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.'"

Read this next: Use this combinatorial question equation if you want to be more curious

Your creativity is limited to what you know

A problem many people face when it comes to thinking creatively is that the possibilities seem infinite.

There’s so much that might be that it becomes paralyzingly to try and imagine what could be. Anything that can be dreamed can be a solution to a problem. In our imagination, anything goes.

But that’s not how creativity works, that’s how imagination works. And while the two are inexplicably linked, the differences are important to learn.

Creativity deals with what is possible based on real constraints. Imagination is limited to our mental constraints. Imagination can influence creativity, and creativity can exist within imagined scenarios, but the distinction between the two is what enables or hampers our ability to use them.

If you approach anything with the intent of being creative, but fail to research and acknowledge the constraints you’re dealing with, you’re going to run into disappointment. Expecting to be creative without limits isn’t being creative, it’s being imaginative.

Instead, moving into a problem or space with the full knowledge that creativity will be grounded in what you know and have available to you is going to power you through it. But how exactly do you do that? One tried-and-true approach I’ve found is to make a list. A written list outlining everything you know about the problem or project, along with everything you have available to you in order to get through it, allows you to create a resource you can refer to throughout the work of ideation. And the list doesn’t have to be anything formal or even structured. A quick list of top-of-mind constraints and considerations can do more for your creativity than a well thought-out and formal list of pros, cons, and possibilities.

The painter always sits down with the tools he has available to him, in front of a canvas with a set size, knowing what his abilities will enable him to create. A chef comes to the table prepared with ingredients and supplies at the ready. It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the constraints are in either case. What matters is that the creative knows there are limits and has familiarized themselves with them.

Can you be creative without having a high IQ?

Do you have to be highly intelligent to be creative? No. Absolutely not.

The fact is: intelligence (your IQ) can certainly help you when it comes to developing new ideas, but there are a great many ideas out in the world simply waiting for someone to notice them.

Consider the invention of the airplane, or chocolate chip cookies, the iPod or personal computer, the incandescent light bulb, penicillin, or Archimedes’ discovery of how to measure density. Each discovery was the result of not some remarkable genius, but in someone merely being aware of possibilities and not being afraid to tinker with them.

If you don’t know the story of Archimedes and the golden crown, it’s a perfect example of the role curiosity and awareness play in creative ideation.

Tasked with determining whether or not a golden crown was indeed made of solid gold, Archimedes was stumped on how to go solve the challenge without partially destroying the crown to see what was inside. He was frustrated by the problem for some time, day and night. Until one night while getting into a bath, Archimedes noticed the level of the water slowly rise as he dipped his foot into the tub.

When he put his entire body into the tub he noticed how the water level rose significantly more. Realizing he could measure the density of the golden crown by placing it into a tub of water, then comparing that rise against the density of a similar mass of gold, he had solved the problem.

He immediately jumped from his bath, shouting “Eureka!” and stormed off down the city streets stark naked.

This is a popular creative story repeatedly told in-part because it emphasizes how most creative discoveries come about: by paying attention to what’s going on around us.

Of course, at some level it takes intelligence to know what to do once you identify a creative idea. But to have ideas merely requires us to pay attention. To be open to possibilities. To be curious.

To be curious and mindful are the two most important traits which influence our ability to see ideas. Not our level of intelligence, our IQ.

Of course, it never hurts to be a little smarter.

Read this next: Ideas from your personal adjacent possible

Maybe it’s time to rethink the relationship between intelligence and creativity


What is intelligence, and how does it relate to creativity?

I’ve touched on the topic before, but new research on the subject has me wanting to explore it once again.

To dive into this research and the importance intelligence has on creativity (which, we’ll learn, isn’t an accurate way to even word the notion) let’s jump a few years back.

To 1974, to be precise. Back then, philosopher David Stenhouse gave us a concrete theory of what intelligence is, defining it as: “adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual.”

Intelligence, according to Stenhouse, is an individual’s ability to adapt to stimulation from our environment. (the places we work and live, the people we surround ourselves with, and so on). I wrote about this notion previously, echoing Stenhouse’s theory by explaining that intelligence is: “the ability to acquire and utilize knowledge.”

This perspective of what intelligence means is wildly debated, partially due to how theoretical explanations of intelligence and how it works are so complex themselves.

Which is why I wanted an expert’s help exploring the issue of intelligence and it’s link to creativity. A few days ago I reached-out to one of my favorite cognitive scientists for help: Joel Chan.

Joel is a graduate student at University of Pittsburgh and is an active debater slash commentator online for all things related to psychology, cognitive processes, and creativity. I look to him when I need help understanding the cognitive science behind creativity.

When I gave Joel the two definitions I had come up with for intelligence and creativity, Joel immediately started off by stating: “the two concepts (and the relationship between them) seem to me a fair bit more complex than that.”

And he’s right.

One reason the debate and discussion around how intelligence and creativity mingle has gone on for so long is because both concepts are still vastly misunderstood and so unfathomably complex.

Fortunately we do know a few things about both creativity and intelligence, and can look at recent research to uncover the relationship between the two. As Joel tells us:

“Intelligence is widely held to be a ‘trait’ (rather than a state) that varies fairly stably across individuals, whereas there is controversy over the extent to which creativity is a product of process, personality/individual differences, training, etc.”

If intelligence is a fluid trait and creativity is (debatably) a product of how, where, and why we utilize our intelligence, there is undoubtedly some link between them. What that link is can be difficult to explain, as has been stated, but we can certainly try.

“There is substantial overlap between the two… intelligence is adaptive goal-directed behavior, and creativity is one kind of intelligence.”

Here Joel points to the triarchic theory of intelligence from Robert J. Sternberg.

In the triarchic theory, Sternberg echoes Stenhouse’s definition of intelligence that I mentioned at the beginning of this article: it’s the ability of an individual to adapt to the changing environment throughout life.

What’s notable about Sternberg’s theory of intelligence (and why Joel would bring it to our attention) is that it entails multiple components that build information processing, or intelligence.

One of those components is creative thinking, which Sternberg states is a synthetic gift that doesn’t require a relatively high intelligence quotient (IQ).

The wikipedia page for the triarchic theory of intelligence states:

“People with synthetic giftedness are not often seen with the highest IQ’s because there are not currently any tests that can sufficiently measure these attributes.”

What does this mean exactly?

It can be interpreted to say that creativity is a type of intelligence. Which means asking what the link between intelligence and creativity is cannot be answered. It’s as though you were asking what’s the taste of yellow, or the color of nothingness. The question itself is flawed.

Creativity is one type of intelligence, a process utilized for adapting to a changing environment.

The link between creativity and intelligence could be completely semantical, a battle of word and definition.

Joel continues:

“If you are 'intelligent,’ you aren’t necessarily creative in a given domain…although they are correlated. [For example] the threshold hypothesis about the relationship between intelligence and creativity states that slightly above average intelligence is necessary but not sufficient for eminent creative achievement.”

The Threshold Hypothesis is relatively new. In their research, published just last July (2013), Emanuel Jauk, Mathias Benedek, Beate Dunst, and Aljoscha C. Neubauer explored this hypothesis, which states that a certain level of intelligence is required to think creatively. What that threshold is (and why it matters) is the primary subject of the research, titled: “The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection”

It’s within their published findings that the researchers share what they discovered about the threshold of intelligence required for creative thought:

“We found thresholds only for measures of creative potential but not for creative achievement…an IQ of around 85 IQ points was found to form the threshold for a purely quantitative measure of creative potential.”

This finding resembles a theory I made public in January 2013 myself, when I wrote on Creative Something:

“Existing knowledge is something that anyone above a certain threshold on the IQ scale can amass. That intelligence number, it seems, is right around 100 (right in the middle of the average range for IQ test-takers in the United States). If you’re reading this, you have the creative potential of anyone with an IQ of 100 or above.”

Because creativity is a type of intelligence, it seems the only requirement to achieve it is a regular, overarching level of intelligence.

Knowing how to think (which, as I’ve written about countless times, is simply how our brains work naturally) is the sole requirement for creative potential.

The issue with this approach to viewing creative intelligence is that it’s not entirely accurate. Or, at least, we can’t say that it is. Why? Because both intelligence and creativity are extremely difficult to gauge.

Joel provides us with a way to move forward from this issue:

“Perhaps more interesting are recent arguments that we should view creativity as a kind of expertise, and not necessarily a generic capacity in the same sense as intelligence…rather than saying a person is 'creative,’ we say a person is a 'creative cook’ or 'creative scientist,’ etc.”

Here we have the real kicker on the field of intelligence’s relationship to creativity.

To be creative intelligent isn’t a universal trait. Someone isn’t simply “creative,” no matter how intelligent (or unintelligent) they are. Just as you can’t say that someone is intelligent on a universal level.

Instead, since creativity is a type of intelligence, which is a fluid trait, we can determine the creative intelligence of an individual by looking at their ability to think of novel and valuable ideas in a specific realm.

Steve Jobs may have been a computer (or, arguably, marketing) genius, but if we were to put him in front of a piano would he be able to come up with a sonata on par with the likes of Mozart?

If you’re wondering whether you’re creative or not, and how your overarching level of intelligence impacts that, know that you have the same measurable level of creative aptitude as anyone else reading these words.

Even if you sucked at math in school, that doesn’t mean you can’t be the next Steve jobs or Albert Einstein.

If you believe that being creative means being able to develop new and valuable ideas in any field of interest effortlessly, it’s time to re-evaluate what you think creativity is and how it should be measured.

In the end: creativity is only one type of intelligence, it’s fluid and dependent only on your base level of thinking and adapting to changes in the environment and situations in your life.

Yes, you’re creative. Maybe not in every way, but certainly in some.

Read this next: The relationship between creativity and intelligence.

Photo by Evan Sharboneau.

How to test for and measure creative intelligence

A standardized test means that the test has been created and is scored in a standard or consistent way.

In these types of tests, any question is expected to be answered in a specific way, a normalized response is graded as the standard. So anyone who answers with the standard response is given a passing grade.

Standardized tests work well in education systems where the end-goal is to get the student up to speed. To teach quickly and efficiently solutions to things that are relatively well-known (like 2+2 and what happens when you drop a led ball from a height). Creativity, by definition, is the exact opposite: the unknown, the original.

This explains why creative intelligence is immeasurable from standardized tests. Creativity means new, original, thought. How can you determine whether a thought is original or not if it’s graded against what already exists; a known standard?

And yet tests to measure this exact thing have been created. The Torrence Tests of Creative Thinking, for example.

Most creativity tests measure the person’s ability to come up with unique thoughts in a quantitative way, utilizing flexibility in those ideas as an indicator of quality. While this method certainly gives a general overview of a person’s ability to think, it isn’t necessarily reflective of creative ability.

Just because one person can come up with 100 ways to use a brick and another person can only come up with 20, who is more creative? How do you know?

The logical solution, it seems, is to not measure the number of unique ideas, or the ability for an individual to come up with those ideas, but rather to focus on the impact of the ideas themselves. How grand and different are the ideas, what are their impact, have they ever been thought-up before, and are they feasible?

Unfortunately tests that measure these metrics take time, because each student would need to be graded on a per-person basis. Additionally, the end result is still not reflective of true creative intelligence. It’s limited to pre-conceived notions (if a person says a use for a brick would be to create a time machine, is that not creative?)

It’s better, then, to not measure creative intelligence by what you see on the cover. Instead, to test and measure a person’s creative abilities: see what they’ve done in the past, what ideas they’ve propelled forward, what work they’ve created. That’s the true measure of creative intelligence.

Photo by Alberto G.