Not Everyone Is Creative

There’s a popular idea that anyone can be taught to be creative. We’re all creative people if we learn the tricks to trigger that latent creativity, we’re told. But I don’t believe that. Just as I’ll never be a great mathematician (I still use my fingers to add and subtract), there are many who—I hate to tell you—will never be creative.

This article in The New York Times Magazine by Jody Rosen epitomizes the problem of labeling everyone as creative. When creativity is seen as an ability anybody can acquire, it becomes devalued, so that creative work is not paid as highly as other work, such as computer programming or financial management, about which there is no similar assumption. I’ve never heard anyone say that any professional skill other than creativity is one that anyone can be good at if they practice and learn a few tricks. If there are people who are not good at working with numbers, computers, or machinery, isn’t reasonable to also believe there are people who are not capable of creativity?

In the article, Rosen notes that “creative” has become an identity more than a label tied to ability or accomplishment. A marketing executive—or any executive today—is as likely to label themselves “creative” as a graphic designer, writer, painter, or musician.

In addition to the phoniness, and silliness of labeling everyone “creative,” the universal use of that term makes it hard for organizations to recruit and nurture truly creative people. There are special skill sets that need to be valued and recruited for if you want to have a stable of true creatives—reflective, imaginative people who enjoy doing things in new ways. And once recruited, people with huge imaginations and big passions for deviating from traditional approaches often need environments different from what is being provided to other employees. 

They may need greater privacy and quiet to work through their ideas, and they may need a more flexible work schedule so that if they get inspired and stay very late one night, it’s OK for them to come in as late as noon the next day. People with creative mindsets often are not patient and diligent about process, so a manager who savors tedious processes, with multiple levels of review and approval, probably won’t work. A manager who loves improvisation, and doesn’t get angered if a work routine is rearranged on the fly, is needed. A sense of humor helps, too. The greater the imagination, often the greater the sense of humor, I’ve noticed. When you can imagine greater possibilities in nearly all facets of every day, you don’t tend to take things as seriously as those with a more one-dimensional view. 

As a creative writer and imaginative person, myself, who lives in the historically bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, I notice many who wear clothing, and express an attitude—complete with cigarette posed ever-so-chicly from their fingers—of creativity. However, knowing how expensive it’s become to live in the neighborhood, and having experience with some of these people, I know better. I know that many are not creative at all—many of them wouldn’t have anything to say if you asked them to use their imagination on the spot to, say, describe what they see when they think of a cocktail party on another planet, or what a newly discovered animal might be, and look like. For imaginative, creative-minded people, those exercises aren’t hard, but joyful, and require no special training to excel at.

Now, think about all the people in your organization you call creative, or who call themselves creative, and consider who these people truly are, and whether you have a creative force of people to achieve innovation. 

How do you define creativity? Do you recognize it as a specialized ability not everyone is equally good at, one that should be recruited, and provided for, in special ways?




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