Can You Learn Creativity?

Note: Every second Sunday of the month, I have the closing 15-minute segment on Artistically Speaking, Rebecca Parson‘s show on Blog Talk Radio. The show starts at 6:30 EST. You can listen in at:

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This week I chose a topic my coaching clients often bring up:
“Can you teach me creativity?” a client asks me.
“It’s not so much teaching creativity; it’s more a matter of reclaiming it.”

A wise, empathetic, old face seems to be on the left side of the trunk of this orange tree.

“But I’m not creative,” she insists.
“You don’t remember what it feels like to be creative, but it’s there.”
“Why don’t I feel creative?”
She’s got a great point. At age four, when children have problems separating truth from imagination, a strange socialization begins.

We are told to “act like a big girl” (or boy); we are told to use things for what they were made for. We are told that fairies and monsters aren’t real, but “stranger danger” is. A new world begins for us. One in which risk-taking is frowned upon and safety is over-valued.

Sadly, what we DO learn from our parents and in school is that a career in the Arts is not an acceptable life plan. It’s not safe. We need to plan to make money, to fit into society’s idea of success.  But wait, I want to stay on topic here. Can you learn creativity? Can it be taught?

I think so. There are some ways that creative people use their brains that make them creative. Here are five of them. There are more, but let’s stick with five today.

1. Express empathy. What does empathy have to do with creativity? Almost everything. Empathy is a cross-brain activity (using right and left sides of your brain equally) because it links the logic of figuring out what is “wrong” with the person and linking those facts to the emotional element of caring for someone in a deeper sense than their problems would allow. That ability of caring without needing to solve someone’s problem is also at the root of creativity where it shows up as experimentation without being attached to the result.

2. A sense of fun. Playing, as every kid knows, is serious stuff. It’s a way to express emotions, discover boundaries, laugh without caring who is watching, and make up rules that suit the minute. All those are creative resources.

3. Mixing intuition and logic. Creativity is often wrongly thought of as right-brained activity. It’s not. It’s blending both right- and left-brained activities without thinking one is better than the other. We need both skills. Both sides of the brain. Because judgement, the decision maker, lives on the right side, along with language and the emotions.

The stick seems straight, but the shadow indicates differently. Figuring out how this works is a creative exercise.

4. Making connections between dissimilar ideas or outcomes. This is the big one. Creative people see connections, but they also see why the connections work and how to get from one to the next. Perhaps they also see why that connection is brilliant and how it can be used somewhere else. That specialized knowledge is useful in research,development and invention, and later, in marketing.

5. Sharing. Not much is learned by hoarding. Whether it’s cats, plastic containers or ideas, creativity comes from sharing, not keeping everything to ourselves. When we share ideas, when we talk about them, we see a bigger picture, application and potential. When other people tell us why (or why not) the idea will work, we develop judgment and negotiating skills, working with both our gut feeling (intuition) and logic (sequencing steps) that develop a concept into a product or service.

What other characteristics or ideas do creative people share–that can be learned? Leave your suggestions in the comment section. I think there is a lot more to be said.

Quinn McDonald is an everyday creative person. She believes that creativity makes her life meaningful, and you already know Quinn is all about meaning making.

18 thoughts on “Can You Learn Creativity?

  1. Creativity can be trained and learned. However, what makes someone more creative than another is; a) practice, practice, practice. b) it’s in your genes (if you aren’t born Mozart, there is no practice or technique available in the world that can help you write a symphony at the age of 5).

    Let’s forget about those who were born highly creative for a moment.

    I have loved graphic design since I was 12. I remember I used to try to change company logos just for fun and see if I could come up with better ones. I have always considered myself fairly creative, though many of my teachers I have had always told me I was more a technical person (sometimes too much), and in some aspects they were/are right.

    One time a teacher asked me: “How many logos do you draw before choosing the one you like to show your clients? — I replied “4 or 5”. Then he told me to try drawing at least 40 of them next time. And I did. My oh my it was so hard because my brain would only allow me to pick the most logical ones and then… BLANK!! However, after doing researches and talking more with my teacher about my struggle, I learned many more techniques, and now I can easily brainstorm at least 20 ideas within 15 minutes.

    Am I more creative now? Of course!
    Did i use practical tools and at the se time trained my brain to think more outside of the box? Definitely!

    It’s interesting how I had to re-learn to be a child in order to reach my goal. 🙂


  2. May I suggest further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  3. This was such a thought provoking discussion for me and I’ve just been reminiscing about a high school art teacher who told me that I was not “artistic”. I quit that class and studied something else….but I expressed my creativity through other mediums, like cooking, sewing, etc. After a very long time my sister introduced me to stamping and from there I have journeyed far and wide and have come to the realization that my old art teacher was wrong…and narrow minded to boot!!! I love my artistic and creative life and find so much joy and pleasure in my creative endeavors.

  4. Ooh, I like the point you make in this reply, Quinn. If necessity is the mother of invention, creativity is definitely the midwife! People who feel totally understood or are satisfied with their current modes of expression may have no need to express themselves creatively. So one could learn this type of creativity by setting “rules” to challenge one’s self, like taking notes in haiku or drawing flowers in black and white or accepting an unusual assignment in an art workshop. I do this a lot in my crocheting: “use up these yarn leftovers,” “cope with running out of that color yarn half way through the pattern,” “test that new pattern and provide comments to the designer,” “imitate a coral reef,” “wow the county fair judges.”

  5. “Do not covet your ideas. Give away everything you know and more will come back to you.”

    Wanted to share that quote with you. Found it a long time ago … have it pinned to my blog actually.

  6. I have always thought that creativity could be learned, but many adults are terrified to take any sort of creative risk. At some point in their past they were labeled as not being creative, and they would rather hold on to that label than risk the flood of joy that occurs when creativity blossoms. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching someone recognize creativity and start to make connections that enrich their life. Such a great post, Quinn – thanks!

    • Great insight–we do hang onto our stories and make them true the rest of our lives–like a weapon. It’s hard to give up those stories, but oh, so satisfying. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

  7. I think in large part it’s simply holding the belief that you are creative (which is of course sometimes easier said than done).

    My own ‘learning’ how to be creative was beautifully dramatic. I was on a course, and we were asked to think of creative ways to use a paperclip. I had been enjoying the course but my face fell at this. Fortunately I had good trainers, who noticed, and asked what was wrong. ‘I’m not creative’, I said, plaintively.

    They suggested I go inside, find the switch that was marked ‘creative’, and switch it to the ‘on’ position.

    I did, and felt the world start to sizzle and spark in response.

    I have believed I was creative ever since, and enjoyed all the results.

    • Good point. Hmmm, it’s more than “holding yourself” from your story–it’s “accepting” or even “determining to be.” What an extraordinary experience that you needed permission to be creative–I do think that is an important part of expressing ourselves. We need permission from someone we can accept.

  8. I have often reflected on the apparent link between creativity and people who are regarded by soicety and its rules as less than completely “sane”. Often, that “insanity”, or what is labelled as such, reflects huge depths of emotion, or swings in emotion, that the “insane” person experiences, which is regarded as dysfunctional.
    For myself, accessing creativity STARTS with connecting with what is happening for me emotionally. I’ve started to treasure the slight tendency towards both mania and depression that I inherited (or learnt) from my mother, and to make friends with both states, as both bring something new and different into my creative life.

    • Very insightful, Krystyna. I do think creative people have powerful emotions, which they feel deeply. And I think society is fast to label emotions as dangerous–look at all the pills people take to numb or change their states of mind.

  9. A sense of adventure, and the ability to take risks without calculating the results are important, as is the urge to ask “what if”? They are elements of 2, 3 and 4, but are also separate from them, and are also part of the natural curiosity that creative people possess. I was going to say most creative people, but I don’t think we could be creative without being curious as well, and the rest probably follows on from that.

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