Creative Potential: You May Have More Than You Think

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Imagine taking one of the scientific tests of creative thinking ability – which are actually considered ways to measure creative potential – such as JP Guilford’s Alternate Uses Task or the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking devised by Paul Torrance.

You score low – pity. Guess you should forget about trying to think highly creative thoughts since your chances of becoming a properly creative person appear dead in the water. Try data processing or manual labour instead. 

Scientific tests of creativity are notoriously artificial and problematic, with nothing like the validity of conventional IQ tests, though they’re testing very different kinds of thinking. So what might a real world equivalent of assessing creative potential look like? Perhaps like the BBC Talent Selection Group who in the 1960s were tasked with screening music acts hoping to get radio play. They were eyeing not the finished product but potential; hopefully they’d unearth an unpolished gem or two and, naturally, take the credit some time later.

One band called The Lower Third came in to audition in 1965. The panel of judges sent them away with a series of withering remarks. One said, “I can’t find fault with them musically – but there is no entertainment in anything they do.” The singer was described an “amateur sounding vocalist who sings wrong notes and out of tune” and as being “devoid of personality”. Another said: “Singer not particularly exciting. Routines dull”. As a final nail in the coffin, one judge declared that there was no hope for the group’s future: “I don’t think they’ll get better with more rehearsals”.

The band’s singer was David Bowie. Cough.

The first reaction is to think: what idiots! This guy turned out to be an all-time genius. Clearly they must have overlooked some signs of his coming creative wizardry. With the benefit of hindsight, surely some embryonic brilliance must be discernible in this early work.

But that’s the thing. It wasn’t. If you listen to the music, it was pretty poor. In 1965 Bowie didn’t appear to have much potential. But obviously he did have it in abundance.

Bowie’s case actually undermines the very validity of scientific creativity tests in the first place. All you have to do is think about the only two possible outcomes had Bowie taken such a scientific test in 1965.

Let’s say he took a test in 1965 and scored low or medium. That means his creative potential is rated as limited or modest. OK, well that makes sense – his music at the time wasn’t great. But hang on, just four years later he released the single Space Oddity and went on to pen many all-time classics. He did have massive potential – but the test didn’t pick it up. So much for that.

Imagine on the other hand that Bowie scored very high on a creativity test in 1965. That would accurately predict his creative explosion four years later. Well done, test! But how to explain the fact that his music at that time wasn’t very creative? That makes no sense. How can a scientific cognitive test measure something that only manifests years later and does not describe the current reality? Something is very wrong here with the whole notion of creative potential, whether supposedly objectively measured or subjectively perceived.

One of the reasons Bowie did in fact manifest his creative genius was that he didn’t give up in 1965 as many would have. That’s obviously no guarantee of becoming what he became, but it’s a sobering thought that if by all assessments – whether measurement from a scientific test, the judgement of a panel, or the opinion of people you know and people you don’t – you don’t seem to be very creative or to hint at some semblance of creative talent, this means virtually nothing. Maybe you have no apparent creative potential today, but you could develop creative potential sometime in the future. In other words, the paradox is that creative potential itself has potential.

So take heart. Even if today you appear a hopeless case with no evidence of creative potential, that could all change. Perhaps it emerges for no apparent reason, through some random life event or just because you keep trying. Or perhaps you could take a very different approach – by developing your creative potential through a structured program like the science-based creativity training system Kleytro.