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Busted: 10 Myths About Creativity

A new book shines a light on how people really come up with great ideas.
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Since ancient times people have held the notion that there's something mysterious, unpredictable, and even divine about where good ideas come from. But according to David Burkus, assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University, today researchers are studying the heck out of creativity and much of what we think we know about the topic is just plain wrong.

In his well-researched and thoughtful book "The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas," Burkus identifies 10 popular and untrue beliefs that are holding people back from being more creative.

The Eureka Myth

Remember the story about how Isaac Newton was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head inspiring him to figure out gravitation? While it may seem like great ideas just appear out of nowhere, usually they're actually preceded with some thinking and a period of subconscious incubation.

"Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory. Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities," Burkus writes.

The Breed Myth

This is the thinking that some people are naturally more creative, whether because of their personality or genetics. Scientific studies do not support this. Anyone can be creative if taught good techniques for surfacing ideas.

The Originality Myth

While you might think great ideas are original, most great ideas springboard off other ideas. Burkus gives scads of examples from history.

In literature, Shakespeare's Henry VI plays contain a strong influence from his contemporary Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great. Marlowe's Tamburlaine itself borrows its plot from popular historical books of the time, blended with tales Marlowe had heard from Persia and Turkey. In art, Vincent van Gogh copied the paintings of influential artists of his time, including Emile Bernard, Eugene Delacroix, and Jean-Francois Millet. All told, more than thirty paintings by van Gogh can be traced back to other original sources. In film, George Lucas's Star Wars films are novel combinations of spaghetti westerns, Akira Kurosawa samurai films, and Flash Gordon serials blended together against a borrowed plotline that Joseph Campbell explained in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

He also explains a concept called the "adjacent possible" borrowed from evolutionary theory which dictates the finite number of technologies that can be discovered by building off technology that already exists and how it can be combined in various ways to create new things.

The Expert Myth

While it makes sense that the depth of a person's knowledge affects the quality of his or her work, Burkus says at a certain point too much expertise hampers creativity.

"Not every organization can hand over every problem to the masses of online solvers or offer a one-year fellowship to bring help from an outsider, but they can still leverage the hidden talent of outsider perspectives," Burkus writes. "Building teams of people from diverse backgrounds, or at least encouraging the sharing of problems across functional teams, should allow for more perspectives on the problem and more potentials solutions."

The Incentive Myth

The level of a person's creativity is highly dependent upon their motivation to solve a particular problem. This isn't something you want to incentivize, however. External rewards to spur motivation don't work nearly as well as if you can get a person to be intrinsically motivated, meaning they're interested in and engrossed by their work.

The Lone Creator Myth

Some of the world's most famous invention stories are fabrications that give credit to one person instead of the team really behind the innovation. Thomas Edison and the light bulb is one example, Burkus says, pointing out that Edison's patent for "Improvement in Electric Lights" only has his name on it in spite of the fact that at the time he filed it he employed a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who called themselves "muckers" and likely contributed to the technology.

"Most of the further improvements in lightbulbs, telegraphs, and phonographs that we attribute to Edison were actually derived from or included the work of the muckers, while Edison spent a considerable amount of time dealing with clients, speaking to the press, or entertaining potential investors," Burkus writes.

The Brainstorming Myth

We've all participated in brainstorming sessions but most organizations aren't doing them right.

Burkus cites research psychologist Keith Sawyer who says that the process of brainstorming actually needs to sit in the middle of an eight-stage process--one that includes asking the right question, becoming an expert, practicing mindfulness, taking time off from a problem so your subconscious can incubate, generating lots of ideas (this is the brainstorming part), fusing ideas, choosing the best ones and finally, making something out of your great ideas.

The Cohesive Myth

It's logical to believe the rule that effective brainstorming involves suspending criticism so as to come up with as many good ideas as possible. If you want people to let down their guards and stop self-censoring themselves, they need to feel it's safe to do so, right?

"But just below the surface of many outstanding creative teams, you'll find that their process relies on structured conflict, not cohesion," Burkus writes.

He holds up Pixar as a company that uses a strategy called "plussing" which requires any criticism of an idea to be paired with a suggestion for improving it.

The Constraints Myth

The notion that constraints inhibit creativity is a popular one. Who hasn't heard the overused cliché "think outside the box?" Yet Burkus says in reality, the opposite is true.

"Many of the most prolific and creative people understand how stifling a blank slate can be," he writes. "All creatives need some constraints. All artists need structure. Some of the most creative poetry comes in fixed forms such as the Japanese haiku or the English sonnet."

The Mousetrap Myth

If you build a better mousetrap, chances are the world will not beat a path to your door, contrary to the popular saying to the contrary. You're pumped up about your great idea, but most likely others will pick it to pieces or ignore it.

"It's not enough for people to learn how to be more creative; they also need to be persistent through the rejection they might face," Burkus writes.

Want more advice on how to be more creative? Check out 25 Ways to be More Creative.

Last updated: Oct 24, 2013

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS

Christina DesMarais is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech start-up community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. On Google+, add her to one of your circles. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.




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