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Creativity: Innate Talent or Learned Skill?

By Kathleen Milnes, HPA Board Member

At the most recent SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics), I had the opportunity to spend time with a delegation from Shenzhen, China.  Shenzhen is a large, modern city of over 18 million people not far from Hong Kong.

At the core of our conversation was the subject of creativity.  The Chinese professionals confessed that while the students who graduated from their art colleges were very competent and talented artists and designers, they couldn’t create anything that people wanted to watch!  They asked me how they could teach their students to be creative.

Most of us think that you either are creative or you aren’t.  That you were born with this talent or it passed you by.  But that’s not true.  Everyone can learn to be creative but it requires a couple of key factors and perhaps some new habits.

Rethinking Creativity as a Skill

Did you already know how to read when you were born?  Unless you are severely dyslexic, you learned how to read by building the requisite skills. You also probably lived in an environment with books and newspapers with parents and siblings who read and who encouraged you to read as well.

Encouragement is a key factor in growing creativity. As educator and TED talker, Dr. Ken Robinson says, if you ask a room full of 5 year olds if they are artists, they all say yes.  If you ask a room full of adults, few will raise their hands.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, focuses on why people succeed and how to foster success.

The key is mindset:  do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.  Do you think you are born with creative talents or not?  Maybe you can’t draw like Rembrandt but that doesn’t mean you aren’t creative.  Everyone can learn to be creative.

However, if that’s true, why are the Chinese having problems?

In order to enhance your creativity, you need three things:

1)    Become your own teacher.

Learn from everyone but explain things to yourself and to others.  In many cultures, teachers are the “sage on the stage” and not the “guide on the side.”  Only the teacher is an expert, never the student.  If you can’t explain something to another person, you have no idea if you really understand it.

2)    Be open

Be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  In a culture where “the nail that stands up must be pounded down,” openness is not valued.  This is why the first rule in improvisation is “yes, and…:” All new ideas need to be considered and expanded upon even if they fail. In fact, failure should be celebrated. Some cultures and workplaces don’t value this trait either.

3)    Challenge authority

You have to ask questions and challenge assumptions. Just because it’s never been done before or we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean there aren’t at least several other, maybe better ways to solve a problem.   Again, if you aren’t encouraged to do these things, your creativity become squelched.

So, my response to my Chinese colleagues was to look at what their culture valued.  Are people allowed and encouraged to try new things even if they fail?  Are they permitted to question authority? Do companies value their employees for the elevator asset they are or are people fungible?

Many in the creative technology industries assume that creativity lies in the tools.  But the value is in the artist and the creative use of those tools.  For example, I occasionally meet a student in high school who will say “I’ve been using Maya since I was in 6th grade.”  My response is always “And what does Maya make for you?”  And while they are fumbling for an answer, I pick up my pen.  “I’ve been using this pen since I was in elementary school, and I’m still not a novelist.  I must be using the wrong pen!”

The tools are getting better and will continue to eliminate some jobs.  If your job can be routinized and standardized, then someday soon, a machine will do it.  So what will you bring to the table?  What is it that a machine can’t do? A recent article in Fast Company stated “The more you’re required to personally help other people, the less likely you’re going to be replaced by a robot. If your job requires negotiation, or a high degree of creativity, there’s also less risk.

Creativity is a mindset, not a talent. When we understand that creativity is a way of thinking that blends our imagination with the world around us, then true innovation can exist.


Kathleen Milnes is a member of the HPA Board of Directors and the Assistant Chair of Digital Media at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.  She spent most of career in film, television and commercial production, public policy workforce development.  kmilnes@otis.edu







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