Is Creativity a Skill?
By Tony Wan
Are you creative? How would you know, or convince your boss? According to a new LinkedIn analysis of member profiles, creativity tops the chart of soft skills that employers are looking for.
A skill is loosely defined as the ability to do something well. The word traces back to Old Norse for “power of discernment.” In the early 13th century, the word was also used to describe one’s “sense of ability, cleverness.” Skills can also be taught, improved, measured and defined—and be done with some consistency and reliability.
Does creativity check those boxes? Is creativity a skill? Can it be honed through practice and repetition, in a similar fashion as, say, practicing shooting free throws? I posed this question in the office—and got a hung jury. Respondents to a Twitter poll leaned slightly in favor of “yes.”
From personal experience, the most creative moments rarely happen on a conference call, in a meeting, or with sharpies, sticky notes and a whiteboard. They spark unpredictably, in the most mundane of moments—riding the train, running, watching football or washing dishes. There is serendipity in the spontaneity. (Of course, not all creative ideas are good ones.)
Creativity is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist at Google
To get a broader perspective, I also posed this question to professionals from different industries, working in film, writing, teaching, museums and technology companies big and small. Here’s what they said.
Is creativity a skill? Why—or why not?
Esther Wojcicki, journalism teacher and author of “Moonshots”: Creativity is a mindset. It is a way of looking at life. If you look at life the standard way, then there is no creativity involved. It is copying.
Creativity means thinking outside the box; thinking in ways that requires you believe in yourself enough to take a risk. It is not a skill; it is a mindset.
Chris Bennett, CEO of Wonderschool: Yes, it is a skill. Like most things, I believe it can be learned and honed.
George Anders, book author and senior editor at LinkedIn: Creativity has picked a clever, infuriating spot, right in the middle of the continuum between very teachable skills at one end, and practically unalterable traits at the other. It combines elements of both.
Lynda Weinman, founder of Lynda.com: Creativity is a soft skill. Other soft skills include critical thinking, collaboration, and negotiation. It is a skill because it can be learned. It can also be sucked dry out of people when there is too much emphasis on rote learning and standardization.
Alex Davis-Lawrence, filmmaker and producer: It’s a skill in the sense that it can be taught, developed, and honed over time. But “skill” isn’t really the best way to think about creativity. Creativity is best seen as a practice, or perhaps a perspective—a way of looking, thinking, living, seeing and being. It is the context and perspective that allows you to make the best use of your skills, rather than a skill itself.
Carol Tang, executive director at Children’s Creativity Museum: Creativity is a set of skills, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs—more akin to a mindset than a discrete skill. For example, there are specific skills that would encourage creative thinking—both divergent idea generation and convergent selection between ideas. However, without having agency or self-efficacy, you may not apply those skills.
Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist at Google: Yes! But it’s not the most important skill. I would put it fifth on my list, behind problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and ability to learn.
Creativity supports these other skills. It’s embedded in problem-solving, for example. You must use creativity to think of new ways to define and solve problems. Creativity also separates us from machines or robots. For example, an algorithm is a prescribed process, a pattern of commands a machine (or technology) follows. A human can look at issues from a variety of angles—in a nonlinear way! Creativity can be the “how” part of problem-solving.
How can creativity be taught or learned?
Lynda Weinman: Creativity is taught by open-ended problem solving. Problems that teach creativity have no one right answer.
[Creativity] can also be sucked dry out of people when there is too much emphasis on rote learning and standardization.
Lynda Weinman, founder of Lynda.com
Jaime Casap: The best creative solution usually comes from collaboration. So, you can build two skills at the same time: collaboration and creativity. One of my favorite books is “Orbiting the Giant Hairball.” Every time I feel like I need a creativity push, I read that book.
Carol Tang: Here at the Children’s Creativity Museum, our logic model and theory of change are based on one aspect of creativity, “creative confidence,” which we refer to as creative self-efficacy or creative self-agency. With creative confidence, children (and adults!) are more like to use their creativity skill set and continue to practice and improve those skills.
Chris Bennett: By trial and error—and the younger the better. There are tactics to be creative and foundational things you can do to develop creativity. It depends on what you want to create. For art: create it, present it, try to sell it, get feedback and repeat. Do this a lot. And the earlier in life the better. Traveling, going outdoors and having conversations about the things you’re creating can also enhance creativity.
Esther Wojcicki: It cannot be taught in a traditional classroom that is focused on doing everything right. It can only be “empowered” when kids are not afraid to take a risk and when they believe in themselves. Children are innately creative, and it is educated out of them.
George Anders: We can teach some elements, to some extent. We can coach people to consider more alternatives when they approach a problem. We can tell them that it sometimes helps to rethink fundamental assumptions, which may not be as confining as they seem. We can encourage people to brainstorm together in a relaxed group setting, where a “yes, and” mentality prevails and people don’t tense up for fear of saying something wrong.
But people’s receptiveness to absorbing these messages varies hugely. Some people barely need to be told how to be creative. They’ve known it all their lives. For others, trying to adopt a paint-by-numbers approach to creative thinking takes them nowhere.
Alex Davis-Lawrence: Any approach to teaching creativity has to incorporate a combination of theory, practice and time. “Learning” creativity has to be experiential to a certain extent—it’s inherently tied to how you “learn” in the first place (how you interpret what you see and hear, etc.), so it has to incorporate types of teaching that go beyond the classroom.
To use a possibly silly but I think appropriate metaphor, think of the classic “I know Kung Fu” scene in The Matrix. The skill of kung fu can be downloaded into Neo’s brain, but it’s only when using the kung fu in a fight with Morpheus—when being faced with direct, real-time problem solving related to that skillset—that he begins to actually learn. And it’s only when those lessons have unfolded over time (over the course of various emotional states, different opponents, different goals) that Neo is able to fully realize the potential of his abilities.
How can creativity be measured or assessed?
Jaime Casap: Creativity is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s a unique perspective or a unique way to solve a problem. I would look at what is produced at the end of a problem-solving process—as an individual or as a team—and rate the solution on a creativity scale. I would also put communication skills into the creativity bucket. Students need to be able to tell a story in unique and creative ways.
Esther Wojcicki: Assessing creativity is tough because it has to be done individually and that is costly. Providing the environment for creativity to bloom is key. I would give kids credit just for being in what I call the “20 percent time,” and I suggest that schools should be changed to include 20 percent time for all students where creativity is encouraged. The other 80 percent of the time can be devoted to the traditional curriculum.
Creativity is best seen as a practice, or perhaps a perspective—a way of looking, thinking, living, seeing and being. It is the context and perspective that allows you to make the best use of your skills...
Alex Davis-Lawrence, filmmaker
George Anders: For a long time, we’ve relied on subjective methods. What is “creative writing”? We could try to create rubrics that score James Joyce’s writing on imaginative word choice, unusual sentence structure, etc. But such mechanical systems seem very gameable. I could ape superficial elements of Joyce’s writing and produce something that would be quite murky but not very creative at all.
If we’re determined to come up with assessment methods, we could try to use neuro-monitoring techniques to gauge audiences’ reactions to creative versus non-creative work. Presumably creative content evokes more feelings of happy surprise, or “aha!” moments. It might be easiest to track people’s reaction to creative music, and see if there’s a difference.
In terms of tracking creativity in the workplace, we’re back to “we know it when we see it.” Steve Jobs was extremely creative throughout his career. But it’s hard to break that down into contributing, measurable factors. And some Jobs habits, like wearing black turtlenecks, have been emulated by people who would like to be seen as creative but who don’t really pass the test.
Alex Davis-Lawrence: Offering problems with strictly limited toolsets—thus requiring students to recontextualize or think beyond their expectations of the tools—could be helpful in understanding a student’s creativity. In most industries, the fundamental form of creativity is problem-solving. Every industry has limitations, in terms of tools, technology, money, regulation, and resources, and the people who do the best work tend to be those who can find new ways to work within or around those limitations.
Even though film is clearly an “art form” to a significant extent, I think the question of problem-solving still outweighs the other forms of creativity people usually associate with the arts (creativity of vision, of idea, of performance, and so on). A creative filmmaker, to me, isn’t just someone with creative ideas, but someone who has the creativity to execute something unique and powerful within the (incredibly oppressive) confines of the medium.
Carol Tang: We are not good at this for many reasons. Because creativity is hard to measure! Because children are not good at articulating or reflecting on their attitudes and growth. But parents have to understand the importance of open-ended and child-led activities if they are to continue promoting creative confidence.
Having worked in the informal-learning sectors of museums, afterschool and summer camps for almost 20 years, I really do believe that this focus on creativity is not just good for workforce development, but it can also help us diversify our thinking of what children need to be successful in life and how learning happens outside of classrooms. I worry that the focus on measuring and standardizing creativity will actually take us away from the social-emotional learning and whole-child educational approach that would best nurture creativity in kids.
Tony Wan (@tonywan) is Managing Editor at EdSurge, where he covers business and financing trends in the edtech industry.