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I Wasn’t Born Creative

July 6th, 2007

Can leadership be nurtured or is it the result of nature? That’s the question put forth by Dan and Chip Heath – authors of our favorite book of the moment, Made to Stick – in this month’s FastCompany. Ultimately, they conclude that business leaders today could use some leadership training. Interesting idea, but that’s not what caught my attention.

The Heath Bros. use an example of the nature/nurture argument related to intelligence:

Earlier this year, [Dr. Carol] Dweck and two colleagues, Kali Trzesniewsi of Stanford and Lisa S. Blackwell of Columbia, ran an experiment on junior high schoolers. If they trained the students to have a growth mind-set, would the kids’ math grades improve? In less than two hours over eight weeks, they taught the students concepts such as: Your brain is like a muscle that can be developed with exercise; just as a baby gets smarter as it learns, so can you; everything is hard before it gets easy–never give up because you don’t master something immediately.

The results were astonishing. The brain-is-a-muscle students significantly outperformed their peers in math, many showing dramatic turnarounds, such as the student who went from a failing grade to an 84 on her next exam. Dweck’s work shows that a pure idea intervention can have a substantial effect. “The brain is a muscle” is an idea that stuck.

So maybe intelligence can be taught. In all honesty, it’s not a surprise. Here’s another story, this one from the Braithwaite Files:

A researcher doing an experiment into creativity visited a kindergarten class. He asked the students how many of them were dancers. All of them raised their hands. He asked them how many were singers. All of them raised their hands. He asked them how many were painters. All raised their hands.

The researcher then went to visit a class of college freshmen. He asked them how many were dancers. Two raised their hands. He asked how many were singers. Four raised their hands. He asked how many were painters. One raised her hand.

Research shows – I believe this was cited in Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class – that the only difference between creative and non-creative people is that creative people were never told they’re not creative. Race, religious, socio-economic status, age, education – none of these characteristics matter. Believing you are – or are not – creative is the only differentiator.

Which brings me back to Dan and Chip Heath. Can leadership be taught? They think so. But more importantly to me – in today’s increasingly right-brain, design-focused world – can creativity be taught? I think so.

So what happens to people between the time when they are fully creative and when they get to college? They are taught not to be creative.

Astonishing.

The only difference between creative and non-creative people is that creative people believe they’re creative.

So leave the kids alone. Let them create.

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