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July 27, 2015
Getting Smart About Creativity
Given the choice between the myth of the natural genius and the sobering reality of hard work, popular culture usually opts for the myth. –BD Burrell

When you’re getting advice about creativity or reading one of the many books about the subject, you need to be careful — very careful — because many, if not most, perpetuate our highly Western, misleading, and individualist cultural ways. That typically means that we’re going to have to go digging into our own mindset and belief system to revise and reframe these wrongheaded beliefs if we want to really understand creativity and innovation.

In his marvelous book Explaining Creativity, Keith Sawyer describes four key errors and summarizes their problems — all very useful for today’s organizational emphasis on innovation. His insights will liberate you from demanding, painful, unrealistic expectations. Admittedly, however, the truth will give you heartburn as well as a lot of often painful, hard work.

**Creativity is fun. When you get into the state of flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and peak experience, creativity is extremely positive and self-actualizing. But it takes a lot of years and training to achieve flow. So as Sawyer indicates, the “fun” is extremely, uncomfortable hard work. What a few would consider the “flow” of creativity is more deathly boring or extremely stressful. Once more: creativity and innovation are just plain hard work.

**Creativity is a burst of inspiration. Creativity is absolutely not a mysterious moment that you just have to wish for. Rather, as Sawyer emphasizes continually in his studies, it’s a “long extended process over time, in which many small, mini insights occur throughout the work day.” When people suggest the opposite, they’re making up stories about what happened. And, of course, the more the story fits the Western Myth, the more it will be believed. Burrell’s comment is on target: popular culture usually opts for the myth.

**Creativity is an individual trait. Here’s where our American individualism really takes a hit. Creativity isn’t just a property of individuals, but it’s all about social groups. As Sawyer emphasizes, creativity is very much like an improvising jazz ensemble. Creativity occurs in collaborative groups far more than within the individual. Furthermore, Sawyer and most psychologists inevitably ignore the conversational underpinnings of creativity. Barry Brummett puts it this way: “Except perhaps for the insane or autistic, meaning is always social, intersubjective, rather than subjective (individualistic) or objective.” Meanings — in this instance, creativity — are always formed and changed socially through dialog with others.

**Creativity is the rejection of convention. Typically, creativity not only accepts conventional products and processes, but it builds and extends convention. There’s only a small part of the novel in the most creative projects. Furthermore, much of the novel isn’t recognized as useful ’til years later. 3M’s Post-It adhesive and paper was originally used for bookmarks in the inventor’s hymnal. Today, with the insights of hundreds of folk, it’s a multi-billion dollar business within 3M, and creative products using that adhesive continue to be rolled out.

Once you’re aware of the truth and how the Western models influence your thinking, you’re prepared to be “an intelligent consumer of creativity advice.”

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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