People living in the twentieth century heard a lot of talk about “creativity.” People living in the twenty-first century will not. Creativity is not dead yet, but its end is in sight. Alfred North Whitehead invented the word in 1926.
75 years later, it was one in every 70,000 words published and had become the name of a popular hypothesis: that new things are created by “geniuses” who solve problems by deliberately not thinking about them — a step called “incubation” — until they receive answers in sudden, dramatic moments of “insight.” One of the most frequently cited examples is attributed to Mozart:
“When I am, as it were, completely myself, and of good cheer, my ideas flow best and most abundantly. My subject stands almost complete in my mind. When I write down my ideas everything is already finished; and it rarely differs from what was in my imagination.”
These words, which I have edited for length, first appeared in a letter to Germany’s General Music Journal in 1815, then in many other places, including Jacques Hadamard’s 1945 The Mathematician’s Mind; Creativity, edited by Philip Vernon in 1976; and Roger Penrose’s 1989 The Emperor’s New Mind. They remain popular: in 2015, they have already appeared in at least one book and one journal.
But Mozart did not write them, they do not describe how he composed, and we have known this since 1856, when Mozart biographer Otto Jahn showed that they were forged.
Why do so many people writing about creativity keep citing them as if they were true? Because there is little else to cite. Psychologists have been trying to prove the creativity hypothesis for nearly a hundred years. Their results are, at best, mixed.
In the 1920s, Stanford’s Lewis Terman sought to prove the existence of the general, hereditary superiority called “genius” by testing 168,000 children and placing them on a scale “from idiocy on the one hand to genius on the other.” He identified 1,500 “geniuses,” then tracked their accomplishments for the rest of their lives. Some did creative work, like making movies, but many did not. And what of the “non-geniuses” Terman rejected? Two, William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, won Nobel Prizes. Terman’s results are typical: all other attempts to predict future accomplishments by measuring “genius” have also failed.
“Incubation,” or solving problems by not thinking about them, has been widely studied. Berkeley’s Robert Olton spent the 1970s looking for it. In one experiment, he asked 160 people to solve a brainteaser, giving some breaks, while making others work continuously. The breaks made no difference. Olton was forced to conclude that,
“No evidence of incubation was apparent,” and added, “No study reporting evidence of incubation has survived replication by an independent investigator.”
And “insight” — the fully formed solution in a flash? German Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker was one of the first to study that. In his most famous experiment, he gave people a box of tacks and a book of matches, and asked them to fix a candle to a wall so that it could be used as a reading light. The solution is to tack the tack-box to the wall — to see it as a thing for holding the candle, not a thing for holding the tacks. The shift from “tack-box” to “candle-holder” is the supposed “insight.” By having people think aloud, Duncker showed that the solution came incrementally, not instantly: everyone who discovered it thought of making a platform out of tacks, then realized the tack-box would be a better platform.
These experiments, although a few of hundreds, are representative. There is probably no such thing as creativity. But Duncker’s work laid the foundation for an alternative hypothesis: that extraordinary solutions come from ordinary people doing ordinary thinking. Robert Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, put it this way:
“Although the impact of creative ideas and products can sometimes be profound, the mechanisms through which an innovation comes about can be very ordinary.”
“Ordinary thinking” certainly seems to describe human creative behavior more accurately than “creativity.” Mozart was exceptionally talented, but he did not write by magic. He sketched compositions, revised them, and often got stuck. Masterpieces did not come to him in uninterrupted streams, nor without instruments, nor did he write them down whole. His ability and expertise made him fast, but his work was exactly that: work. The same is true in other creative fields. Kandinsky’s abstract expressionist paintings appear spontaneous, yet are anything but: his Painting with White Border, for example, took at least twenty-one sketches and five months to develop. The Wright brothers did not leap into the sky; they walked there one step a time, building a kite in 1899, a glider based on the kite in 1900, a slightly improved glider in 1901, and another improved glider in 1902 before, finally, adding propellers to their glider design and making the first airplane in 1903. Even Einstein, whose likeness became an icon for genius, rejected the notion that discovery came with what he called “suddenness.” Describing how he solved an especially difficult problem while formulating the Special Theory of Relativity, he said,
“I was led to it by steps.”
Steps can only lead to amazing new places if they follow the work of others. That is another difference between the hypotheses: “creativity” focuses on one person; “ordinary thinking” assumes many. Again, this seems more accurate. The “others” Einstein followed included Ernst Mach, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, Marcel Grossman, and Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro. And when Newton wrote his famous remark on this topic,
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,”
he was standing on others’ shoulders by quoting George Herbert, who was quoting Robert Burton, who was quoting Diego de Estella, who was quoting John of Salisbury, who was quoting Bernard of Chartres. The word “giants” in his statement is a form of humility and praise. If everyone sees further because they stand on another’s shoulders, then there are no giants, only people. Giants, like geniuses, are a myth.
This idea that extraordinary creations come from ordinary people and ordinary thinking has become more popular recently. Jon Gertner wrestled with the problem of “the great men versus the yeomen,” in The Idea Factory, his history of Bell Labs, and concluded that innovation needs both; Walter Isaacson found he had to tell the story of many lives, not one, to describe the invention of computing in his latest bestseller The Innovators; and Steven Johnson refutes the “non-explanation of genius” and argues that “innovation comes out of collaborative networks” in his new book and PBS television series, How We Got to Now.
It is an important change. We are rejecting the myths of “creativity” and developing a better understanding of how we create at a time when, because of the growing problems of our growing population, we need creation more than ever. We are not all equally creative, just as we are not all equally good at anything. But each of us is more like Mozart than not. We can all create, we can all contribute, and we all should.
Adapted from How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, by Kevin Ashton, available here.