Designing the Mind

The Myths of Creativity



There is a deeply embedded notion in our culture that creativity is a niche hobby for a small group of “creative types.” A creative person is seen as someone who draws or paints, or maybe plays an instrument.

But I have long suspected that there was something deeply wrong with this idea. A few things, actually. Today we’re going to engage in some “creative destruction” and dismantle our cultural baggage surrounding creativity.

My feeling is that the concept of creativeness and the con­cept of the healthy, self-actualizing, fully human person seem to be coming closer and closer together, and may perhaps turn out to be the same thing.

– Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

Hello psychitects – if you haven’t subscribed to the channel yet, what are you even doing with your life? Now today, I want to quickly go through a few of the most common misconceptions about this thing we call creativity – let me know in the comments if you subscribe to any of these beliefs, or if you agree they are fundamentally flawed.

1. “Creativity Is What Happens in an Art Class”

When we think of creativity, we first think of tradition, visual, or possibly musical arts. But I tend to think traditional, “artsy” forms of creativity are the least interesting, least valuable kind.

Don’t get me wrong, painting charming landscapes can be a fun and therapeutic hobby. But when you think about it, it isn’t particularly creative, is it? You’re trying to recreate an existing visual on a two-dimensional rectangle through a 40,000-year-old medium.

Real creativity is about making things that have never been made before. At first glance, this may seem like an extremely high bar. You’re telling me I not only have to start creating things, but they have to be unlike anything else out there?

But think about it this way: No one else in the world has your exact mind, your exact personality, your exact thoughts. That means you already have access to a river that is overflowing with original ideas and emotions, and that no one else in the world can access.

You have spent your life feeding your mind a unique combination of content. And taking these ideas floating around in your head, mixing them together in new ways, and giving expression to them is the key to creating things that are unlike anything else.

Creativity is not a process of pulling brand new things out of thin air. It’s about taking in all these unique inputs you feed your mind – the books you read, the films you watch, the thoughts and feelings you generate – and connecting them together in new ways. In other words, stealing, but in a way that is so diverse that it becomes something entirely new.

The measure of creativity is not whether the thing you make resembles your subject matter. It’s whether it resembles the inner landscape of your mind, with all its brilliant quirks and complexities.

2. “Creativity Should Only Express”

It isn’t fashionable in the art world to create useful things – except insofar as it is useful to merely express a feeling or idea. Critiquing problems is fine. Sharing the suffering caused by problems is great.

But developing solutions to those problems? Changing the systems that perpetuate problems? Educating people or helping build the skills that could reduce those problems?

The greatest creative works solve problems or create new opportunities. They don’t just sit in a designated place on the wall of a gallery and occasionally resonate with someone.

Creativity can mean making beautiful diagrams of cognitive biases or games for teaching kids to code. Building 3D-printable prosthetics, writing insightful and hilarious illustrated breakdowns of complex topics, or making VR experiences for treating social anxiety.

If these all sound like difficult projects that require a specialized set of skills, that’s because they are. But you don’t have to have those skills. You just have to have your skills, your strengths, and your passions.

Real creative endeavors are allowed to be useful. To educate. To solve problems. You are allowed to make things that are as unique as you are – that combine so many different elements of who you are that no one else would ever think to make them. And that help to produce a world that more closely resembles your values.

3. “Creativity Is for Creative Types”

Much of Maslow’s work centers around creativity. He had a strong suspicion that psychological health and creativity were in some ways synonymous. A healthy person creates in the same way a healthy fruit tree bears fruit (one of Maslow’s many commonalities with Nietzsche).

What we have found during the last ten years or so is that, primarily, the sources of creativeness of the kind that we’re really interested in, i.e., the generation of really new ideas, are in the depths of hu­man nature.

– Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

He thought the seeds of creativity were already present in every person – it just needed to be brought out.

The key question isn’t What fosters creativity? But is it Why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost?

– Abraham Maslow

But isn’t it possible that some people just aren’t creative? After all, not everyone is athletic; not everyone is a math person.

It’s certainly possible that some people won’t be inclined to paint or make music. It’s possible that a person struggling to meet basic needs may not be able to find creative expression.

But it isn’t possible to be a conscious human being and not be creative. Not being creative would mean not having anything going on inside you which could be expressed. To be an empty shell.

You may not have learned how to see or express the contents of your unconscious mind, but this is a matter of alterable learning – of learned suppression – not of innate ability.

Creativity is rooted in the universal drive exert control over your environment. To actualize and bring out into the outer world what was once only present in your inner world.

The Barrier

If you believe you are not a creative person, it means you are the product of a culture that suppressed your creativity. You were trained and incentivized only to make use of convergent thinking and not divergent thinking.

Anyone who did not develop creative avenues as a child will have a major barrier to overcome. And it isn’t some inability to learn new skills or new ways of thinking. It isn’t that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s self-consciousness.

Adults have a much harder time being bad at things than kids. They never get past the early stages of creative development because they can’t tolerate the pain of making mistakes.

And even when most people attempt to be creative, they feel like they don’t have “permission” to really be creative. They feel like they are supposed to color inside the lines, literally and figuratively.

But all is not lost. It is never too late to start giving yourself permission to create. To start tapping into all the pent-up imagination swirling around your unconscious. To find new ways to bring yourself and your ideals out into the world and create beautiful, useful, unique things.

Out of this unconscious, out of this deeper self, out of this portion of ourselves of which we generally are afraid and therefore try to keep under control, out of this comes the ability to play – to enjoy – to fantasy – to laugh – ­to loaf – to be spontaneous, and, what’s most important for us here, creativity, which is a kind of intellectual play, which is a kind of permission to be ourselves, to fantasy, to let loose, and to be crazy, privately. (Every really new idea looks crazy, at first.)

– Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

Do you think there are creative types and non-creative types? Do you think this is legitimate, or is it a self-limiting belief?

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