Can Creativity Be Taught?

My short answer is no. In order to teach “creativity” we have to define what “creativity” is. Otherwise we cannot claim that we are teaching it. In speaking of creativity, we often hear the expression, “Think outside the box.” My wife is sick of hearing this phrase because it was used in every meeting at the advertising agency she used to work at. It is such a cliche that anyone who uses this phrase cannot possibly be creative. In this manner, every time you define anything, it becomes a formula. The very reason why we define anything is to make it possible to repeat. So, once you define what “creativity” is, it immediately becomes a formula, and anyone following, repeating, or conforming to it becomes less creative. Therefore, “creativity” must remain undefinable, which in turn means unteachable.

Here is an example of someone attempting to define what creativity means. Anyone who faithfully follows his criteria of a creative person, cannot possibly be creative. The author provides some examples of how creative people talk. Here is an example:

Creative Person: “Why don’t we add a little garlic?”

Ordinary Person: “Because the recipe doesn’t call for garlic.”

Especially in the US, a “creative type” has become a stereotype. We see it on TV shows and on Hollywood movies all the time. We all know, by repeated exposure, what “creative types” are supposed to say in this type of situation above. Yes, a “creative” person is supposed to be spontaneous and adventurous, so he is supposed to say, “Hey, let’s throw some garlic in there and see what happens!” In most of these “creative” moments, people are just playing a character of a “creative” person. They are not being creative at all. Our public image of a “creative” person is itself a cliche, and many people vainly and mindlessly conform to it. This is why it’s not possible to define what “creativity” is because the moment you define it, it ceases to be creative. And, this is why it’s not possible to teach someone how to be creative.

When I cook something for the first time, I follow the recipe strictly so that I understand the writer’s original intention properly. If I decide to cook the same thing again, I might do something differently, but at that point I would know whether my change was creative or not. If you haven’t tasted the original dish (how the author of the recipe intended it to be), how would you know if what you did was creative or not? Without that knowledge, it would just be a random act. In fact, you are just trying hard to conform to the perception of a creative person, which is very uncreative.

“Creativity” is a cultural construct. For something to be recognized as “creative”, there must be historical/cultural precedents, which means that, before you can break the rules, you must understand the rules first. Even if you come up with something recognized as “creative”, if you didn’t understand the historical precedents, it could just have been dumb luck. In such a case, you would not be able to repeat the same level of creativity in the future. (Because it really wasn’t creativity in the first place.)

The typical misconception about teaching “creativity” is that exposing kids to creative things would make them creative. If this were true, let them just sit in front of a TV and expose them to a variety of TV shows and movies. Putting someone creative, or something creative, next to your kids does not magically make them creative. In fact, you might end up raising a kid who expect amusing, creative things to be served on a silver platter to him, and forever complain about being bored. Making them go through supposedly creative processes wouldn’t do it either.

Jung describes this phenomenon eloquently in his book “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.” He tells a story of a sorcerer and his disciples. One day, the sorcerer attained enlightenment. His disciples asked him how he did it, but the sorcerer made no reply. They discovered peculiar diagrams in the cave where the sorcerer attained enlightenment. They said to themselves, “That’s it!” and began copying the diagrams. The point of this story is that by repeating the diagrams, they have reversed the entire process. The diagrams to the sorcerer were effects, not the cause of his enlightenment. The same can be said about creativity; copying a creative person’s process does not make you creative, because his process is actually an effect, not a cause.

So, I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to teach someone how to be creative. Even the most creative people in history, like Duchamp, Warhol, Wittgenstein, Einstein, Mozart, Stockhausen, Shakespeare, Joyce, etc., wouldn’t be able to teach anyone else how to be creative, let alone some teachers that we’ve never even heard of.

Additional Notes (Jun-4-09)

If you were to claim that you are “teaching” someone something, you have to be accountable for it, and be able to take credit for it. If you cannot be accountable for the result, you are not “teaching” anything.

Creativity is something unique to each individual; it’s like mutation in evolution. It is preposterous to claim that you taught someone to develop that unique individuality. And, if you are going to claim it, you better be able to prove it; otherwise you are taking credit for someone else’s work.

To be creative is to transcend every prescription, and that includes a prescription about “creativity”. If you transcended something, for someone to be creative, he needs to transcend your transcendence. If he repeats your transcendence, it’s not creativity. And, if he does transcend your transcendence, then obviously you didn’t teach him how; because you cannot teach someone to transcend you.