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

There is no lone creative genius

There’s an iconic photograph of Steve Jobs, taken during the very early, successful days of the company he helped start: Apple.

In the photo you can see Steve sitting in his home, only a lamp, a sitting pad, a few vinyl records, a record player, and a notebook sitting in the room with him. Apart from those few items, the hardwood floor and walls are bare. There’s no couch, no television or radio, no coffee table, nothing like that.

The photo is iconic because it makes Steve look so powerful, so all-knowing and wise. His position, upright with legs crossed, makes it appear as though Steve has obtained some level of higher enlightenment.

This is an important photo. Not because it’s of the brilliant Steve Jobs, but because it symbolizes countless other photos and images of historical, creative geniuses throughout time. And there’s a huge problem with that.

How often do we imagine these genius creatives, sitting in their home or studio, contemplating the next big thing? If you think of nearly any creative great, this is likely how you’re going to imagine them.

It’s not difficult to imagine the likes of Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, or Thomas Edison in these moments of deep insight or masterful work. It’s also easy to imagine these masters in these moments entirely alone. They are, after-all, the major masters of their craft, the geniuses behind the glass.

When we imagine these thinkers like this – sitting or working by themselves – we create a scenario around creativity that isn’t entirely true. This belief can hurt our own ability to achieve creative mastery.

The greatest creatives hardly ever work alone. If you think you can go alone on the path to ideas that matter, it’s time to think again.

One of the most notably stories around the myth of the lone genius comes from Thomas Edison, best known for his work on the first, practical light bulb. Notably, Edison is quoted as having said: “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Images of Edison spending countless days or weeks working at his desk on the light bulb readily come to mind. Yet, it wasn’t Edison alone who made all reportedly 10,000 attempts.

In his book, The Myths of Creativity David Burkus shares with us the truth on the matter:

“Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone….As their work progressed, the team quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name….according to Francis Jehl, Edison’s long-time assistant, those inside knew that ‘Edison [was] in reality a collective noun and [meant] the work of many men.'”

In their 1995 report titled “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth,” researchers Alfonso Montuori and Ronald Purser explored the psychological and social-economical reasons why the myth of the lone genius persists, and what matters for generating truly great ideas.

The researchers explains:

“The romantic myth of the lone genius still prevails… This may be due to the fact that the image of the creative genius is closely tied to hyper-individualism… There is a fear, for instance, that learning to play another musician’s solos by heart, as the great innovator Charlie Parker did…might somehow weaken or contaminate one’s creative ‘purity’ with the possibility that one could turn into a carbon copy of the role model.”

As creatives, we want to believe that our work is entirely original and groundbreaking. The more unique and valuable our ideas are, the more likely we are to be associated with their impending success and fame.

We like the story of lone geniuses because we want to believe that great ideas are spawned from some deeper source of genius itself. If anybody can have great ideas, who will we have to celebrate as creative geniuses? If great ideas don’t come from within ourselves, how do we know they are worthwhile or not?

Of course, we know that creativity is not a gift bestowed on a lucky few. We know from ample research and psychology that creativity is a trait each of us are born with and carry through-out our lives. Believing that the lone genius is reality gives us a hero to worship or, more importantly, an excuse for when we are struggling to come up with ideas ourselves.

Montuori and Purser continue:

“Creativity takes place in groups, organizations, and societies…and can be sparked by interactions…we believe this does not diminish the role of the individual in the least, but rather addresses more fully the concern of individuals and the contexts in which they have to operate–contexts that are, after all, also composed to a large extent of other individuals.”

I’m all-too-familiar with the trap of believing in the lone genius.

Most of the independent work I do, I do alone. This blog, for example, I write entirely on my own. I designed the blog and programmed the template on my own. Many of the ideas for the posts are my own.

Except that’s not entirely true.

Without realizing it, much of the inspiration for this blog has come as a result of speaking with other creatives. The discussions I have – and the questions I’m asked ” spark the insights that keep this blog going.

With nearly all of the work I do, there’s someone behind the scenes inspiring me. Whether it’s a conversation I have with a friend or family member, or a piece of design work I see somewhere on the web. I am not doing this work on my own, it’s actually the result of hundreds of people throughout history each inspiring me in some way.

You, too, do not work alone. You may sit in a studio or room alone, you may solely be responsible for pushing the brush across the canvas or the keys on the keyboard, but it’s through your interactions with others that your ideas flow.

To truly be a creative genius, then, we must embrace working alongside others. Not all the time, but often. It’s through our interactions that our best ideas swell.


The Myths of Creativity

Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth

Where good ideas come from