The Creativity Delusion: We’re All Geniuses


Prepare to have you mind blown. Or at least the stuff you know about your mind.

Minds do not operate differently to different people. Minds do not leap. And they don’t work unconsciously. Part 2 of The Creativity Delusion mini-series focuses on what we want to believe about our intellect. Regardless of how often we tell ourselves we’re “less talentend”, we do in fact use 100% of our brain. Ideas only seem magical because we refuse to see all the work, knowledge and remix that’s behind that complete and polished product. And frankly, this doesn’t do us any good.

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You can watch the previous part right here. Aaaaand look out for Part 3: coming sometime this year!

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How do you come up with great ideas and then make them happen?”

There are literally thousands of books and videos out there telling us how to be creative. How to act creative. How to unleash our inner creativity. “How do you create an idea that has meaning?“

We’re told that there are exact steps we need to take, in order to get out of the box. Complete guides for coming up with… “the unique way of looking at things…“ Reaching that that Eureka Moment. Five step workouts for your brain. Techniques for finding the best ideas and fishing them out of your mind.

And most importantly that… “Creativity– is a secret.“

But “creativity” was invented in 1926.

We’re all geniuses

Alfred North Whitehead came up with the word “creativity” in 1926. That very same year, psychologist Graham Wallas published his theory of ideas in a book called the Art of Thought. He used anecdotal stories of famous inventors to outline the theory that creation comes from a cocktail of unconscious thought and strong, sudden emotion.

The theory goes like this:

  1. After some preparation, there’s a period of “incubation”. The creator doesn’t put any conscious effort into the problem and just lets it sink in.
  2. Then, a flash of insight, called “illumination”. The unconscious becomes conscious and the solution is suddenly clear.
  3. The last stage is “verification”. The conscious mind finally—and “creatively”—puts everything together.

The Greeks called it a gift from the Gods. Often enough today, even creative people are unaware of the mechanisms behind their own ideas. “My mind doesn’t function the way yours must.” We laypeople cannot understand them either. “I suspect they may be tapping into a collective hive consciousness.”

So Wallas’ theory continues to seem reasonable to this very day. But do we really need to assume there are extraordinary processes afoot, when everything about thought can already be explained through ordinary thinking?

  1. Let’s start with Unconscious Processing.

Based on Freud’s model of the mind, we assume that creative thinking happens in our unconscious. To test this out, a great number of studies have tried to analyze real world scenarios, and most worked something like this:

  • Scientists give their subjects different problems to solve, which involve logic, lateral thinking, word associations and so on…
  • The people are split in groups so that, when they encounter a problem they can’t solve, they are either…
    • given a break, where they do an unrelated thing to distract their attention;
    • others are given a different problem to solve;
    • while a third group works continuously on the problem.

If our minds problems by not thinking about them, then the subjects who were given a break or something else to do should have solved the problems quicker. But, contrary to expectations, the studies concluded that incubation could simply not be found. All the groups performed more or less the same.

While the unconscious does help organize the information you gain, it’s the conscious process that helps you tackle, verify, and implement new ideas. Simply daydreaming or sleeping won’t do the trick. Breaks do help – just not in the way you think they do. Taking a stroll or a shower, sleeping or just changing environments might get you unstuck. However, the solutions come not from an unconscious mechanism.

People never really stop thinking about problems, especially the significant ones. We constantly return to them, if only for a second or two. Breaks, and especially longer breaks, help because time enables you to forget the little details which got you stuck in the first place.

  1. What about The Flash Of Insight?

“That’s it!” “That’s it, that’s the answer!” “Eureka!” “The answer was so simple, I was too smart to see it!”

This is described as serendipitous, out of one’s control, like alchemy. But the stereotyped eureka moment is, at best, just one facet of creation.

In one of his experiments, renowned psychologist Karl Duncker gave people a box of tacks and a book of matches. He asked the subjects to fix the candle to a door, so that it could be used as a reading light. The solution is to empty the tack-box, use the thumbtacks to nail the box to the door, and use it to hold the candle. That moment, when the person stops seeing the tack-box as just a holder for the tacks, is what Wallas called insight. He assumed that the shift is a lot like a leap. Take that leap, solve the problem.

However, when Dunker made people think out loud, he saw the structure of thought. He saw how people think. The solution always came in small steps, not an instant giant leap: all the people who eventually solved the problem first thought of making a platform for the tacks. Then, they sought a way to secure the candle. Finally, they realized the tack-box could work as a good platform.

Many other studies confirm Duncker’s theories: minds do not leap. In all the research conducted, even those who didn’t solve the problems did make partial progress toward the solution based on the same processes. Arriving at solutions requires planning, which is done only through conscious thought. Of course, the results may seem instant even to the person who achieves them, but they’re all based on small analytic steps: observing, evaluating, iterating, and building up to creation.

Although the impact of creative ideas and products can sometimes be profound, the mechanisms through which an innovation comes about can be very ordinary.” (Robert Weisberg)

  1. And now, let’s unpack Creativity.

We enjoy remembering the few vivid occasions when we made great progress in a seemingly sudden burst. And we prefer to forget the many times we made no progress at all. But we also forget how outstanding our brains are. Our non-genius neuron impulses travel at 120 m/s. Connections form bonds, then ramify or break in literal split seconds. There’s no need for descriptions of great imagination leaps, when “normal thinking” already leads to the most creative outcomes.

Some of the first ever studies of the brain concluded that the processes of creative thinking are the same for everyone. „Creative thinking is simply a special kind of problem-solving behavior”

Now… creating might not be extraordinary. But does that mean it’s not amazing?

This video was made possible by video and audio software funneled by creation, based on programming protocols made with creation, with encoding tools made through creation. The script itself was written in countless drafts. It was inspired by a vast amount of sources made possible via creation.

So maybe a better way of looking at the world is by acknowledging that creation is all around us. And in each of us.

In the end, the seductive story of extraordinary mechanisms can sometimes help us make sense of an overbearing world, but it can also trick us and bring us down:

  • We stop trying to be creative, because we tell ourselves we don’t have the gift;
  • We don’t work anymore, as we await that elusive flash of genius;
  • We talk down our own brainpower or abilities, so we never write a single page.

Creation is just destination, a place where thinking leads us. Everything requires work and dedication and no one has it any easier. You don’t require a smarter brain… “Just pulse your neurons until the answer manifests itself”. Or a bigger one.

Here’s what you do need.

Studies on great chess players show that they arrive at their solutions a lot quicker than average players. But they don’t actually have better memories at all. They’re just quicker thanks to their years of experience in their specific field. So specific in fact, that if they’re shown a board with randomly placed pieces, they recall just as many pieces as beginners do.

Several other studies on musicians have shown that so-called “talented” individuals require the same number of practice hours as any other, in order to step up their level of performance. Every single musician who has achieved a high level of performance practiced for several hours a day. And there has been no musician, talented or “untalented”, who practiced a lot and didn’t get high results.

  • Mozart composed his first masterwork 15 years into his career;
  • Picasso completed his first notable painting after 7 years of work;
  • The Beatles started innovating in music 10 years into their careers,

Numerous studies across different fields show that deep knowledge and expertise are acquired not through the blossoming of talent, but through time spent studying and practicing.

Creativity is the most open secret in human culture. It’s not a natural born trait – like being born with a brain or legs. It’s a limited skill like any other.

  1. It only appears magical and unconscious because time and practice sometimes make it look second nature.
  2. But, in reality, one becomes creative by taking lots of steps. Missteps, too. You falter, you move on, and, in time, you hone your skills.
  3. To become a ‘genius’ is to practice your way to whatever feat of creativity you want to achieve.

That’s how you create new works. Now, these only look new to the outsiders – those who started watching right before the end. To them, these ideas seem to have sprung out from nowhere. But if you had the same breadth of knowledge as the person who created the new idea, if you knew what they knew, you could easily see where the new ideas came from.

‘New’ ideas come from old ones, remixed. Unfortunately, our concepts about original ideas have become so strict that we tend to reject any suggestion that radical advances are built on the past – on what has already been done before us.

  • Illustrations: Anna Florea
  • Sound Design: Ștefan Teodorescu
  • Edit & Animation: Alex Lungu
  • Voice Over: Ioana Pelehatăi
  • Script: Alex Lungu & Ioana Pelehatăi