Like maths, creativity can be learned

I’m no good at math. Even the simplest math problem can often stump me.

But I’ve learned that most of the time I get stumped when it comes to math simply because of the pressure I’ve put on myself and the fact I haven’t learned the proper methods to solving the problem quickly. It’s not that I am incapable of solving certain types of math problems, only that I don’t think of myself as someone who can tackle it.


Given enough time and practice—or training—anyone can solve complex mathematical problems. These things don’t take any superhuman intellect or abilities, just enough brainpower to learn the rules and tricks toward solving the problem at hand.

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Consider just how important taught knowledge and techniques are for mathematical problem solving. If you didn’t grow up in an Asian country for example, you might not be familiar with the Japanese multiplication method of drawing parallel lines to represent sets of numbers and solving problems visually through that method.

Or if you grew up in a place or time that de-emphasized the importance of learning math skills, you might simply never have learned the rules, tricks, and patterns to solving a mathematical problem.

But not learning something is different than not being able to do it at all.

Just because a person doesn't know the ins-and-outs of trigonometry does not mean that individual is incapable of learning them. The same is true of creative thinking.

Undoubtedly there are some people whose brains are structured in a way that makes solving math problems easier, and that’s true of creativity as well. But solving a math problem requires no superhuman level of intelligence or brain power, just the knowledge of how to go about solving it. Creativity is very much the same. As is true of many, many things in life: you don't have to be born with an uncanny palate to become a remarkable chef. Beethoven couldn't hear the music he composed, yet he's admired as one of the great classic musicians of history.

David Burkus writes on this in his book The Myths of Creativity:

"In many domains, such as the traditional fine arts, we can easily mistake domain-relevant skills for creativity itself. If we can't imagine being as good as the composer, then we assume that the composer is more creative than us. What we typically don't imagine is the years of deliberate practice required to gain such expertise."

We each have with us the ability to think creatively in big ways, but not all of us have been trained or practiced in the ways of how to do it.

If we move away from the myth that creativity is some gift we're either born with or not, or that creativity requires higher levels of intelligence or imagination, or that creativity is entirely circumstantial, we unlock the door for learning exactly how to think creatively.

If we take the time to learn how to think creatively it can come as naturally to us as writing does to an author or math is to a mathematician. Because what makes these types of individuals unique is rarely their innate talents; it's usually their exposure to patterns, practices, and even beliefs, around their topic of interest. When you first start out you're going to be bad at it, but not because you're incapable: because you haven't built the knowledge required to be a master at it. You have to be dumb and stubborn to get good.

When you realize you're bad at something simply because you don't yet know all the methods for doing it, you begin to create possibilities for yourself. Creativity is the same; if you want to be more creative, you first have to realize creativity is a process of thinking, then you can begin to pursue what processes, tools, and resources can help you think in those unique and valuable ways.

Rufus Norris, British creative theatre director, summarized the point well in Creativity can be taught to anyone. So why are we leaving it to private schools?:

"In my career I have known thousands of fellow practicing artists – many regarded among the most “talented” people in the world. Almost all have got there by two means: elbow grease and support for their creativity. This is what we have learned: just like maths, 'creativity should not be perceived as an exceptional talent; it is a basic skill that can be mastered with the right teaching and approach.'"

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