A. Why “creative genius”?
When one thinks of exceptional performance, the first term that may come to mind to label such a person is “genius”. But as you have no doubt noted, we have been using the term “creative genius” in this essay.
The reason is that for our present purposes the term “genius” is of limited utility. Historically, the term genius was often used in the psychometric study of intelligence – that is, the attempt to measure intelligence using paper and pencil tests. “Genius” referred to scores about three standard deviations above the mean (or a score roughly above 145 on the most widely used tests). However, this definition of genius is fraught with difficulties, some of which will be discussed as we proceed through the readings and critiques. For our present purposes, let me make a simple point for now. Those whom we would choose to study as geniuses (such as the cases examined in detail by authors such as Howard Gardner or Michael Howe) are also exceptionally creative. Thus, the term “creative genius” is a better descriptor than the term “genius” alone (or, for that matter, the term “creative” alone). Creativity, as we will see in a minute, is not – in most cases – exceptional in and of itself. Nor is high IQ, in and of itself, necessarily exceptional either (outside of the narrow statistical definition).
So we will eschew the individual terms “creative” and “genius” and focus instead on their convergence in the concept of “creative genius”.
B. What is creativity?
Of course, we still need to take a look at the concept of creativity, as it is usually employed.
As is often the case, one could start with the Oxford Dictionary, which defines “creative” as “involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something”.
(Like most definitions, this one basically “kicks the can down the road” by invoking other terms that need to be defined, such as “original”).
In essence, this definition reflects the traditional view that creativity is a unique ability (i.e., unrelated to ordinary thinking), derives from inspiration, requires producing something out of nothing, or something qualitatively new and different. Further, those individuals who are creative are extraordinary people with an inborn gift or in possession of a quality that is “divinely” inspired.
(Sometimes, creative people are also seen as mad, mentally ill, or in some other way unusual. We will address this issue later.)
Examples of the unusual nature of creativity abound, even in the psychological literature. The Adjective Check List, a widely used instrument in research, consists of a large number of adjectives grouped into a set of scales, each of which presumably captures essential characteristics of different categories of people. One of these scales is labeled the “Creative Personality Scale” and draws on adjectives such as: clever, confident, insightful, inventive, original, and unconventional.
The basic notion here is that creative people have qualities not shared by others, i.e., that creativity is somehow extraordinary.
While quotes from famous or distinguished people can be found to support just about any point one can imagine, a few quotes about creativity might serve to illustrate the idea held by many that creativity is somehow out of the ordinary. The noted anthropologist Loren Eisley wrote, for example: “The creative individual is someone upon whom mysterious rays have converged and are again reflected, not necessarily immediately, but in the course of years.” The beloved author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “Artistic temperament…sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling”.
These kinds of quotes could be multiplied ad nauseum, but the point is straightforward – many, if not most, people think of creativity as something outside the bounds of normal, everyday behaviour.
However, as a contemporary student of creativity, Robert Weisberg from Temple University, put it: “If creative products come out of nothing, one is left enthralled in mystery, which precludes the scientific study of the creative process”.
The challenge for the psychological study of exceptional performance, then, is how can we examine creativity scientifically?
The scientific study of creativity is a multidimensional one, and there are several aspects that need to be examined briefly before we can begin to examine the issue in detail. First, we need to distinguish between creativity and intelligence. Second, we need to look at how (or even whether) creativity can be measured.
Then, we will turn to the cognitive aspects of creativity, the role of personality and motivation in creativity, and the role of larger social and cultural factors in creativity.
(1) Creativity vs. Intelligence
Most investigators make a distinction between creativity and intelligence, although few agree on what the distinction is. One straightforward way to think about it for now is to invoke Guilford’s distinction between convergent and divergent thinking. The former type of thinking has as its goal or focus the “right answer”. In general, the tests that students take in school are tests of convergent thinking. “When did Columbus arrive in the Americas?” requires a specific answer (1492, in case you missed school that day). Intelligence tests, in their many guises, require convergent thinking (the answer to an arithmetic problem, the definition of a vocabulary item, the way in which two concepts are alike or different, and so on). Divergent thinking, which Guilford equated with creativity, requires that one come up with many alternative answers to a question – the classic being “How many uses can you name for a brick?” Many answers in a defined period of time, and – more importantly – many unique (but not too bizarre) answers are considered the hallmark of creativity.
This simple distinction enjoys widespread acceptance in the field and most investigators recognize that intelligence and creativity are not the same thing. What is more controversial, however, is the question of how or even whether intelligence and creativity are related. Thus, while creativity and intelligence may not be the same thing, it may still be the case that is one a function of the other – that creativity is a product of intelligence or intelligence is a product of creativity. It also could be the case that they are correlated in some way – that is, that creativity and intelligence increase or decrease together or one increases as the other decreases. Finally, it could be the case that they are orthogonal (i.e., uncorrelated or completely unrelated to one another).
There is some evidence that none of these positions is quite right. Rather, there may be a kind of “threshold effect” at work here. As Howard Gardner, whose work we will examine shortly, put it “creativity is not the same thing as intelligence…once a threshold IQ of 120 has been reached”. That is, for people with IQ’s below that cut-off, intelligence and creativity are, if not the same, at least on parallel tracks. Someone with relatively low intelligence (as measured by the IQ test of course) is likely to also possess relatively little creativity. But once the threshold of 120 is reached, intelligence and creativity diverge. Thus, someone can be extremely creative, in this formulation, and have an IQ of 120 while someone else could have an IQ of 140 and possess more limited creativity. In other words, the most creative individuals are not necessarily those with the highest IQ scores. However, they will have high IQ scores relative to the whole population. How high? Well, an IQ of 120 is a score that is reached by about 10% of the population. So for the upper 10% of individuals, intelligence and creativity are not closely related, but for the remaining 90% of the population, intelligence and creativity are related, although neither will be exceptionally high. In a sense, it appears that high intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for high creativity. This is one theme to look for as we review Gardner’s biographies of creative geniuses.
Another important difference between the constructs of intelligence and creativity stems from the ways in which they are measured. The psychological measurement of constructs, known as psychometrics, will receive more systematic treatment later in this essay, but for now we will simply focus on the ways in which psychologists have attempted to quantify intelligence and creativity, neither of which is an easy or entirely successful venture. Attempts to measure intelligence are more well-known and to some extent more successful. Over 100 years ago, Alfred Binet led the effort to develop a paper and pencil test to help evaluate children’s school abilities (what we called earlier their scholastic aptitude) with the laudable aim of identifying those children most at risk for school failure. More than a century later, dozens of “intelligence tests”, including an advanced and oft-modified version of Binet’s original test, have been reasonably successful at predicting success or failure in school learning, and to a lesser extent, in some vocational domains. While intelligence tests remain controversial, they are widely accepted as valuable tools for some purposes.
The attempt to measure creativity with a paper and pencil test, however, has met with less success and acceptance. Only a few such tests exist, and none are in wide use – at least by the standards of intelligence tests. Some thoughtful investigators, such as Gardner, have cast doubt on the validity of these tests of creativity. That is, he doubts that these tests measure creativity at all.
One of the major problems with tests of creativity is that they attempt to measure creativity in some general sense. But as we will see, it may be the case that individuals are not creative (or un-creative) across-the-board. Rather, one can be creative within a particular domain (or, more specifically, a particular domain of expertise). Therefore, if someone knows a great deal about a domain and has practiced and mastered various aspects of this domain, one can be creative within it. In Gardner’s book he shows how Einstein was creative within his domain of physics, Picasso within his domain of painting, Stravinsky within his domain of music, Graham within her domain of dance, and so on. But genuine, substantive creativity only occurs within a domain of expertise. The argument is that one can’t improve his or her creativity in a general way (despite an enormous popular literature that seems to suggest otherwise). One can only improve creativity by first working very hard to master some domain of knowledge or skill. Therefore, creativity can only be measured or evaluated within a domain. Global tests of creativity are not possible or even sensible.
(2) Major approaches to the study of creativity
In addition to clarifying the relationship between creativity and intelligence, it might also be useful at this point to describe briefly three more approaches to the study of creativity that have been most prominent in the recent experimental literature. These approaches will be elaborated later in this essay.
(a) The cognitive approach to creativity.
The emphasis on measuring mental constructs, such as creativity and intelligence, stems from the psychometric tradition in psychology. A somewhat separate tradition is the cognitive approach to creativity. This approach has its roots in a long-standing research tradition of studying problem solving. Often, in studies of problem solving, a focus of the research is on novel or unusual solutions to problems and the factors which either facilitate or inhibit such novelty. A famous task from this literature is the 9-dot problem (see illustration). In order to solve the problem, one must –as the cliché goes – think “outside the box”. Cognitive psychologists, such as Weisberg, use problem solving as a source of insight into the creative process. As we will see soon, one fascinating controversy that comes from this literature has to do with whether solutions to problems such as the 9-dot problem require “insight” and are solved in an all-or-none fashion, or with an “aha” experience, or by contrast are solved in small, incremental steps.
(b) The “creative personality”
In addition to the problem of how to measure creativity and what cognitive processes underlie it, we also have the problem of what sort of person is capable of unusual creativity. Is there such as thing as a “creative personality” or, at least, do creative people have certain characteristics that predispose them to being creative. As with the two earlier approaches, the search for the wellspring of creativity can be traced back over a century. Psychoanalytic studies of creativity include Freud’s epic study of Leonardo da Vinci, which emphasized the role of subconscious processes such as sublimation. In a very different vein, behaviourists attributed creativity to reinforcement of earlier creative behaviour. More recently, Cskiszentmihalyi and his colleagues, whose work we will examine in detail, emphasized the intrinsic motivation of creative endeavors, captured by the idea of “flow”.
(c) The historiometric approach
A third stream of work on creativity has emphasized factors outside of the individual. In a sense, creativity is seen less as an individual effort
(often described in “heroic” proportions) and more as an interaction of personal and social factors.
For example, some investigators have examined familial factors such as birth order, while others examine the role of social factors – such as being an “outsider”.
In addition this approach incorporates historical factors (hence its name) such as societal forces at work at the time of the creative accomplishment (such as economic upheaval, warfare, etc. ) as well as developmental factors such how individual productivity or innovation changes over the course of the life-span.
At it most provocative, this approach can embrace the view that creativity is a function of the “zeitgeist” and the person who is typically given credit was just “in the right place at the right time”. Thus, the argument goes, the idea of the “lone genius” is a myth.
3. Levels of creativity
Finally, we need to examine one more definitional issue before we start our in-depth analysis of key work in the field. Like many constructs used in psychology, creativity is a word borrowed from “ordinary” language – as opposed to jargon or technical language – and as such comes with a surfeit of meanings that can cause confusion and lack of precision. In everyday discourse, or in the popular media, creativity is often used to mean artistic expression or child-like play. “Unleash your creativity” can be a slogan associated with a variety of activities, many of which are simple vehicles for “self-expression” but which may entail little or nothing that a scientist would call creative.
To help think about the term creativity more clearly it might be useful to distinguish among three levels of creativity. The first, which we might call “little c” creativity or everyday creativity, may be defined as novel, goal-directed behaviour or innovation. This type of creativity occurs frequently and is something of which virtually everyone is capable. Further, its explanation requires nothing more than what would be required to explain any other kind of “ordinary” thought process. So, finding a new use for an otherwise obsolete household item (making a flower pot out of an old cooking utensil, for example) could be an example of this type of creativity.
A second level of creativity might be called “big C” Creativity. This type of creativity requires domain expertise and exceptional motivation (and the years of training and practice required to achieve them). Important scientific or literary contributions are of this sort. It is obviously much less common than “little c” creativity, is something that is not within the capacity of everyone, and may (or may not) require explanations over and above those used to explain ordinary thought processes.
The third and final level of creativity might be called Creative Genius. (This is the type of creativity that is the focus of Gardner’s book as well as much of the reading covered in this website). This type of creativity results in domain altering; that is, the field in which the creative genius operates is forever altered by the work of the creative genius. Physics after Einstein, music after Stravinsky, psychology after Freud, social action after Gandhi, dance after Graham – these are examples of domain altering as a result of the work of a creative genius. Creative genius is extremely rare, is within the reach of only a few, and requires explanations that are still incomplete.
Chapter 2. Two Studies of Creativity
Now that we have outlined some of the major issues that one must confront before undertaking a serious examination of creativity, we turn to an in-depth examination of two seminal books: Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds and Robert Weisberg’s Creativity. These two impressive works complement each other and together provide a rich and provocative portrait of creativity and the creative individual.
We begin with Howard Gardner’s book Creating Minds. Based on his well-known theory of multiple intelligences (with which I do not fully agree), Gardner has selected one exemplary individual – a creative genius – to illustrate the essential nature of each of the seven intelligences (or domains of intelligence, if you prefer). He then attempts to reveal patterns or commonalities in the behaviour of these seven creative geniuses that will help to illuminate the nature of creativity in general. His examination of each of these seven geniuses takes the form of a psychological biography is you will. Three themes, which will be elaborated below, serve to organize these biographies: (1) the search for developmental continuities, from childhood to adult mastery; (2) an exploration of how individuals work within domains; and (3) the role of social context.
Howard Gardner is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. While the idea that intelligence is not a single factor (known as “g” – for general intelligence) is not new, Gardner developed an approach that had wide-spread appeal, especially to educators, and emphasized the multi-faceted nature of intelligence. In essence, he broadened the traditional view of intelligence (and intelligence tests). While the original purpose of intelligence tests (especially the first one of Alfred Binet) focused on the kinds of skills one needed to succeed in school, Gardner argued that we need a broader view of intelligence, one that encompassed the full range of human abilities. His view of intelligence is that there are seven (in recent years expanded to nine) fairly independent “intelligences”. What matters most for our current purposes is that one can be creative within one of these seven domains while being rather ordinary in the others. Creativity in each of these seven domains – linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal – can be exemplified by a “creative genius” and in Gardner’s book he presents a biography of seven creative geniuses, one in each domain, and attempts to forge a theory of creativity to account for their development, individually and as a group.
Creating Minds is essential reading for anyone who is interested in this topic. Although it may appear to be somewhat dated, it is still – in my view – one of best analyses of creative genius ever written. It is widely available (used copies can be purchased online and it can be found for free in google books). In the discussion to follow, I will refer to the 1993 paperbound edition published by Basic Books. If you would like a brief summary of this book instead, try J. Plucker’s 1994 review in Gifted Child Quarterly (volume 38, number 1, pages 49-51; available at:http://gcq.sagepub.com/content/38/1/49.full.pdf.
Keys to creativity?
While the creative geniuses analyzed in Creating Minds are each unique in fundamental ways, one of the essential points that I wish to emphasize here is that each of these creative geniuses has much in common with the others and these commonalities may in some way provide a glimpse into the “keys” to creativity. In the section to follow, I will list each of the 15 keys or commonalities that appear to emerge from Gardner’s discussions, with some clarifying material to help you appreciate their importance.
1. Born to an economically and socially comfortable family, with at least one very loving and supportive member (sometimes a nanny or other non-parent). None of Gardner’s seven creative geniuses came from an impoverished or disadvantaged family. When the parents were not particularly nurturing to the young child, there was in every case another family member or a caregiver who was loving, if not doting. This is not to say that creative geniuses never come from impoverished backgrounds (we will see a case study of one such individual when we review the work of Howe in the expertise section) but a lack of resources in early childhood usually presents an insurmountable barrier to the highest levels of achievement. One point to take from this observation is that creative genius does not “come from nothing” – it has to be developed and nurtured in some way and this nurturing takes resources.
2. Lack of major trauma but not entirely secure or conventional upbringing. This point is related to the first one. The creative geniuses studies by Gardner were spared from major trauma – such as severe physical abuse or living through a major disaster or warfare – but they weren’t sheltered or coddled either. Some challenge in life is probably necessary but too much challenge can, like the extreme poverty noted above, become an insurmountable obstacle.
3. Encouragement or support at an early age for some treasured activity. While the activity didn’t necessarily have to be exactly the one later developed into creative excellence, it was substantive and challenging. So for example, Einstein was something of a prodigy in his interest in philosophy and was encouraged by his family and tutored by a family friend in his study of Kant and other philosophers. Creative genius grows out of a fertile bed of serious intellectual or other engagement and doesn’t just “spring up” all of a sudden.
4. Early recognition of talent by significant peer or mentor; someone in a position to advance the career. Another aspect of the support described above is the more formal and structured support provided by an accomplished mentor or peer. While the creative genius inevitably outstrips the mentor, the initial help that is provided is invaluable. The feedback, friendly critique, and provision of resources that mentors can provide ensure that the creative genius doesn’t waste his or her efforts in unproductive ways. Further, an initial boost to the career prospects of the creative genius is essential. There are many talented people in the world and it often takes a bit of help to stand out, regardless of how great one’s potential might be. Getting that first position or the key promotion or the right recommendation can sometimes be the difference between success and obscurity.
5. Rapid mastery of chosen domain and subsequent search for one’s own voice. In a later section on expertise you will encounter the famous “10 year rule” – the claim that it takes about 10 years of focused, deliberate practice or effort to master a domain and achieve expertise. While we will postpone discussion of the merits of this claim (and they are substantial) it may be the case that for many, perhaps most, creative geniuses the achievement of mastery takes less than 10 years. But even if mastery takes 7 or 8 rather than 10 years, it still takes a lot of time and effort. No one becomes a creative genius overnight. A tremendous amount of effort is required. In addition, the creative genius does not just “master” the domain – he or she transforms it by adding their own distinct “voice”. Brilliant musicians or athletes don’t just absorb what their teachers have to offer, they develop their own unique style. Brilliant scientists, writers, and artists don’t just learn from the great work that came before them, they make new discoveries, develop new insights, forge new styles of expression.
6. Further stages of development that each last about 10 years. In general, one can master only a single domain. Finding examples of individuals who make truly exceptional contributions in more than one domain are rare. But when such accomplishments occur, the second domain also takes about 10 years to master. That is, one can’t simply apply one’s creative genius in one domain to another domain. Being a brilliant scientist does not make one a brilliant social philosopher or statesman. Unfortunately, many people think that this is the case and even some creative geniuses overestimate their powers. The point here is that “creative genius” is not all-encompassing or a general ability; it is domain specific. A simple example is the brilliant basketball player Michael Jordon, who turned out to be a good, but hardly exceptional, baseball player.
7. Extreme enthusiasm, hard work, single-minded ambition, tireless self-promotion and enormous energy and stamina. Given what has already been said about the enormous effort required to put one into a position to be a creative genius, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this effort stems, in part, from personality characteristics that include the qualities listed here. Perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of this cluster of personality traits, however, is self-promotion. Creative geniuses are not wallflowers. They believe in themselves and promote their efforts, sometimes shamelessly. They are also not half-hearted about their work. They never “mail it in”.
8. Relocation to a major cultural or scientific center. While the biographies of creative geniuses reveal that they were born in a variety of places, they all eventually migrated to a major cultural center. In Gardner’s biographies we see them moving to the major cultural centers of their eras (late 19th and early 20th century) – Vienna, Paris, London, New York. Why? Because cultural centers provide, among other things, the necessary resources, including like-minded peers and a knowledgeable audience. Creative genius does not develop in a vacuum. It takes an audience, people who can recognize the genius, celebrate it and support it. This type of audience is most likely to be found in a major cultural center. If Shostakovitch or Graham had spent their entire careers performing in small towns in remote locales their genius would not have been nurtured and few would have noticed.
9. Ability to find and relate to others of equal talent. This point overlaps with the last one because one of the key features of a cultural center is the “critical mass” of talented and accomplished people living and working there. Being able to identify these people and develop mutually helpful relationships with them is enormously helpful to the advancement of a career. It is frequently noted that in places like Paris or Zurich in the 1920’s or New York in the 1950’s many of the individuals we have subsequently celebrated as creative geniuses knew one another, hung out at the same cafes and bars, and were part of the same social set. This is not an accident.
10. Willingness to take risks; unwillingness to rest on laurels; need to re-invent self every few years. These characteristics are traits of personality in a sense. Unlike domain expertise, they are not the direct result of hard work. Rather, these qualities may be part of the person’s temperament – that is, aspects of personality that are largely inborn. Kagan has shown, for example, that “shyness” is a quality of personality that can be identified in infancy and remains largely stable into middle adulthood. Risk taking is another quality that may share these characteristics. In addition, the restless need to achieve, even when one has reached a high level of proficiency and success, may also be an aspect of temperament. It is important to note that most of the characteristics that we have discussed so far depend heavily on the individual’s environment but genetic factors play a role too and this last point is an example. Creative genius is neither “manufactured” nor “inborn” – it is a very complex interaction of both.
11. Willingness to enter into a “Faustian bargain”. The legend of Faust, as told by Goethe (himself an example of a creative genius), is the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. One of Gardner’s most original and intriguing ideas is that the creative genius willingly makes the egocentric and narcissistic decision to devote him- or herself entirely to the chosen domain in return for the opportunity to achieve excellence. Of course, all of us, creative genius or not, are subject to the same 24 hour day and so single-minded devotion to anything is costly, whether it is in terms of family happiness or poor relations with spouse and children (or perhaps the choice to not have children at all) or poor interpersonal relationships in general. As you read Gardner’s biographies, you may be struck by how each of these seven individuals paid a price in terms of personal relationships, especially those of an intimate nature. Creative geniuses may have many laudable qualities, but being loving and attentive spouses and parents are usually not among them.
12. A key confidant and/or collaborator (alter ego) at key stage in career. This point is related to #4 above, but occurs, developmentally, at a later stage. The potential creative genius needs feedback and support, like anyone else. A collaborator can play a significant role in a formative career stage, although – like Einstein’s wife- the contribution made by the collaborator is often unacknowledged or forgotten.
13. Being embraced by (part of) the field or championed by one or more influential critics; impervious to criticism or ridicule. In addition to collaborators and confidants, the potential creative genius also needs the support of more established people in the field, often influential critics (especially in the arts) and senior scholars and scientists. It is difficult to get noticed in most fields when one is starting out and the “seal of approval” of an established and influential critic or scholar can help launch one’s career. But criticism, rejection, even ridicule, can come with this attention and the creative genius is one who can ignore and transcend this negativity rather than become despondent over it. It is frequently the case that the creative genius possesses a fair dose of arrogance, a quality which helps one overlook the negative opinions of others. As the famous psychologist Albert Ellis quipped: The man who won’t be put down, can’t be put down. (I’d hope he would include women in this sentiment if he were still with us.)
14. Willing, devoted, and talented disciples; demands loyalty from followers. In keeping with the sense of a few earlier points, the creative genius does not work alone, and in addition to supportive mentors, collaborators, and established figures in the field the biographies reveal the key role played by students and other “disciples”. In return, the creative genius typically demands blind loyalty and does not tolerate deviations from the creative genius’ viewpoint. Freud is certainly a famous example of this tendency, but Gardner’s biographies suggest that this is a general tendency and not the quirk of a few.
15. A good “personality” and pleasing manner; commanding presence; “charisma”. Finally, creative geniuses appear to be charismatic and in possession of a strong and compelling personality. Given the important role played by others in the life of the creative genius this is not surprising.
Is each and every one of these 15 characteristics “necessary conditions” for the emergence of creative genius? That is an empirical question. Certainly, a close reading of Gardner’s 7 biographies suggests that these characteristics were present in the individuals he chose to study, but it is an open question whether or not any or even most of these characteristics could be missing from the life story of a particular creative genius. One of the objectives of this essay is to provide a framework for the analysis of further biographical study with the hope of shedding more light on this question. (More will be said about this issue later.)
In summary, each of these 15 “key characteristics” of the creative genius was gleaned from Gardner’s insightful biographies. For purposes of simplicity, however, these characteristics may boil down to 2 “factors” or clusters of characteristics. The first factor consists of personality characteristics. Items 7, 9, 10, 11, and 15 seem to capture various aspects of personality and paint a fairly vivid picture of the creative genius as a person. The second factor consists of environmental variables, in particular timely and appropriate outside support. This means that the support must come at the right time in the development of the creative genius and there must be a good match between the needs of the individual and what the external environment can provide. Clearly, a fair amount of good fortune (luck if you will) must be involved for this “optimal match” to occur.
So a creative genius possesses a particularly favorable set of personal characteristics and has the good fortune to have his or her needs met at the right time and in the right way. But obviously something very important is missing from this formulation. It is around this point, in fact, that one of the oldest and most intractable questions in this (and many other) scientific domains centers: what is the role of inborn factors? Do genetic factors enter into this description of the creative genius?
Scholarly opinion runs the gamut from nearly deterministic (creative geniuses are “born this way”) to illusory (the “individual genius” is a myth) and every interactive variant in between. Much of this essay will explore the question of the origins and development of genius with the goal of exploring (but probably not answering) this question.
Are the 15 characteristics described above, plus some amount of “genetically based predisposition,” intended to be a complete explanation or a “recipe” for the development of a creative genius? Certainly not. Many issues still need to be addressed. The following questions are based on Gardner’s book (together with the page numbers of the relevant passages from the text, where appropriate). These questions, which are just a sample of the many that could be raised, will – I hope – serve to inform some of the additional enquiries to follow.
1. In addition to the presence of key factors in the lives of the seven creative individuals, what key factors were absent from their lives? For example, did any suffer from the death of a parent in childhood? Were their formative years disrupted by major catastrophes such as war or natural disaster?
2. How “original” were the great breakthrough ideas of these seven individuals? (see page 100 or page 155)
3. How important is it to be thoroughly steeped in one’s domain? Is there a danger in knowing too much? (see page 101)
4. Do these seven individuals get all of the credit for their accomplishments when some of it should have gone to others? (see page 103)
5. Why do some myths about these seven individuals endure? For example, the myth that Einstein was dyslexic or the excessive claims about Picasso’s early genius. (see page 145)
6. Is there really a relationship between mental illness (such as an alleged “nervous breakdown”) and creativity? (see page 122)
7. In the end, were all of these individuals right? How is Freud’s work regarded today? Was Einstein correct in his assessment of quantum theory? Or, taking an example outside of Gardner’s book, was Marx correct in his analysis of political economy? Does it matter if they were wrong, in whole or in part?
8. Is there a “critical period” for creative activity? Does it vary by domain? (see page 126)
9. What role is played by chance, luck, being in the right place at the right time, “co-incidence”, etc.? (see page 127)
10. How important is the “zeitgeist”? Are some discoveries just waiting to happen? (see page 198)
11. How much of creativity is due simply to the sheer quantity of work? (see page 219). Do creative people produce multiple failures as well as successes? (see pages 151 and 199-200)
12. Gardner’s case studies may all be highly creative but they were also famous. How much recognition for creative genius is the result of “marketing”? That is, are these seven individuals especially noteworthy or did they emerge from a larger group of creative people because they were successful at self-promotion? (see page 211)
13. Finally, several of these creators were not especially admirable people (to some people at least). For example, Picasso is alleged to have been cruel to women; one can make the case that Eliot and Stravinsky were bigots, some consider Gandhi to have been a sexual deviate; Freud and Einstein could be seen as lousy fathers; and Freud was so hard on his “disciples” that two of them committed suicide. Does it matter? (No one is perfect.)
These are intriguing questions. We will not attempt to answer them here, however. Rather, as our discussion of genius, creativity, and expertise unfolds most of these questions will be addressed. As various theories and case studies are examined, try to keep some of these questions in mind.
The "Myth" of Creativity: An Overview
"Our society holds a very romantic view about the origins of creative achievements in the arts and sciences. This is the genius view, and at its core is the belief that creative achievements come about through great leaps of imagination, which occur because creative individuals are capable of extraordinary thought processes. In addition to their intellectual capacities, creative individuals are assumed to possess extraordinary personality characteristics, which also play a role in bringing about creative leaps. These intellectual and personality characteristics are what is called "genius," and they are brought forth as the explanation for great creative achievements."Robert Weisberg;s views on the nature and origin of creative genius are summarized elegantly in the opening paragraph of his first book, Creativity: Genius and Other Myths (1986). The above quote contains three core ideas, which Weisberg sets out to demolish in the remaining pages of his book. These ideas are: (1) creative achievements come about through great leaps of imagination; (2) creative individuals are capable of extraordinary thought processes; and (3) creative individuals possess extraordinary personality characteristics. Further, there is the implicit assumption that there is in fact something called genius, which is a real and definable quality of some special individuals. Weisberg argues that all four of these ideas are false. First, creative achievements do not come about through great leaps but rather through small, incremental steps. Second, creative achievements come about though ordinary, not extraordinary, thought processes. That is to say, creative achievements come about through the same thought processes that most of us use most of the time. Third, creative individuals do not have distinct or unusual personalities. They may work harder and are more single-minded, perhaps, but they do not have unique "genius" personalities that separate them from everyone else. Finally, genius is not a characteristic of individuals but rather a judgment made by others. Thus, one can be viewed as a genius at one point in time and just ordinary at another point in time.
Historical Approaches to the Study of Creativity and Genius
The literature on creativity and genius is as old as literature itself. As with many other topics, the ancient Greeks speculated on the origins and characteristics of creative genius. [A detailed treatment of the history of genius will appear later in this website, especially in a review of the recent book: Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin M. McMahon (Basic Books, 2013).]. For centuries, a basic assumption of the genius view was that we make a sudden creative leap without being consciously aware of how it came about. Descriptions of and anecdotes about great scientists and artists often emphasized the spontaneous, "Aha!" aspect of creativity. Poems, scientific breakthroughs, musical compositions, and other notable accomplishments were seen as springing nearly full-blown from the heads of great thinkers.
In addition, it was typically assumed that creative individuals possess some indefinable quality which accounts for how they do the great things they do. This quality was seen in terms which left little or no room for scientific investigation.
In the early decades of scientific psychology, an alternative view was advanced by the behaviourists (followers of John Watson and others who, starting in the 1920's, argued that psychology cannot be a science if it attempts to understand the "mind"; rather only the objective study of behaviour is the proper subject matter of the science of psychology). The behaviourists attributed "creative" acts either to generalization (making a previously learned response in a (slightly) different situation; or to random, accidental combinations of previous responses. But in either case, creativity was seen not as a thought or an idea or some other mental event but rather as an observable behavioural response to some stimulus in the environment.
Weisberg rejects both of these views as too extreme: "Creativity is not nearly as mysterious as the genius view leads us to believe, but neither is it as trivial as the behaviourist view claims".
Instead, Weisberg views creativity as a type of problem solving, a topic that psychologists (including Weisberg) have studied for decades. He defines creative problem solving as "a person's producing a novel response that solves the problem at hand."
In brief, here is his argument: Novel solutions are produced when the information acquired while working on the problem pushes the problem solver in a new direction. Such a switch may seem to occur suddenly as far as the subjective experience of the problem solver is concerned, but actually it occurs in response to specific aspects of the problem... The solution process might not be any different from that involved in ordinary problem solving, but it feels different because the difficult problem has made one sweat... This line of thinking leads to a view of creativity which emphasizes the incremental nature of the creative response.
This last point is critical: creativity is not a sudden, great leap forward. Instead, it is the result of an incremental, step-by-step process. We might not always be aware of each step, of course, but the steps are there just the same. If effect, creative problem-solving is no different in kind from any other kind of ordinary, problem-solving thinking. For Weisberg, creativity results from thought processes possessed by all of us.
One obstacle to the understanding of creativity is the problem of definition. This problem is compounded by the fact that psychology uses terms that are part of everyday language. Why is this a problem? Think of it this way. In medicine, for example, everyday terms are usually avoided. A myocardial infarction is a medical term that has a specific meaning. Using the term "heart attack" muddies the waters with lots of irrelevant associations and surplus meaning. Technical jargon of all kinds evolved, in part, to avoid these types of irrelevant associations and surplus meaning.
When psychologists use terms such as "intelligence" or "aggression" or "creativity" we make things hard on ourselves because everyone thinks they know what those terms mean. They are not terms coined by specialists. Therefore, special care must be taken to be clear about what we mean-and what we don't.
Before we begin our discussion of what research psychology has to offer on the topic of creativity, let's be clear about what we don't mean by creativity. In many popular uses of the term, "creative" is a synonym for artistic expression or work in the cultural domain. To take two examples that one would encounter here in Toronto, our superb art museum runs an ad campaign that urges us to "unleash our creativity" by participating in art programs. The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management runs an institute that touts the value of the "creative class", meaning those engaged in cultural activity. I have no problem with including these areas-or these individuals - under the heading of creativity, but-as you will soon see-psychologists use the term to refer to human behavior of all kinds, not just those in the arts. One can be creative in front of an easel, of course, but one can also be creative in fixing a toilet or designing a new way to finance mortgages. For psychologists, creativity can occur in any domain of behavior or, more simply put, in any purposeful (or, to use a term that psychologists prefer, goal-directed) activity.
Along these lines, Weisberg begins his discussion of what he means by creativity by raising the possibility of "accidental" creativity. Is such a thing possible? Not according to Weisberg:
for a product to be called creative, it must be the novel result of goal-directed activity. Therefore, novelty brought about by accident would not qualify as creative.
Creativity could be exhibited in accidental discoveries only when the individual that the resulting pattern had some value and choose to pursue that line of work. Or she could come across some piece of "junk" and see its unique beauty and highlight it in some way. Then, one could talk about the artist's creativity exhibited through his or her judgment. In the history of science, the Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming, to take one of many examples, took his accidental discovery and subjected it to thorough investigation, so that he was able to develop the antibiotic Penicillin.
On the other hand, by Weisberg's criteria, the scribbling of a monkey or an infant are not considered creative because they are not goal-directed. In addition, the free-associational "word-salads" of a schizophrenic would be excluded.
Creativity and Value: Is a novel product resulting from goal-directed activity all that is needed in order to render a judgment of "creative"? Doesn't the product-the work of art, the short story, or the invention-have to be seen as of value by the general public and those who work in the field (that is, other artists or writers or scientists)? According to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent researcher who has made many contributions to our understanding of creativity, if one produces something novel that is not accepted by the field, and therefore does not become part of the domain, neither the work nor the person can be called creative.
Weisberg disagrees with this view. His position is, in a nutshell, that positive evaluation is not necessary for creativity to exist. Instead, he proposes that if an inventor, say, in a goal-directed attempt to devise a machine to carry out some task, produces a novel device, then-even if that device is a failure-it, and the inventor, should be called creative.
Weisberg proposes that we limit the term creativity to an individual' s goal-directed production of novel work; the result of the assessment by members of the field would be the value of the product. A work of value can also have influence, if it is incorporated in the works of others, and he would use the term genius to refer to the individual who produces work of exceptional value and/or influence. The creativity of an individual would therefore not change with variations in the judgments given his or her work. (We will look at the issue of changing judgments of the value of a work or in the judgment of "genius" over time in a later section. For now, keep in mind the example of Bach, who was largely ignored for decades after his death and who is now considered one of the greatest composers who ever lived.)
The Question of Novelty: In order for any product to be labeled creative, it must be exposed to external inspection and judgment, if only to judge its novelty. Yet, although novelty is at the core of Weisberg's definition of creativity, there is no agreement on what novelty is. The view of novelty as completely new runs into several problems. First, as Weisberg puts it, "if creative products come out of nothing, one is left enthralled in mystery, which precludes the scientific study of the creative process." ["Exactly!" a foe of science might well reply. But more on this point later.] Rejecting the idea that creative products spring from nothing does not mean that one must accept the opposite view, that there is nothing novel in any creative product. So let's turn to a consideration of the origin of novel ideas.
Where do novel ideas come from?, There are at least three major views of the origin of novel ideas that may be useful. First, Weisberg argues that novel ideas come from the past; that is, "creative works began in continuity with the past...one can always [emphasis is mine] find antecedents to any creative product". (I am generally uncomfortable with the use of the adverb "always" in psychology. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that creative works build on earlier works and do not emerge full-blown, without precedent, is reasonable and one would be hard-pressed to find a counter-example.)
The behaviourist view, which held sway in psychology throughout the early decades of the 20th century, is that thought-presumably including creative thought-is the result of a string of associations. That is, one thought is linked (through the familiar stimulus-response mechanism) to another thought, which in turn is linked to another and so on. While this view is no longer seen as particularly useful, it seems to me that there is still some room for a "string of associations" in a detailed understanding of the creative process. Here is a simple activity for you to try: the next time you have a thought or an idea that seemed to come out of nowhere ("how did I wind up thinking/talking about THAT?"), try to reconstruct the chain of associations that led you there. You might be surprised at the long and winding road of associations that you produced and might appreciate how such a chain can sometimes lead to surprising and seemingly novel or creative ends.
The third view is heavily influenced by Freudian theory. In brief, this view postulates a chain of thoughts as well, except that many of the links in the associative chain may not be accessible to conscious thought. There is undoubtedly some merit to this view as well, although it eludes me how this hypothesis could be subjected to empirical examination.
Finally, there is the question of how creative works achieve their final form. Weisberg claims that "creative works of any scale always undergo revision and modification between their initial and final form". Once again, I am a bit uncomfortable with the word "always", but he does a convincing job of debunking the many stories of creative geniuses, such as those told about Mozart, who allegedly produced great works in a "first draft"-that is, works that required no further revision. (More will be said about these kinds of stories in a later section.)
Individual Differences and Creativity
So far, the emphasis in these remarks has been on the question of defining what is creative and examining where creative ideas come from. However, for many people the most interesting and pressing question has to do with individual differences in creativity: why are some people more creative than others (and, usually, the unspoken question-how can I become one of those people?)
Weisberg considers several factors in his consideration of individual differences in creativity. First (and foremost in my view) are differences in what psychologists call domain-specific skills or domain-specific knowledge; i.e., skill or knowledge in a well-defined "domain". A dictionary definition of domain is "an area of activity or knowledge". While this may not be very helpful, in general when psychologists use this term it usually lines up with the kinds of defined areas that one sees in a university-subjects of study, such as mathematics or composition-or in the world of work-occupations such as medicine or engineering or cooking-or other major areas of activity-such as a sport. A domain is something in which one can be an "expert". The point, though, is that high levels of skill or knowledge can accrue to a domain. One can develop "expertise" in a domain. One cannot be, in this view, simply an "expert". One must be an expert in something; that is, some domain.
Given this emphasis on domains, the really critical point to keep in mind is that people are not simply "creative" (or not), they are creative in some domain. And in order to be creative in some domain one must possess a high degree of domain-specific skill. Thus, efforts to increase "creativity" in some global sense are probably not going to be very effective (indeed, what little evidence that exists suggests that it hasn't been, but more on that later on). Instead, the focus should be on increasing creativity in a particular domain. And the best way to do that, this argument is suggesting, is to increase domain-specific knowledge and skill. If one does that, increased creativity will be a more likely result.
The question of where expertise or skill comes from-in a nutshell, is it the result of practice or "talent" or some interaction of the two-will be the subject of the next topic discussed on this website. Without addressing this issue in detail, however, Weisberg does acknowledge that there may be some biological limitations on what skills we can acquire. Each of us may be better equipped to develop expertise in some domains rather than others. He also points out that not only are different skills important for creativity within domains, but as changes occur in style and taste, the characteristics required of those who would excel within the domain probably also change. So, for example, not only would some biological factors help explain why someone achieves a high level of skill in musical performance, but it would be necessary to explain why someone achieves a high level of skill with a particular instrument and a particular point in time.
Even the most "talented" individual (assuming we accept the idea of "talent" in the first place-and some psychologists do not) must have the right environment if their talent is to bear fruit. This theme will be elaborated upon at length in the subsequent section on talent identification and talent development. For now, however, these brief remarks should suggest at least two related points: first, accounting for creative behavior is extremely complex, and two, predicting who will be creative in some domain is even more complex, if it is possible at all.
Given these considerations, can we now suggest some key factors that contribute to creative accomplishment? Psychologists have proposed the following:
1. Domain-Specific Expertise: As we have argued above, even the most talented individuals must acquire expertise in a domain. But couldn't someone just be a "natural" and perform at a high level without putting in a lot of work beforehand? Weisberg makes an important point in this regard. What would happen if one doesn't "do one's homework"? Perhaps one need not know what came before in order to begin to do innovative work in a domain, but in order to produce influential work in a field, one may have to know what came before. Otherwise, there is always the possibility of "reinventing the wheel". Simply put, what have you accomplished if you produce something "creative" only to discover that because you were ignorant of what came before you simply came up with something that already existed.
2. Motivation and Commitment: Individuals who produce world-class work are, and need to be, totally absorbed in their careers. It takes a great deal of time and effort to acquire domain-specific expertise and in many domains there is no shortage of other people who want to excel. There is little room for dilettantes. In addition, motivation is often enhanced by having a mentor-someone who takes an interest in the individual and can guide him or her in their quest. In this regard, the role of early identification and education is critical (and will receive extended consideration later on).
3. Special personal history. A great deal has been written about what kind of childhood is most conducive to later creative excellence. Once again, we will address this topic in more detail later on, but for now one common theme in the literature is worth mentioning now because it may surprise you. At first glance, it might seem that a privileged, happy childhood would be a necessity for later greatness. But many researchers, such as R. E. Ochse, have reported findings suggesting that creative individuals are much more likely than are matched controls to have suffered some trauma in childhood. One result of this trauma is that it becomes more likely for these children (usually between 5 and 12 years of age) to withdraw from social contacts and emphasize personal intellectual activities instead. There are many case studies of truly creative and innovative individuals who, for example, suffered the loss of a parent (typically the father) at an early age, or had a serious childhood illness that kept them out of school for a lengthy period. The argument is that these unfortunate circumstances led the child to become "bookish" or to withdraw into some special activity (such as music or art) so that the child became "single-minded" and-as suggested above-developed the motivation and commitment to excel in some domain.
In summary, to answer the question of how we can increase "creativity", we can offer the following two principles: (1) provide the kind of environment and the resources that encourage the development of domain-specific expertise and (2) maximize motivation by exposure to a variety of domains at an early age and exposure to mentors.
What we wouldn't recommend is methods based on attempts to teach general "creativity-enhancing skills" (e.g., "set-breaking" or "thinking outside the box"). Corporations and other organizations sometimes provide these kinds of exercises or workshops for their employees. Instead, the time and money would be better spent, in our view, on helping employees to develop their domain-specific expertise. While the latter strategy takes more time, effort, and-possibly-money, one should resist the temptation to buy a "silver bullet" or some quick and painless method. It doesn't exist.
Both Gardner and Weisberg offer rich and compelling discussions of genius and creativity. There is much common ground but also different areas of emphasis and both views deserve careful consideration. There is also much in the way of sound practical advice here.
But one final question has been saved for the end. That is, what if there is no such thing as individual genius? What if genius, and by extension creativity, is not an individual act at all. While we may give credit to one person (such as Edison) we often lose track of the simple fact that much-or most, or all?-creative genius is the result of collective effort. We will take a look at this issue in the next section.