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George Mason UniversitySchool of Business

Creativity: Born or Learned?

Written by Jennifer Anzaldi on .

Craft of CreativityThink out of the box. We’ve all heard the cliché in meetings more times than we can count. And we’ve read countless tricks and tactics to help promote creativity, but many still believe that a person is born creative and all these tricks and tactics won’t work. Research can tell you that it is good to think differently, but how? New research by a George Mason University School of Business professor may change the way creativity is viewed.

Matthew Cronin, associate professor of management at the School of Business, together with Jeffrey Loewenstein, associate professor of business administration at the Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, recently published the book, The Craft of Creativity. The book is designed to get beyond the notion that creativity is an inborn talent and see it for what it is – a skill that can be learned. Focusing on ways to innovate and the importance of the journey, Cronin and Loewenstein argue that creativity is fundamentally a cognitive process, and most importantly a skill that anyone can master.

Cronin says, “Creativity is one of the most significant sources of progress. What is challenging is that creativity has a lot of unpredictability.” For more than 15 years, Cronin has focused his research on creativity, seeking to understand how collaboration can help produce creative ideas, and what it takes to then bring these ideas to fruition.

“When we understand the creative process, we can learn how to improve it. Learning the process really means understanding what ‘conventional wisdom’ is wrong, what it means to change your perspective, and how that process plays out over time,” says Cronin. “When you understand what creativity really is, you can also begin to see all the places where it is and is not useful. Basically, we want to change how people think about creativity itself, and move it from being some magical moment bestowed upon few to a kind of thinking that should be part of our skillset.”

Cronin says that most people were trying to understand the creative process by examining the objects that were created. “This was the equivalent of trying to figure out how to make lasagna by studying how it tastes.” This idea inspired Cronin and Loewenstein to shift the focus from the properties of the creative products to the thinking of those who produce the products.

Cronin and Loewenstein collected and analyzed their data from extensive interviewing of more than 70 individuals across different careers, industries, and career levels. From artist to accountant, and student to expert, Cronin and Loewenstein found that everyone spoke about their creative process in strikingly similar ways. Cronin and Loewenstein realized this was because these individuals were all working with the same cognitive mechanics.

“Our method is a way to reduce a lot of that unpredictability and improve the ROI on creative endeavors. The fact that creativity is also how we advance as a society is probably important too,” says Cronin. “Every product or process that makes our life better, from the U.S. Constitution to the Internet of things, started out as a different way to think about a problem.”

Tips on Creativity
1) Creativity is a learnable skill
2) Creativity is general – if you can think about something you can think creatively about it
3) Creativity is about changing your perspective, and there are cues for when that is most helpful and tools for how to do that.
4) Creative insights are the beginning, not the end, of the creative process. The creative process can go on and pay dividends for a long time.

View Cronin’s blog on Psychology Today – “The Craft of Creativity”