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.

Photo by

Photo by

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

Why we so often look to art for creative inspiration

Whenever I talk about inspiration, often art is one of the first subjects that comes to mind. From the enormous scale of work in the sistine chapel or the minute details in the gaze of Mona Lisa, to the impromptu yet calculated works of Banksy or the curious splatters created by Jackson Pollock, art has inspired and caused many aheads to wonder.

Art naturally causes something to stir up in the mind; be it curiosity, awe, frustration, or boredom. We can be surprised by artwork and the insights it unveils in our own minds, or question the artist’s intent and their ability to create worthwhile work.

What exactly is it about art that causes us to think creatively or feel inspired? Why is art capable of causing a change in perspective; of what it means to work or create or, in some cases, live?

On the one hand the artist’s lifestyle represents so much of what we lack in regard to daily life: the freedom from rules and rigid constraints. Art is wild and imaginative, seemingly crafted from a place only art can come from. The ability to create something from nothing, often for the sole purpose of having done so. The artist is romanticized to this point: alone in their studio, fighting against the normalcy of routine or the 9 to 5 job.

Photo by Ståle Grut.

Photo by Ståle Grut.

The artist is free to pursue their ideas and dreams while the rest of the world struggles to fulfill the conquest of someone else—the higher ups or “the man.” Ask a child if they have interest in becoming an artist and they’ll excitedly reply yes. Ask an adult the same question and they’ll likely respond: “if only there weren’t bills to pay.”

Beyond the romanticized lifestyle of the artist, the artwork itself comes from a place distant from reality.

We often turn to art for creative inspiration because it represents pure ideas and histories, born of little else but supplies and the artist’s mind or memory. Artwork can feel limitless, “anything can be art,” we tell ourselves.

The reality is of course that art stems from constraints, boundaries, and rules just as anything else does. But I think what art does well is it shows us a perspective of things we may not be used to or which we do not have easy access to.

Art signals expression in a pure form, free from an explicit purpose or expectation. The best art is the work that makes us think or debate its value. It pulls our minds into a different point in time, a different location, or story, or existence.

Perhaps that’s what makes art so unique and valuable when it comes to creative inspiration: art gives us a picture we can walk into at any time to see things differently. It presents us with an alternate or modified reality we can freely explore and wander about entirely in our own minds, before walking out of again into our regular lives. Like a waking dream we can enter at any moment.

Good art tells stories, the catch is the stories take place entirely in our own minds. The artwork—the painting, sculpture, song, or writing—serves as a means for us to escape into a different mentality. Artwork allows us to temporarily shift our perspective.

As a creative maker or artist our job is not simply to create: it’s to captivate and share part of a vantage or perspective—even if imaginary—with those who might come across our work later on. Rebecca Solnit elegantly summarizes this point in her book The Faraway Nearby where she writes:

“To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.”

We turn to art for inspiration because it allows us to travel somewhere else, to jolt our perspective into something we may have not seen before, for the benefit of comparing that experience to something else.

It’s not only paintings or sculpted statues which enable us to be transported to a different time or place. Solnit explains that each object of creation has the same potential:

“Every book is a door that opens onto another world...The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.”

Artwork is often one of the easiest tools to use for changing our perspective, entering a different time or place, and fueling our imaginations. Often the impact art has on us is small, a seed, but once exposed to it the germ spreads and grows into something only each individual’s mind is capable of creating.

The creative path is the one discovered along the way

What often differentiates the artist and designer from the analytical thinker or engineer is their ability to think through their work as they're working on it.

The analytical thinker is analyzing information before anything's begun, then re-assessing after-the-fact. The engineer creates a blueprint, prepares resources based on the blueprint, then builds the bridge to spec. There isn't much wiggle room for sudden or dramatic change when you're in the middle of constructing a bridge, so the plans get made and the work gets done according to the plan.

But for artists or creatives, the work is constantly evolving, always in a state of change. There is still planning and reflection, but it's more fluid and the work influences the plan just as much as the plan influences the work.

I was recently reminded of this point when reading John Maeda's Redesigning Leadership. John puts the point elegantly:

"Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and the act of thinking about it—thinking and making evolve together in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project, an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that inform how she will continue.
A large part of what drives [the artist’s] confidence is her faith in her ability to course correct and improvise as she goes."

Making matters for the artist because it’s how she learns. She could spend a lot of time up-front doing what analysts, engineers, and managers do: addressing what’s known, diving into existing variables, and gambling on the outcome or marching forward over—or under—prepared. Or she can jump into the work and rely on her ability to adapt and change course as she goes.

One approach isn’t any better than the other for anything in particular, but the latter method—of making and thinking along the way—allows for more creative exploration by default.

By making and allowing yourself to adapt as you go, you free yourself up to do just that: to make things up as you go. To change course, alter the goal, modify the expected outcome, throw white all over the canvas and start again. When you set things like vision and goals up-front you limit what’s possible. Vision and goals are you saying you know where it is you want to go, but creativity is about just starting and figuring out where it is you're going by getting there.

Childhood role models and their influence on creativity

Is one key to being more creative having a strong, creative childhood role model?

I remember growing up with parents who encouraged exploration, creative expression, and—possibly most important—curiosity. They undoubtedly impacted how I perceive creativity. If something breaks your first inclination might be to take it to an expert, or call someone, to fix it. But my father would work diligently to understand why the thing broke and how he might fix it himself; whether a car break pad, an electrical short in a wall, or even a computer. My mother was all about resourcefulness and art, motivating family and her students to constantly create and explore using whatever was available.

For a long time I wanted to believe my upbringing didn’t have a major influence on my perception of creativity, but the more I’ve researched into the impact others have on our own perceived creativity—or our creative confidence—the more I realize just how important childhood role models can be for instilling a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Being creative requires a strong sense of curiosity. It requires an openness to ideas, and the resources, abilities, or resourcefulness to pursue them. Without these things it’s easy to fall into routine and to consistently expect things in the world to be reliable. But if you go out into the world expecting things to be fairly unpredictable—or, at the very least, knowing you don’t know everything and that there’s always the possibility of learning on your own—a lot can happen.

A childhood role model can certainly be helpful in teaching and exemplifying these skills for a child, but it isn't the only way.

As we grow we lose our sense of wonder. I've written on this before by saying: “as the child grows up, he or she comes to be an expert on how to live within the bounds of what becomes known; to do so ensures a general happy and healthy life. You don’t have to look very far to see how this transformation occurs, how we each go from naive toddler to knowledgable youth then finally into experts as adulthood.”

Books, experimentation, educational and environment can all help influence the creative mentality. An adult role model can help too, it’s just not a requirement to developing the necessary habits and behaviors of creative thinking.

Books help expose us to different ways of thinking just as a parent or group of individuals might. The stories contained in books help us feel as though we’ve lived them, the cost of the experience merely being time.

An author could realistically or figuratively go on a journey that provokes irrational thinking, puts them face-to-face with danger, and shakes up their very existence. As a reader we merely need to show up and we’ll come out on the other side unharmed but undoubtedly changed. A role model can present a similar map to us: they tell their story or live it before us and the outcome is the same in that we get the insights of the experience without having to have left the comfort of our lives.

Travel can also be important for diversifying perspective. When we go somewhere new we expose ourselves to potentially new concepts or ideas; the further from home, the more radical our exposure is likely to be.

Diverse hobbies and experiences, interactions with strangers, and even intriguing movies or music, can all influence our ability to think creatively. But in order to even encounter any of those things we must first believe we have a capacity for creativity; we must first be curious enough to try new things, to open ourselves to opportunities. If as a child you are told the world is the way it is and you shouldn’t question or explore, you’re less inclined to do so. But if you’re instead taught from an early age that the world is vast and varied, you begin your life expecting to encounter things that are different and potentially insightful.

Children don’t need to learn these things from their parents, but having close mentors or role models to help demonstrate the value of creativity and curiosity goes a long way.

Of course, it’s true just as much for adults: if we aren’t surrounding ourselves with those who inspire and motivate us, who push us to ask questions and remain curious, we’re less likely to step outside our comfort zones, to take risks, or to simply wonder.

What the habits of geniuses remind us

Not long ago a good friend recommended a book about the habits of the greatest creatives, called Daily Rituals, written by Mason Currey.

The short book is fairly popular among artist and writing circles. For a seemingly fair reason: who wouldn’t want to learn how to be more like Charles Dickens, Andy Warhol, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, or Jane Austin? If we can learn the habits that may have led to their success, will that increase the likelihood of us being successful?

Unequivocally no. The habits of someone else will not make you more or less likely to follow their path to ideas or success. No more than living in the same city that Picasso lived in will make you a great artist. You cannot become Elon Musk by eating the same breakfast as he does. Studying the habits of Einstein will not make you a genius.

Without any doubt there is something to the habits of others that is fascinating and possibly insightful. If we can peek into trends in habits, or observe possible behaviors we may not have considered or been cognizant of in the past, we unlock new doors for our own habits.

What books like Daily Rituals teach us is less about which habits lead to success and more about which artists or inventors were capable of shaping their habits to better fulfill their personal needs and processes. Einstein slept few hours because he simply didn’t need the sleep. Benjamin Franklin would wake around 5 every morning to ask himself “What good shall I do this day?” and that worked wonders for him.

But in each case what these examples tell us is the same wisdom we must focus on in our daily explorations and practices: read of other’s habits, yes, but don’t expect their solutions to be yours too. Instead: find what works for you. Be diligent about trying new things and being open to change or opportunities. You may find those opportunities in books like Daily Rituals or Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, but you may also simply need to go out and explore on your own.