Is Everyone Creative?

Mark McGuinness, poet and coach for creatives.

Author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success and contributor to the 99U books Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.

Is Everyone Creative?

The TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson is one of the most popular videos about creativity on the internet. In it, Robinson argues passionately that as children we are all naturally creative, yet by the time we reach adulthood, our creativity has been ‘educated out of us’ by the barriers of school, society and corporate business.

The talk has evidently touched a chord – as well as being enthusiastically received at TED, the video has been been viewed, downloaded re-posted and discussed countless times. As a creativity writer and consultant, hardly a month goes by without someone asking me whether I’ve seen ‘the Ken Robinson video’.

It’s not hard to see why Robinson’s video is so popular – he’s an engaging and very funny presenter, who somehow manages to be both down-to-earth and inspiring at the same time.

And his message is immensely appealing. It presents a vision of humanity as inherently creative, with new ideas and possibilities bubbling up inside us, waiting to be used – if only we would stop blocking ourselves.

But is it true?

Not according to Gordon Torr, a former Creative Director and author of the recent book Managing Creative People:

The truth is that creative people are different from other people – special, for better or worse, in a way that we’re only beginning to understand. And everything we know about them suggests that they’re creative because they’re different, not that they’re different because they’re creative. It’s a vital distinction.

Believing that everyone has the capacity to be just as creative as the next person is as ludicrous as believing that everyone has the capacity to be just as intelligent as the next person, yet it has become almost universally accepted as a truism. It’s also relatively new, taking root in only the last 30 or 40 years, coinciding much too precisely to be accidental with the popularisation of creativity as an essential ingredient of social and business success.

(Gordon Torr, Managing Creative People, 2008)

What makes creative people different? Torr highlights three factors in particular:

  • Biology 
    Torr cites scientific studies that suggest creative people have different brain activity than others – specifically, lower levels of cortical arousal, which means their thinking is less inhibited and they are more likely to come up with ‘more absurd, dreamlike and just plain weird’ ideas than other people.
  • Motivation 
    Building on the work of Harvard Business School Professor Theresa Amabile, which demonstrates that creativity is strongly linked to intrinsic motivation, Torr argues that creative people are distinguished by ‘an all-consuming preoccupation’ with creative work, regardless of whether it brings them money or fame.
  • Personality 
    We all recognise the classic description of the creative personality as childlike, impulsive, fantasy oriented, emotionally sensitive, anxious and ambitious. Torr cites several personality studies as evidence that ‘creative people conform almost perfectly to their popular stereotype’.

Torr admits that he is swimming against the tide in this view of creativity – but argues that that is what creative people have always done:

for almost the entire duration of human life on earth, the popular conception of creative people was that they were born that way, with unique gifts that obliged them to seek out and fulfil the singular vocations of their destiny…

They were shamans, priests, prophets, storytellers, poets, witches, troubadours, jesters, Giottos, da Vincis, romantics, lunatics, misfits, outsiders, strangers, village idiots, inventors, novelists, artists and, eventually, advertising people. They were vilified as often as they were revered, and reviled as much as they were respected.

(Gordon Torr, Managing Creative People, 2008)

This view may not be universally popular, but it does fit pretty closely with the image of the stereotypical creative person: someone who is different, rebellious, individualistic and resistant to society’s attempts to shoehorn them into conformity.

Are Creative People Different?

Are we all creative, or is there something inherently different and special about creative people?

If you believe creatives are different – what are the differences?

If you believe we all have the same creative potential – what are the implications for society? Education? Business? The arts? And for those who like to see themselves as special ‘creative people’?

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