Creativity Is Not Like Riding A Bike – So You Have To Practise

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If it’s possible to significantly improve your creativity – your inventiveness, ingenuity and imaginativeness – I think there are two models for how it could happen. One is what I call the Riding a Bike Model. The other is the Chess Playing Model.

FYI: everyone has been using the wrong model.

You may or may not recall learning how to ride a bike. There’s a magical “aha!” moment when you suddenly get it. Once you do, that’s it: it’s learned. No more need to worry. No danger that if you put down your bike for several months and pick it up again you’ll have forgotten how to do it. There’s a knack to it. And that’s that; you’re now, and will forever be, a full member of the Completely Able to Ride a Bike Community.

The Chess Playing Model is very different. Just knowing the rules of chess doesn’t make you a fully competent player. That’s only the start. There are all sorts of skill levels, from Magnus Carlsen at the top to me somewhere near the embarrassed bottom.

There’s only one way to raise your chess intelligence or boost your chess brain: you have to practise. You have to strain every brain cell in taking on other players, especially superior ones. You have to begin to grasp the plethora of tactics and strategies that are available, from the opening to the middle game to the endgame. That’s well before learning to master them. As the power of your working memory and understanding of the subtle complexities of the game improves, so will your ability to mentally model an increasingly diverse and exotic number of hypothetical patterns. And all this depends on practice.

Of course reading up on the theory will help enormously, and learning about the varied brilliance of earlier players will motivate and inspire. But in terms of learning how to play, these are very much a support to the main thing of actually playing chess. A lot.

Now what about creativity? If you look at the advice given by creativity experts, the headline claims behind the ever-increasing number of books and courses and TED talks and blog posts on the subject, I think it’s clear that there’s a strong Riding a Bike Model at play. It’s always implied that a single secret or insight or principle or research finding can ’unleash’ or ‘unlock’ your creativity or inner genius or super-imagination or whatever they want to call it. Inspirational quotes abound. The idea seems to be: once you possess this special knowledge, your creative powers will be enhanced for good. Learn to ride that creative bike and there’s no going back.

Could it really be that straightforward? Well one thing that creativity is not, is simple. Karl Pfenninger, neuroscientist and editor of the book The Origins of Creativity, lists human faculties along a continuum that runs from “lowest nervous system functions” to “highest (cognitive) brain functions”. At the bottom end is Autonomous control: control of vegetative functions. (This approximates to my chess level.) At the top – even above Intelligence (learned adaptation, understanding of contexts) – sits Creativity: vision of novel contexts.

From the perspective of my academic discipline, anthropology, this makes complete sense. Fellow anthropologist Augustín Fuentes says it all in the title of his 2017 book The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. Yet we’re meant to believe it’s possible to attain this highest and most sophisticated expression of human development just by meditating on a cool Picasso quote?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for uncovering the theoretical secrets of creativity. And you could argue that I’m essentially saying the same thing – that there’s one special key to increasing your creativity. But here’s the difference. I won’t sugar coat it. I won’t tell you you can suddenly scale the creative heights by a simple shift in your thinking triggered by an elegant and memorable aphorism or your attendance at a talk – even one of mine.

It’s undeniable: just as with chess, to significantly improve your creative thinking skills, practice is essential.

Now, practising creativity doesn’t mean merely ‘doing’ something you might think of as creative, like some arts-based activity. I’m talking about creativity as a higher order cognitive faculty which can be used by anyone to better solve their work and life challenges. So I mean practising creativity at the cognitive level.

There is a way to do all this properly – I could tell you but then I’d have to bill you. You could do worse however than every day for the next month keeping a detailed dream diary (or journal). Research shows this amounts to a form of creativity training. In a 2016 article published in the Journal of Creative Behavior, scientists discovered that when people simply record their night-time dreams there is a significant improvement in creativity scores (assessed using the widely used Torrance Test of Creative Thinking). The authors conclude that “something as simple as taking a little time each morning to think about the night’s dreams can boost creativity.”

If you’re serious about building a more creative mind, it’s time to person-up and be prepared to put in some time. Because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Even a creative one.

Michael BloomfieldComment