Creativity is Not a Talent
That is right. I am making a bold statement. Creativity is not a talent. It is not a gift or divine intervention. Instead, it is simply a way of operating. This idea did not come out of nowhere. The great John Cleese of Monty Python gave an inspiring speech about this very matter, and the video is at the bottom of this page. When I watched the video, I immediately understood what he claimed. Certainly the resulting conclusion is not something that many ‘creatives’ will like to hear. This would imply that creativity is a skill that anyone could acquire. One must simply learn how to control impulses.
Prof. Donald MacKinnon completed a study on this matter at Berkeley in the 1970s. Most research on creativity was done in the 1960s and ’70s; after that, the quantity of studies dramatically dropped. A probable cause for this is that researchers realized that there is nothing more to find out about creativity. Many people still contend that creativity is inexplicable. Creativity is, as MacKinnon concluded, not an ability that you either have or do not have. This is reminiscent of the sculptor who, when asked how he had sculpted a very fine elephant, explained that he had taken a big block of marble, and knocked away everything that didn’t look like an elephant.
When my fiancée asks me how I can sit down and write an article about any particular subject, it’s never felt to me as if it were something special. In my eyes, this is not some cool Jedi mind trick. Though the most accurate clue might be that, like MacKinnon showed, creativity happens on a subconscious level. It may not even occur of your own volition. However, there are steps one can take to facilitate the probability of being creative for a set amount of time. This is also what John Cleese elaborates on in his insightful and humorous speech on creativity.
Modes of Operating
MacKinnon showed that those whom we think of as the ‘most creative’ are surprisingly not more intelligent as measurable by IQ. When intelligence is tested, what is measurable is the knowledge in a person’s mind, but not how that information is being utilized. That is why it is quite impossible to scientifically trace the thought process involved in creating art or anything innovative. What can be logically explained is the way in which creative minds can switch between two modes of operating.
According to John Cleese, we are not born with creativity; instead, we can learn how to create a certain mood that inspires creativity. There two modes in which the human mind works, either of which has a specific purpose. He calls them the open and closed modes. Once you think about it, this concept is quite logical. It is important to understand when either of these modes is the correct one to use. Then you will realize that those whom we call creative have simply acquired an aptitude in switching between these modes with spontaneity and at will.
The Closed Mode
When we are in the closed mode, we are thinking about the unimportant tasks that take little time to complete instead of the important tasks that require more time. It is a state that may involve stress and anxiety to complete the immediate tasks at hand. In this mode, it is quite clear that we cannot create art, because creativity cannot thrive under these hostile conditions. Stress, or the belief that we are running out of time, does not facilitate creativity. One example for this is an anecdote by Alfred Hitchcock, who disliked working under such conditions. When he was working on a script with one of his writers, he would often, quite spontaneously and totally out-of-context, talk about something wholly unrelated. This enraged his team understandably until they knew he did it on purpose. Hitchcock would utter, “We’re stressing. We’re stressing.”
This is the mode in which you find yourself when you are studying for exams or writing that report your boss demands in his office by next morning. Who in their right minds can, under these circumstances, ponder the meaning of life or conjure poetic visions? It is certainly impossible to be creative when you cannot give yourself enough ponder time. That does not mean time to dream, but rather time to investigate what may lead to a great idea.
The Open Mode
To be able to write a Ninth Symphony or paint a Mona Lisa, we must switch our minds into the open mode. Keep in mind that this presupposes that you know how to write music or paint beautifully. That is the talent you either have or you do not. However, creativity is what gives you the ability to use your talents effectively. The trick is to know when creativity is needed, as opposed to the focused, closed mode.
When I am writing an article, for instance, I need to switch between the two modes all the time. On one hand I need to do some research and take in information. On the other hand I must turn these facts into an article that you enjoy reading. I may not know that this switch is happening, but listening to John Cleese talk about this, it makes a lot of sense. Again, creativity cannot be scientifically explained, since it also happens in different ways depending on the person in question.
In the open mode we are susceptible to inspiration, which can occur anywhere and at any place. It could be described as a state of mind, similar to the one a child has when he is playing. Playfulness is a good description of creativity. When you are in this open mode, you are playing with dreams, ideas, and aspirations. That is the true nature of creativity. Instead of being an elusive force of divine intervention, it is merely the ability to control when your mind needs to focused or playful.
An Oasis of Space and Time
One can learn how to set oneself into a specific mode, whether it be one of tranquility or focus. Why do we need space and time before we can be creative? Earlier in the article I mentioned that either modes requires certain conditions, and the open mode works best in a location that is comfortable for you.
The German writer and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann had a rule about writing every day for the same amount of time. So in his case, creativity was planned rather than pure chance. So the romantic notion that the idea for a story happens out of the blue is only true to a certain extent. The point at which most aspiring writers will fail is having the discipline to switch back into the closed mode once inspiration has been kindled.
For me, this oasis is mostly in front of my computer, listening to music. Classical music or soundtracks especially stimulate my open mode. I personally find that if I sit outside in a park or sip a drink at a local coffee shop, the hustle and bustle around me only distracts me. Everyone is different, of course. You must find what is best for you. Perhaps you are most productive when sitting under a big tree on a sunny day, or at the beach while listening to the sounds of children playing and the waves breaking.
One thing is always the case, though. You need some time before your mind can calm down, and then you begin being creative. However, there is no guarantee that you will create a masterpiece. The latter is unfortunately also a bit of luck, interwoven with the right amount of persistence. Once you are in this space of creativity, you must push forward until that spark appears. We need mental calmness, almost like yoga, to find what kindles a fire of emotions. It is when we feel very strongly about a subject that we can pursue further action.
What is Creativity?
When I sit down to write an article, I’ve already finished in my mind what you will then read. This means that I am in the closed mode. For the next two hours or so, I write down what I have pondered when my mind was in the open mode. For me this is not a talent, but simply an ability others may call discipline. The talent comes into play much earlier, when I am gathering ideas and connecting the dots between stories. This is the individual talent, which varies from writer to writer.
Creativity is the state of mind that welcomes ideas, feedback, and collaboration. It’s play for its own sake.
Talent is the unique ability to know which elements result in a great product.
What gets you from closed to open mode and back again? Do you have any tips for those who may have trouble switching between the two? Drop us a comment below!
John Cleese’s video on creativity: