The Myths of Creativity Summary and Review

by David Burkus

Has The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Do you consider yourself a creative person? Or do you leave that to the artistic type while you do all the real work? If this is the way you think, you’ve already fallen prey to one of the myths of creativity. In truth, everyone can be creative.Everyone has this ability, but you must choose to use it. The idea that only some people can be creative is a myth. Other myths? You must be alone or be a tortured artist to be creative. Innovation only exists as a spark of genius. If you want to create ideas quickly, you must brainstorm. How many of these myths do you believe? The myth that only some can be creative is one of many. This book summary will show you an alternative view and guide you in seeing what you can do to create innovative ideas.

In this summary of The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus, you’ll learn:

  • why Newton wasn’t inspired by the apple;
  • why genetics has nothing to do with creativity; and
  • who the true inventor of the personal computer is.

We need to change our idea of creativity on order to reach our potential.

We’re all probably familiar with the story of Isaac Newton discovering gravity. He was sitting under a tree and an apple fell on him, sparking a realization about the phenomenon of gravity. However, this story perpetuates the myth that creativity comes out of the blue. Though most of us believe this myth, it’s wrong. Creativity isn’t built from nothing. For instance, this story of Newton’s discovery of gravity isn’t accurate. He observed the apple fall while with another person, which then sparked a scientific conversation between the two of them. This discussion reviewed what they already knew about in terms of gravity. Therefore, this discovery surfaced from an intellectual discussion between two people, not from divine intervention in Newton’s life. After years of research following this is when Newton could finally put forward his mathematical formula on gravity. Even though stories of lightning-bolt revelations are appealing, creativity often takes time and work. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi actually found that insight is a central step out of many steps that successful creatives work through before their idea is actualized. A foundation must be built so ideas can emerge. Many highly creative people, like da Vinci and Edison, keep multiple projects going at the same time to reap the most benefits from the creative process. This gives each idea a proper amount of time to come to fruition while others are being developed. However, creativity is not exclusively limited to these famous ‘geniuses.’

Creativity is a resource that can be accessed by everybody.

What makes us think that some people are more creative than others? We tend to think certain people are born creative, either because they have a gift for creativity that was divinely bestowed on them or that it’s simply in their genes. However, this breed myth is false. In fact, scientific research shows that creativity is not determined by our genes. Scientists continue to examine Einstein’s brain and have yet to find any proof that his extreme intelligence was caused by a genetically exceptional brain structure. His brain was actually found to be quite small. Marvin Reznikoff’s study of creativity in twins gave more information about genetic influence on creativity. He divided the twins into two groups: fraternal (different genetic code) and identical (shared genetic code). He then gave each group a set of creative tasks to complete. There would be a high degree of similarity in creativity in identical twins if genes were the cause of creativity. However, this was not the case. Creativity differences were not affected by the type of twin. Despite this research, many organizations continue to act differently toward employees that are creative versus employees that are non-creative. Governmental authorities in the US make a distinction between these two type of employees which causes difference in labor legislation. In companies, creatives and “suits” are given different rules to work by. The issue arises here. Excluding “non-creatives” from the innovation process restricts all innovation. Some companies, however, have ditched this tradition and give everyone an opportunity to participate in the creative process. For instance, The Gore company, (inventors of Gore-Tex), doesn’t assign tasks to its employees. Instead, everyone is free to work on new projects and anyone can join in on something that interests them. The result? A huge range of over a thousand extremely varied products.

Take your time and work on things you want to. This can ignite your creative process.

Companies normal approach the concept of creativity from the top down. Management doles out tasks to “creatives,” and expect them to deliver a finished product in a short amount of time. Not shockingly, this isn’t a great way to cultivate innovation. So what can we do differently to encourage creativity? The answer: a democratic organizational structure. Take the industrial manufacturer Semco, for example. Semco was about to go bankrupt when Ricardo Semler took it over from his father. It needed some innovative ideas to save it. To start, Semler turned the organizational structure upside down and got rid of fixed teams, assignments, and top-down management. Once this was done, he let all employees work on the projects that they considered valuable. Success followed this change. 2003 marks the 10 year mark of Semler’s decision, not to mention the $200 million in profits. Allocating tasks and expecting top notch creative results immediately is not at all realistic. Actually, this often yields the opposite. Though this may seem backwards, the creative process partly depends on the creator allowing themselves to procrastinate and to let their mind wander. One study showed their importance by taking three groups of students and requesting that they come up with as many creative uses for a single piece of paper as possible in four minutes. In this study, two of the groups had another task to do for two minutes in between, and one group worked on a related task and the other on an unrelated task. The results showed something interesting regarding creative output: the group working for four consecutive minutes scored the lowest in creative idea output. The group who combined multiple tasks did slightly better, but the group the group that worked on unrelated tasks in between scored the highest by a long shot. So, the next time you find your mind wandering, let it happen! Your greatest idea might be forming in the background.

A beneficial social environment enhances creativity.

Why are we creative? What triggers us? The type of social network you surround yourself with is one of the most important catalysts to creativity. Look beyond your immediate workplace to stimulate your creative potential. A lot of times, we think innovations comes from a single mind focusing on a single idea for a long time. However, this exact strategy is rarely successful. Innovation often comes from multiple minds working together, collaborating and influencing one another. Therefore, if you want to innovate, check out what others are doing. Though it’s well-known that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t agree on the invention of the personal computer, but they did influence each other with the PARC company and the Alto computer. Jobs saw the Alto on a tour of PARC, which encouraged him to create something related at Apple, and Gates was inspired by the early Apple computer after briefly working for Jobs. Clearly, we can benefit from interacting with other people working in our field, but working with large and diverse teams is even better for fostering creativity. Creativity is the work of many minds coming together. In fact, if we take a look back on many creative geniuses, we discover that they’re often being guided by working with others. For example, Thomas Edison worked with a diverse team of thinkers from different disciplines, like physicists, engineers and machinists who called themselves “the muckers.” This is the team that came together to help form some of Edison’s most well-known inventions, including the light bulb.   So why do we connect Edison with the myth of the lone inventor? Well, the muckers recognized the power of Edison’s name, and believed that it would help them if they emphasized his brand and reputation, rather than attempting to promote their individual work.

The ability to connect different types of knowledge in the brain fosters creativity.

Broadening your social network is beneficial for creativity, as we’ve just seen. However, being creative doesn’t halt at sharing ideas with others. Our own minds also need stimulation and need to be supplied with input from a range of information. The more existing ideas we know, the more likely our brains are to blend them, creating even more innovative ideas. Research shows that new technologies and idea are often a combination of existing technologies. This is demonstrated with Thomas Edison and his team. Each person on his team gathered information from existing technologies, and even took bits here and there to use for their own projects. Upon entering their workshop, you would find multiple half stripped machines, all of which were being used for thier own inventions. Gaining knowledge from pre-existing ideas is important, but creativity also depends on the physical connections inside our brain. Remember how Einstein’s brain wasn’t that special? It didn’t display any genetic anomalies, so how was he so creative? Neuroscientists have discovered that the brains of exceptionally creative people are better at connecting ideas that are stored in gray matter, the brain tissue that stores what we think. The connecting tissue responsible for transporting electric pulses is called white matter. Exceptionally creative people often have more white matter than others, which allows them to blend ideas more creatively. However, the amount of white matter one has isn’t related to genetics; it grows the more we use it. So if you want to be better at being creative, practice, practice, practice! This can expand your white matter, which will help your creativity.

Constraints often ignite creativity.

Creativity works best with freedom to succeed, right? Sure, this is great, but it doesn’t mean we should let all our ideas out at all times. Constraint can birth creativity. Allowing yourself to use restrictions when coming up with new ideas can allow better ones to grow. When looking for new ideas, a lot of companies become victims of the brainstorming myth. They believe that the best way to come up with a stellar new idea is to throw a lot of people in one room and coach them to produce as many new ideas as possible. However, this doesn’t actually work so well. Sure, you might get a number of good ideas from this practice, but most of them will be useless or unusable. Placing restrictions on the process can generate ideas quickly. Star by identifying your problem and doing some background research instead of jumping on the first thing that pops into your head. Then, think of some ideas and begin to blend and develop them. Novel, useful, and well-thought out ideas will come up when using this method. Constraints on resources can also bolster creativity. Often, we say that if we had all the money and time in the world, we could achieve anything. However, restraints are often the way to innovation. Necessity breeds innovations, and restraints cause us to think outside the box. For example, Japanese haikus and European sonnets are among the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the world. Why are they so impressive? Their innate beauty lies in the fact that they can only emerge through strict adherence to a prior set of rules, and the author must skillfully navigate these restraints. So, next time you find something that restrains your work, take it by storm. This constraint may be an open door to your next innovation.

Final summary

The key message in this book Forget what you think know about creativity. There aren’t excuses for a lack of creativity. Everyone is creative. The key components of creativity include realizing the value of taking your time, using restrictions and working with others. Recognizing this will help you start to make a real difference in your creativity and your ability to innovate. Actionable advice: Stop worrying about time. The next time you are panicked that you are wasting precious time, remember that your ideas need time to form and ripen. Disregard the myth of “non-creatives.” End the division between “creatives” and “suits” by insisting that this divide is made up, and that these societal limitations cause people to hinder their potential. Share, edit, and combine your ideas. Organize your creative process so it is comprised of different stages in which ideas amongst your team are shared out loud. Allow everyone to share, revise, and re-structure. Suggested further reading: Weird Ideas That Work by Robert I. Sutton Weird Ideas That Work examines how innovation comes about in companies, and how it can be fostered. The book also shows how creative tasks and routine tasks require very different work ethic. The author cites multiple examples from both the business world and the work of famous geniuses to expound upon his ideas.