Summary: The Myths of Creativity By David Burkus
Summary: The Myths of Creativity By David Burkus

Summary: The Myths of Creativity By David Burkus

1: The Creative Mythology

Like many traditional myths, the myths of creativity are useful for putting our minds at ease. They seem to explain our world and our creativity (or sometimes our lack thereof). Even if they are not a perfect explanation, embracing the myths is better than shrugging one’s shoulders and admitting naïveté

However, as is true of many other myths, embracing them too tightly can hinder our understanding of reality. The myths of creativity might feel helpful, but stubborn belief in them despite evidence to the contrary will hinder us from achieving our creative potential. Once we know the truth, however, we can discard these myths and better prepare ourselves and those we lead to produce real creative thinking.


2: The Eureka Myth

Although these days we rarely tell stories about the muses visiting mere mortals and inspiring them with creative ideas, the stories we do tell haven’t changed all that much. We like stories of epiphanies. We like it when the hero is stuck and suddenly the answer just comes to her. Even if the idea didn’t come from a muse, the language we use to retell moments of creative insight still describes these moments as if something arrived from outside the individual. This is the Eureka Myth, the notion that all creative ideas arrive in a “eureka” moment. We tell stories about other people’s genius ideas as if the idea came suddenly; we conveniently gloss over the tireless concentration that came before the insight, or the hard work of developing the idea that will come afterward. These stories tend to make the idea, not the person, the center of the narrative. I wonder if on some level we like these stories so much because the Eureka Myth offers us another excuse for our own lack of ideas: they just haven’t come to us yet. Perhaps one day they will. In the meantime, we cling to well-known stories, like the one about an apple falling from a tree.

True or not, what these stories ignore is the hard work on either side of the “Eureka.” elements seem to get left behind in the retelling. In the case of Newton, his own retelling of the story may have pruned away some of the more accurate details. These are definitely more entertaining renditions of these stories, but they are far less truthful. The Eureka Myth doesn’t offer much in the way of guidance for generating creative ideas or innovative breakthroughs. Instead, the myth reduces idea generation into something more providential—if you’re in the right place at the right time, then your idea will manifest itself when triggered by something outside your control. There’s nothing in the Eureka Myth, nothing in these stories, to tell us how to produce these moments of insight.


3: The Breed Myth

Although creativity isn’t a gift from the muses or something that comes exclusively to a small group of individuals in a spectacular insight, it can still seem as though creative individuals are a select group. It feels as if the people we view as outstandingly creative are just a certain breed—that they are cut from different cloth than the rest of us. Sometimes they even appear different on the surface. Because they look and act so different, we’re tempted to assume that they must be different underneath. This is

the Breed Myth, the notion that creative individuals are a different breed from normal humans or that something in their genetic code draws them to more creative pursuits. We’re eager to believe that some people are born creative and others drew a different genetic hand. When we look at outstandingly creative individuals in the arts or design fields, they don’t seem to conform to the business-as-usual types. If we believe that they are different or that they have something we don’t, then we have a safe rationalization for believing that we’re not as innovative as they are. If we don’t share their creative genes, then we can rest in that comfortable excuse every time we’re called on to generate new ideas. “I’m just not creative,” we can say, and shirk the responsibility to think innovatively.


4: The Originality Myth

Ideas, we assume, are generated in the mind of one individual and brought to life by that same individual’s effort. When we tell stories about a new invention, we assume that its creator is entirely responsible for dreaming up the device as a complete whole. We like to believe that each new idea is as unique as its creator’s brain, fingerprint, or genetic code, and have a tendency to remember a creative idea or innovation as the product of one person or one company. We want our ideas to be seen as unique and wholly original; therefore, others’ ideas must also have been as unique. This is the Originality Myth—the faulty belief that we would not have a given creation without its single creator and that the creator’s idea is wholly original. The Originality Myth lets us assume total credit for a new idea and claim that idea as our property or the property of our organization. Yet new ideas don’t occur so simply. Rather, a close examination of history reveals a different perspective on creativity. Ideas develop through a much more complicated path, often involving more than just one person. In our quest to recognize sole geniuses, we sometimes edit the history of a creative idea until we’re left with just one creator.


5: The Expert Myth

When facing tough problems that require creative solutions, we often believe that we need to enlist the help of more people with greater expertise. It’s why we engage in a rigorous program of study before we set out to make our own mark in the world. It’s why the reaction in many organizations to a difficult problem or an inadequate employee is often more training. This is the Expert Myth, the belief that a correlation exists between the depth of a person’s knowledge and the quality of the work that person can produce. This seems so logical that it’s difficult to argue with. In many cases it is even true. Training usually helps, and few would argue that schooling is detrimental. Except that, logical as this seems, the correlation between a person’s level of expertise and his or her creative output isn’t what one might expect. Research into the lives and careers of creative people shows that, at a certain level, expertise can actually hinder the creative ability of individuals and decrease their creative output. As expertise grows, creativity sometimes diminishes. Sometimes the best insights come from those outside a particular field, and the best inventions develop from teams built from these outsiders.


6: The Incentive Myth

Traditionally, if you want something done by another person, you can simply commission it. In business, the most obvious example of this is the hiring of people who are paid to work on specific tasks. For particularly important tasks, incentives are built in to increase employees’ motivation. There’s even an old saying spoken in countless Principles of Management classrooms: “If you want something done in business, measure it. If you want something done well, monetize it.” This method has its roots in the early management practices of the industrial era; individuals were hired to complete specific tasks inside a highly structured factory. As the economy grew, despite its shift from industry to information, the old methods clung on, even in regard to managing creative work. That we commission and reward creative work the same way we do industrial work is part of the Incentive Myth, which is the larger notion that the output and quality of creativity can be increased with incentives. This is how the majority of for-profit businesses and even many nonprofit organizations work. But many organizations are departing from the Incentive Myth. These organizations have found little correlation between creative work and the size of an incentive. Instead, these companies and nonprofit groups alike are seeking out talented individuals and finding ways to encourage their creative genius without traditional incentives.


7: The Lone Creator Myth

have a tendency to favor stories of one person against the entire world. We likewise tend to attribute creative works or innovative ideas to one lone creator, even when that person isn’t solely responsible. We love to imagine the starving poet slaving away in his sparse apartment, the genius painter who keeps her artwork so closely guarded that it rarely makes it into shows before her death, or the heroic inventor working with nothing but his intelligence and a pile of junk. We might accept that outside influences helped inspire creators, but we tend to view the act of creation as a lonely endeavor. This is the Lone Creator Myth. It’s the belief that creativity is a solo performance and that the story of innovations can be told as the story of a single person working fervently on the new idea. In the popular media, this myth sells. Magazines, newspapers, and books are filled with stories of lone creative geniuses. These stories tend to ignore a truth behind all great innovations and creative works: those geniuses typically had teams. But only rarely is consideration given to the larger team or network those individuals were connected to, and often even then it is a footnote in the “soloist’s” story.


9: The Cohesive Myth

When you imagine the inner workings of any consistently creative team, you envision certain elements that seem to be requirements. You picture open floor plans, relaxed dress codes, pool tables, free food, and smiling, happy people everywhere. If you picture their collaboration, you imagine those teams being as happy creating as they are when playing pool. You picture teams that get along throughout the process. We assume that creative people thrive in fun, playful atmospheres and that they must therefore need playful interactions. This is the Cohesive Myth—the notion that the most creative ideas and products come from teams that suspend criticism and focus on consensus. The Cohesive Myth leads us to focus on team building, on making sure every person on the team works smoothly with everyone else. An excessive focus on cohesiveness, however, can actually dampen a team’s creativity. It can narrow down options and cause those with a unique perspective to censor themselves rather than risk not being seen as part of the team. This myth is prevalent within a lot of organizations, but often the most creative teams, and most innovative companies, aren’t focused on getting along all the time. While the exterior of these teams might seem as pleasant as we envisioned, their inner workings can sometimes pull creative insight from the opposite of cohesiveness: conflict.


10: The Constraints Myth

When we think of the creative process, we tend to think of outlandish and unrestrained idea generation. We assume that the most creative organizations are full of unbounded workers with unlimited resources building the future however they see fit. We assume that creativity needs total freedom to grow and develop. These assumptions are made because of a belief in the Constraints Myth—the myth that creative potential is dampened by constraints. Many artists subscribe to this myth. They believe that if their creativity knew no bounds—if they had the time and resources to do as they pleased—then the work they created would be recognized for its genius. At the same time, we constantly affirm the need to “think outside the box,” often without having fully explored the inside of it. The Constraints Myth actually provides a little comfort for when we’re stuck on a creative challenge or complex problem. It provides a simple explanation for many of those frustrations: “It’s not us; it’s our lack of resources.” That explanation too often becomes an excuse, a crutch for those seeking to limp out of creative pursuits. The crutch is unsteady, however. There is no support for the idea that constraints hinder creativity. In fact, the research supports the opposite, and many innovative teams will tell you that creativity loves constraints.