape. Similarly, the International Organization for Cooperation and Development, which generates data and research for policies that promote prosperity worldwide, argues that education today must be focused on cultivating and measuring creativity. Teaching, learning, and assessing creative and critical thinking skills will “help [students] succeed in modern, globalised economies based on knowledge and innovation.”

In light of these institutional directives, schools and companies are intent on making creativity something that they can grow and harness. That means measuring it with tests and scoring inventiveness. High test scores may reveal the ability to brainstorm, Senechal says. But they don’t reveal the capacity to innovate, which takes patience.

Senechal argues that no one can be creative without first learning about what came before. That involves a lot of study, thought, and practice—mastering the basics ahead of any dazzling innovations. Moreover, a dogmatic approach to creativity in institutions only stifles the very quality everyone claims to want to cultivate, she says. Senechal writes:

Creativity cannot be institutionalized; the best way to promote it is to give it room and substance. An inventor creates new things not by “being creative”  but by finding new solutions to problems. That requires long, stubborn, springy work: a willingness to test something to the limit, even if no one else deems it relevant.

A new slow thinking movement

Senechal doesn’t oppose the notion that creativity is important. Instead, she calls for a reframing of our understanding of this quality and how it is cultivated.

Invention is the result of a long process. Take making music, for example. Before musicians can write new songs, much less push the boundaries of their craft, they first have to figure out basics—how to play, scales, notes, chords, how other people’s songs go, and how those songs are composed. There is a lot of practice that comes before mastery and only after that can innovation happen. Ideas must germinate in knowledgeable soil. They benefit from deep consideration, and valuable concepts can’t be generated without a profound understanding of underlying principles.

In Senechal’s view, creativity is both simpler and more difficult than its most vocal proponents make it out to be. It’s not as easy as just having an open mind or being talented at seeing newness in a vacuum. On the other hand, creativity is neither magical nor elusive. Inventiveness stems from practice and variation, attempts to play with traditions and tweak them bit by bit. Nothing useful is totally new. Rather, invention is a twist on a time-tested method, borne of knowledge.

Senechal offers her great uncle, Charles Fischer, as an example. He was a 20th-century inventor who patented a number of handy gadgets, including a speedometer, a coat rack, a hands-free book stand that wraps around the thigh, and a telephone holder, among others. Each of his inventions had different element. But it was his fundamental understanding of how mechanical springs work, stemming from his experience as a toolmaker, that led to each innovation.

Senechal proposes that a new approach to creativity in institutions could save inventiveness from obsolescence. Rather than insisting that people demonstrate their aptitude for this skill, we should make room for it to grow. Instead of testing people on their brainstorming abilities, schools and companies should allow students and workers to tinker with ideas in various way that suit them.

In her own classes, Senechal has discovered that when she assigns writing, each student has different needs. For example, one student said he couldn’t write a story in the presence of everyone else. By allowing him to complete his assignment at night, at home, while others wrote in the classroom, she gave him the leeway to be creative, and he produced good work.

Likewise, when one student told her he couldn’t follow the precise directives of her assignment without ruining the story he was writing, she let him hand it in as he wished and discovered he was right. She didn’t squelch his creativity and insist he follow her rigid rules. By being flexible, she lets the students explore their own ideas.

“To accomplish something meaningful, one can dig into the problem at hand and learn about it slowly, sitting still for a while,” Senechal writes. “Such learning though sluggish at first soon starts to wiggle with questions.”

If institutions really want to encourage creativity, in other words, they’ll have to develop the requisite patience to wait for it—and the ability to recognize what inventiveness is really made of. Insisting on innovation will never work, according to Senechal. “Perhaps the worst thing for creativity is dogma,” she argues. “Dogma delights in nothing; it insists on its own rigid ways.”

In other words, the teacher believes that as a culture, we need to become more creative about our understanding of creativity, and more inventive in our approach to measuring how this skill manifests. It’s not something that teachers or bosses can test and score directly. But it is something they will recognize when a great idea is presented and demonstrated and proves its relevance. There may be no shortcut for this process, Senechal says, but it’s worth the effort and wait.