Why You Can’t Teach People To Be Creative


It’s a word that challenges us. Inspires us. Haunts us.

We all want to feel like we are creative, like there is something inside us that can make things, imagine new realities, or build ideas that inspire others. Works of art. The Next Big Thing in business. Whatever.

But more than that, we all want the unbridled freedom promised by creativity: giving into a childhood innocence without rules or process. Only you’ll never get there if you continue to be rational about it.

What is Creativity?

There are a lot of definitions for creativity. Take your pick. Here’s the definition from Dictionary.com:

the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.

At the heart of any definition of creativity is transcendance. The ability, or serendipity, to marshal thought, analysis, and inquiry past the perceived “norm” and uncover new ways to approach problems or challenges. But there is something else too. Something intangible. Because what creates that transcendence? What provides the opportunity for some to continually work “outside of the box” while others struggle with grasping anything other than convention? The answer is in the way our brains are put together. And the keystone of that is inspiration.

The Role of Inspiration

Before we jump into the concept of inspiration (and how it is the keystone for a cognitive structure that ultimately supports creativity), let’s partake in a little thought experiment. Let’s assume that there is a standard process of thought from which the human brain can form meaning. You could say that this standard process is governed by logic (i.e., deduction and induction). This we will define as “rational.” It is this rational process that enables us to put things together in a cohesive, linear manner. 2 + 2 = 4. The sky is blue therefore the sun must be up. That kind of thinking is based on logic.

Now, with that said, going back to the definition, creativity implies “transcendence.” It implies that the act of being creative works outside this rational process. The question is, “what causes the transcendence? What causes the rational process to be replaced by something other than rational?” Think about it like this: the job of the brain is to interpret meaning from all of our senses; that process of interpreting meaning is rational; creativity, because it is a different process is “anti-rational” (for the sake of argument, I’m equating “transcendence” as doing something opposite of what is expected). Following that train of thought, something must happen within our brains that forces the rational process off the rails. That something is inspiration.

But it’s not magical. Inspiration is actually a byproduct of two opposing personalities within our brain: the rational and the irrational. Inspiration is a moment of transition when the brain moves between rational, deductive/inductive reasoning to irrational pattern recognition and spontaneous meaning. History is littered with stories about people being suddenly “inspired” and, in that moment of inspiration, coming up with a great idea, or story, or work of art. And what triggers inspiration? The pattern-recognition functionality in our brain, the very thing that drives our rationality.

The Brain is a Pattern Recognition Machine

We are built to recognize patterns. Why? Because it helps us make meaning of the world that is the product of our rational mind. We are able to categorize the world. Trees look like trees. Cats look like cats. Human faces share similarities (so we can call them “human”). Without that, we would be forced to deal with each interaction separately. We wouldn’t be able to remember much either as it’s far more efficient to save a few images and a pattern that links them all together via their similarities rather than every single image independently. And patterns facilitate our ability to deduct or induct meaning. When we can cognitively identify relationships between objects, we can derive meaning.

Many people think that pattern recognition is tied to our rationality, that it is the logical way for our brain to make meaning from the phenomenal amount of input our brains receive every second of every day. But I argue that it’s not. Pattern recognition, using a software metaphor, is just a function of our brain that can be called by a variety of different cognitive systems. Like the irrational brain. Like creativity.

Say Hello to the Irrational Mind

If creativity is a transcendence of rationality and inspiration is the spark for that transcendence, then to what does consciousness transcend? Say hello to the irrational mind.

Using that software metaphor again, the brain is a collection of inter-connected systems. We used to see the brain as a binary duality: left brain for creativity, right brain for logic. But as we have come to understand the brain more, the software model seems like a better analogy. Like pattern recognition, there are a variety of functions available to any system. For example, the language system can make use of the pattern recognition and speech functions. For the sake of the argument that I am making, I propose that the brain has multiple states. For example, one state is “rationality.” Another state is “irrationality.” During these states, the brain’s systems employ multiple functions to carry out the state’s objective. So, in the rational state, the brain’s objective is to deduce meaning either deductively or inductively. In the irrational state then, the brain’s objective is to freely associate (the output of which can be used by the rational mind).

The Impact of the Irrational

So what, exactly makes the irrational state of the brain so different from the rational? In short order, the rational brain approaches the world in a binary fashion. A leads to B which leads to C which can lead to D or E or F. The irrational brain state veers away from that binary processing (if you haven’t guessed yet, this is the “transcendence” part of creativity). In the irrational brain state, there does not need to be perceived meaning or even a perceived relationship between the objects in question. And, there can be different versions of objects. It’s more like A1 leads to F4 connects to C16. The key thing is that the irrational mind works in pluralality. It can assess different relationships in parallel thereby exposing additional points of reference that can be further connected together. When inspiration triggers the brain into the irrational state of mind, something amazing happens: it co-opts the pattern recognition function and all hell breaks loose.

Irrational Patterns

The brain is built to derive meaning from patterns. So what happens when the rational processes that generally controls that pattern-recognition function goes off the rails? When it’s transcended? Well when combined with the irrational mind’s “pluralality” it’s massive parallel pattern-recognition processing. That means that the brain finds multiple patterns, even patterns between patterns, all at the same time. And truly creative people like Mozart, Einstein, and John Nash take that to a level that most people can’t even comprehend. Why? Because they are able to exist in both states simultaneously where, in real time, their rational brain is trying to make logical sense (i.e., justification) of the output of the irrational processes. In most people, the states don’t co-exist so trying to “teach” someone to be creative, to apply the rational processes to the irrational creative mind, is like trying to fit the proverbial square peg into the round hole.

The Role of the Rational in Creativity

Up until now, I have been trying to build a case that creativity is a byproduct of an irrational state of mind and that, as such, would be impossible to be approached rationally (except for those rare individuals who’s minds can exist in both states). But the rational mind does play a role with creativity. An important role in fact.

Remember that the rational mind approaches the world from a binary perspective. It’s either A or B but not both. The irrational mind transcends that by multi-tasking with multiple patterns and multiple objects. But if the irrational mind’s “process” is chaotic, in fact an anti-process, then the output can’t be anything sensical. And because it’s the rational mind’s job to derive meaning in the world, in order to benefit from creativity, the rational mind must step in and assess the output. But that’s not the rational mind’s only job. It also categorizes, organizes, and takes in information through our senses. This, in turn, provides a pool of material against which the irrational mind can work. So for most people, the rational mind operates before and after the irrational.

In short, the rational provides food for the irrational mind to work with and assesses the creative output of the irrational mind afterwards.

Is it Possible to be Rationally Creative?

In very broad strokes, I think the answer is “no.” Although creativity can “spawn” during rational processes (i.e., while trying to figure something out, which is deduction, the irrational mind can spontaneously contribute, through inspiration, by making what might seem an illogical relationship or connection) it is not a product of the process. Again, that’s not to say that rational and irrational states of mind can’t co-exist or work in parallel as I’ve explained previously. It’s just that the very nature of the irrational mind (and, consequently, creativity) is opposite of the rational mind.

What Does This Mean for the Business World?

Ultimately, that businesses stop trying to build “creativity” into their culture. I can’t count how many books I’ve read on this subject which all approach the problem with a rational solution or process. But, creativity is not a process. Or a solution. It’s an anti-process. Whiteboarding, mind-mapping, brainstorming. These are all tools to capture the output of the irrational in the creative moment which is all fine and dandy. All creatives have tools (although those with very advanced irrational brains have trained their rational brains do a lot of that stuff cognitively) but when the creative moment is assigned five or 10 minutes in a meeting agenda, you cannot expect true creativity because it is being governed by a process. As a result, those in the meeting will attempt to “intellectualize” the creativity (i.e., “okay, what can I think of in the next 10 minutes”) when, as I’ve explained previously, the intellect’s role in creativity is after and before, not necessarily during. In order for businesses to truly embrace creativity, they must first embrace inspiration (and how it spontaneously occurs) and then allow their employees the opportunity to free-associate when those moments occur which may be at the water cooler or at their desks or, most importantly, just daydreaming. Because it is only through the irrational state that free-association can generate seemingly illogical connections that the rational mind can then derive meaning. And, most importantly, the intended result: a new idea.

What Does it Mean for Education?

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted speech on creativity, you should. Spend 20 minutes. Watch this. In order to develop future generations of creatives, in order to train and cultivate the irrational mind so that it can more often spontaneously emerge during rational processes, we need to revamp the way we educate our youth, from K to College. More emphasis has to be placed on cultivating, honing, and exalting the irrational as a skill rather than squashing it in favor of rational processes (or constantly interrupting it with rational processes to find meaning). It also means that we need to focus on cross-disciplinary education. At the same time. It’s not about math class anymore. It’s about all the subjects, all the time, all together. By allowing the rational brain to feed the neural storage with more and more information (the Internet really facilitates this by providing content in short form), students will have more “source material” from which to create, infer, and discover connections and patterns.

What Does it Mean for You?

If you want to be creative, stop trying to be creative. Stop trying to find a process for your creativity. Let your brain make connections. And when they happen, no matter how non-sensical they seem, don’t discount them with your rational mind. Write them down and then for the meaning in them (remember: rational pre and post, not during). The output of that becomes more fodder for your irrational brain. And read. Read a lot. Watch history shows and shows about how things are made. Talk with people about every subject that interests you. Join discussion groups. Every bit of information that you put into your head strengthens your creativity because it provides more from which your irrational mind can work against.

Jason Thibeault is the senior director of marketing strategy for Limelight Networks. In this role he helps direct Limelight’s corporate messaging and positioning, develops whitepapers and e-books, blogs, and evangelizes the Limelight solution offering to audiences around the world. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine Honors Program and a M.A. in English, with distinction, from California State University, Northridge. Jason is the co-author of the marketing thought-leadership book Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences People Want to Share (Wiley), the middle-reader chapter series Marmalade (Dime Novel Books), and rethinkeverythingblog.com. He is an inventor on a number of technical patents with Limelight Networks. Follow him on twitter @_jasonthibeault.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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