More guff on creativity

//More guff on creativity

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. (One of my favourite fake Einstein quotes.)

What is it about creativity that makes so many otherwise sensible people say such silly things?

Most of us can only watch in awed wonder as the truly creative turn out one marvellously realised idea after an other. There’s a tendency to see it as evidence of some sort of mysterious, spooky ‘otherness’ which us normal folks just don’t possess, but it’s largely agreed that creativity is, if not directly teachable, at least possible to foster. The trouble is, being creative at say, making Lego models, doesn’t make you creative at writing poetry or software design. And being a creative mathematician is no guarantee  you will able to unleash your creativity as a fashion designer, flamenco dancer or comedian. Creativity, like so many traits we wrongly assume can be transferred from one area to another, is domain specific.

So it really annoys me when I see well-intentioned but badly misleading graphics like this:

Bad ideas never die

Bad ideas never die. Source Visual Thinkery

Firstly, I’d dispute the idea that school is ‘for’ preparing students for a world we cannot envisage. No one can imagine anything they can’t envisage and imagining a thing brings it into being. The best we can do is prepare students to flourish in a world we can envisage, but even this is dubious. I can all too easily envisage a post-apocalyptic hell where all the trappings of the modern world have ceased to be but I’m damned if that’s the future I want my children prepared for. Far better to equip students with the best of what’s worked in the past and hope that they, like all previous generations have managed, muddle through. And if we’re lucky, maybe they’ll even manage to improve things a little.

There are several reasons we get stuck. One of the main ones is emotional. Sometimes, when we’ve struggled before, or lack confidence we shut down emotionally and go into panic mode. Our inner voice says, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! And guess what? We can’t. This is not a state in which many people find themselves doing their best creative work. What can sometimes help is to change the emotional atmosphere and realise that if we just calm down and think a little*, perhaps we can. The other big reason we get stuck is because we don’t yet know enough. Trying to hold on to all the variables of a new problem can send us into cognitive overload and, if we’re not careful, we end up laying the ground work for the first kind of stuck. The only way out of this is either to know more, or to have the help of an expert.

What’s unlikely to help is someone suggesting you just think. About what? Well, if you’ve committed lots of stuff to memory then you can think about that, but if some well-intentioned idiot has convinced that remembering stuff is just sooooo 2015, then you’re scuppered. We can only think about something we know. If you doubt me, try it: think about something you don’t know. If I asked a roomful of art historians to think about quantum biology they might have a rather unfulfilling experience. If they were able to think about quantum biology that would be because they knew something about it. If, on the other hand, I asked Jim al Khalili to think about quantum biology, then we’d get some creative fireworks. The more we know the more interesting our thoughts become. The links and connections we can make become increasingly sophisticated and the possibility that we can be creative is suddenly, magically there.

And it all depends on the quality and the quantity of what you have remembered. So, instead, what about this?


Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 11.19.38

*If we have something to think about that is.



  1. PStone February 3, 2016 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    Is the think in para 4 the same as the think in para 5?

  2. Chris Doran February 3, 2016 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. Misconceptions about creativity rest on an underlying common misconception about ‘imagination’ and ‘imagining’. Too often, an invitation to imagine is an invitation to a flight of fancy, a projection toward the wholly unreal or impossible: a ticket to irrationality. For Aristotle, the imagination played an essential role in thought process; ‘visualising’ so as to predict outcomes, identify problems and find solutions. If teachers and students offered a more ‘grounded’ explanation of what it is to ‘imagine’ – something more akin to ‘visualising’ in sports psychology – a lot more creativity could be unlocked, and, I suggest, less of it would be ‘domain specific’.

  3. Hw February 3, 2016 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    Agree that knowledge is one of the prerequisites. But let’s not make the mistake that more is better. Creativity can also be constraints-based. It can also be a new combination of two non-creative things (some research explores this). Reminds me of Schumpeter’s creative destruction and New combination. Good post.

  4. Tom February 4, 2016 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    I wonder to what extent is:

    “The other big reason we get stuck is because we don’t yet know enough. Trying to hold on to all the variables of a new problem can send us into cognitive overload and, if we’re not careful, we end up laying the ground work for the first kind of stuck.”

    A good argument in favour of teaching pupils in ability sets?

  5. Mind Splurge February 6, 2016 at 10:48 am - Reply

    A bit of constructive devil’s advocacy. Would be interested in your thoughts, David

    1. We might be able to envisage what the future will look like, but can we envisage what it will be like to live in it? Twenty / thirty years ago there was no internet, no mobile communication, no blogging, no twitter. Social values have changed. The political landscape has changed. How we use language has changed. Yes, all this could be envisioned, but could its impact on our lives be fully understood? To carve an autonomous life through an increasing complex world, don’t you do need to be able to think and act creatively? I’m not arguing this is only relevant to now – clearly this is the same situation that every generation faces – but to say thinking creatively will not be important for this? I’m not sure I agree.

    2. Completely agree that creative expertise is domain-specific, but doesn’t this rest on both an expert knowledge of a field, and thinking creatively – the latter is surely domain-general, no?
    If I come up with a strategy to form a creative outcome in whatever domain – using analogy for example – can’t that be transferred to another domain? The London Underground map – generally agreed as a highly creative piece of graphic design – was created by an engineer with zero expertise in graphic design or cartography. How did he produce one of the most creative pieces of work within a field, without any expert knowledge of the field?

    One last thing – is it possible that expertise can also hinder creative exploration?

    • David Didau June 12, 2016 at 11:24 am - Reply

      1. I haven’t said creativity will not be important. It will be every bit as important as it has ever been.

      2. No, thinking creatively is domain specific. The Underground map was created by an expert in engineering which is precisely why it looks nothing like the maps of cartographers. Harry Beck was map design as trying to solve an engineering problem.

      • Mind Splurge June 22, 2016 at 12:26 pm - Reply

        Hi David, appreciate your reply!

        Re 2, I think that is the point I am trying to make. Harry beck was using expertise from the domain of engineering to creatively solve a cartography problem – a domain he had little expertise in.

        The creativity cognitive science literature is not the most robust body of work, however, many posit the notion that there are ways of thinking / cognitive processes that underpin ‘creative’ thinking in all domains: conceptual expansion, conceptual combination and analogical reasoning for example. It can be argued that developing this ways of thinking in a familiar domain supports the transfer of similar modes of thought to a different domain that one is less expert in.

        I completely agree that a level of knowledge in the domain you wish to be creative in is neseccary, and an expert level of knowledge facilitates this even further. However, I would argue that the ability to think creatively – whilst it is always tied to the concrete medium of a particular domain – is a domain general process. When creative thinking and domain-specific knowledge collude, creative outcomes are produced.

        As a side note, have you ever met people with sophisticated domain-specific knowledge that are not very creative?

  6. […] More guff on creativity There really people who believe that being creative means you don’t have to remember stuff! […]

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