Jonathan Aberman: A local entrepreneur delves into creativity and makes it accessible

Is creativity a talent that only a select few have? Or is creativity a skill that can be learned by most people?

Because creativity drives problem solving and thus economic growth, those who want to grow our region’s economy hope that creativity is a teachable skill. “The Creative Curve,” a new book by Allen Gannett, founder of local tech startup Track Maven, provides valuable insight on this issue.

Creativity is essential to scientific discovery, artistic expression and entrepreneurship. Because of creativity’s value to his own life as an entrepreneur, Gannett wanted to better understand whether it could be captured in a predictable, repeatable process. But he also wanted to help others to be creative, because of creativity’s importance to our community.

As he researched his book, Gannett learned that the popular belief that creativity occurs in a flash does not describe how the brain actually works when addressing problems and creating solutions. He also learned that various intelligence tests and related experiments demonstrate that creativity does not arise from innate intelligence, but rather from personal experience and acquired expertise. Creativity is not limited to those with genius level IQs. Gannett uses several examples to assess the world population’s creative potential. One example relies on standardized tests to show that as many as 3 billion of the people alive today have the intellectual ability to be creative.

He concludes that creativity is accessible much more widely than popularly believed. This conclusion is very important to Gannett, who told me that “if my book can change only one thing about the conversation around creativity, it would be this: We need to stop talking about creativity like it is magic.”

For Gannett, demystifying creativity and showing people that they are all capable of it helps them see they have the skills to make their creativity matter. To achieve impact, Gannett believes that the creative person must put forth ideas and concepts that balance two somewhat contradictory human impulses. He shows us that when faced with something new, humans fall back on two different patterns of behavior: We are excited by novelty but at the same time we value the predictability of the commonplace.

Gannett’s research showed him that the most influential ideas are those that manage to concurrently satisfy desires for novelty and the commonplace. Achieving this is extremely powerful and when it occurs, for example with the iPhone that created something new out of the familiarity of the iPod, an idea or product can become very important very quickly.

It is in the balancing of novelty and the commonplace that Gannett finds skills that can be taught. He highlights that creative people who get their ideas adopted share a number of traits. Successfully creative people learn from experience; that experience includes their own and what they learn from others. They are intentional about how they gain their experience – purposeful and selective. They are exceedingly curious. They are active learners.

All this means that creativity is characterized by a reproducible set of behaviors. Creativity is not a bolt from the blue. Surprisingly, it’s much more about grinding it out and having the opportunity to experiment and to learn.

I am so very tired of how often these days pundits and politicians tell us that only they can fix real or imagined problems. They rely on our belief that coming up with the ideas that shape our society and fix problems is somehow the preserve of a special few. Reading Gannett’s book, I am reminded that the ability to come up with solutions and influence others to make changes, large and small, is something we all can do. Demagoguery and punditry are only good strategies when we acquiescence by agreeing that we are helpless and unable to think for ourselves.

I pointed out to Gannett that his conclusion — that creativity and successful problem-solving are widely distributed talents that can be even further developed — is essentially a political one. He told me although he hadn’t thought about it in this way, I was right.

Gannett summed up his thinking in one sentence: “I think that we as citizens have an obligation to ensure that our society lives up to its creative ideals.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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