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Who Says Creativity Can't Be Learned?

Ned Smith, BusinessNewsDaily Senior Writer

Many people think that creativity is a mysterious trait like charisma — you either have it or you don't.  The received wisdom is that creativity is one of those elusive arts that must be a birthright, and can't be taught.

Tina Seelig, the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which is the entrepreneurship center at Stanford University School of Engineering, says that's a myth.

Creativity, she believes, is a renewable resource that we can tap into at any time. And, yes, she says, it's a process that can be taught.


In her new book, "inGENIUS: A Crash Course on Creativity" (HarperOne, 2012), Selig introduces a revolutionary new model she calls the "Innovation Engine" that offers a practical set of tools everyone can use to radically enhance creativity and foster innovation. She demonstrates how creativity can be fueled and enhanced, leading to an outpouring of fresh ideas from individuals, teams and organizations.

She recently shared some of those ideas with BusinessNewsDaily.

BusinessNewsDaily: How do you define creativity?

Tina Seelig: Creativity is easily defined — it is the process of generating new ideas. It is particularly important in industry because the world is changing incredibly quickly, and breakthrough ideas are required to stay competitive. Generating fresh ideas is actually quite challenging because most people find it difficult to get beyond obvious, incremental solutions. True creativity requires the ability to break new ground, which requires significant effort. 

.Photo of Tina Seelig courtesy of HarperOneCredit: Photo of Tina Seelig courtesy of HarperOne

BND: What are the tools and techniques of creative thinking?

TS: There is no one path to creative ideas, just as there isn't one way to get from San Francisco to São Paulo. However, there are ways that are easier than others. We can make the pathways to innovation much smoother by teaching people specific tools and techniques. At the core is the ability to look at problems from different angles, to connect and combine concepts, and the ability to challenge traditional assumptions. These are skills that require practice to master. 

BND: Is creativity a learned skill or an innate talent?

TS: We are all naturally creative and, like every other skill, some people have more natural talent than others. However, everyone can increase his or her creativity, just as everyone can increase his or her musical or athletic ability, with appropriate training and focused practice. We can all learn tools and techniques that enhance creativity, and build environments that foster innovation. 

BND: What are the great myths about creativity?

TS: The biggest myth about is that it isn't important and that it can't be learned. In fact, it is one of the most important skills we can master. With enhanced creativity, instead of problems we see potential, instead of obstacles we see opportunities, and instead of challenges we see a chance to create solutions. Creativity is critically important in everything we do, including designing products, growing businesses, and building alliances between nations. We are literally inventing the future every moment. And these skills can be learned. 

BND: Can anyone learn creativity?

TS: Our brains are built for creative problem solving, and it is easy to both uncover and enhance our natural inventiveness. The human brain evolved over millions of years from a small collection of nerve cells with limited functionality to a fabulously complex organ that is optimized for innovation. Our highly evolved brains are always assessing our ever-changing environment, mixing and matching our responses to fit each situation. Every sentence we craft is unique, each interaction we have is distinctive, and every decision we make is done with our own free will. That we have the ability to come up with an endless set of novel responses to the world around us is a constant reminder that we are naturally inventive. These skills can be enhanced with specific tools and techniques

BND: What is the Innovation Engine and how does it work?

TS: After a dozen years teaching courses on creativity and innovation at Stanford University, I have created a model which I call the “Innovation Engine” that illustrates how creativity results from the interplay of our internal world and our external environment. Essentially, your knowledge provides the fuel for your imagination, which is the catalyst for the transformation of information into new ideas. This process is deeply influenced by a myriad of factors in your environment, including the physical space, the teams with which you work, and the implicit and explicit rules and rewards. The Innovation Engine is sparked by your attitude, which sets all the parts in motion. 

BND: How can you jumpstart your Innovation Engine?

TS: You can jumpstart your Innovation Engine by building your base of knowledge, which will ultimately serve as the toolbox for your imagination. You can also build habitats — or environments — that foster creativity. This involves crafting spaces that are conducive to creative problem solving, and instituting rules, rewards and incentives that reinforce creative behavior. And, most important, you can cultivate an attitude that problems are opportunities for a creative solution. With that mindset, you are willing to push through roadblocks and obvious answers to come up with truly creative ideas.   

BND: What are the variables that inhibit our creative abilities?

TS: Without the drive to come up with breakthrough ideas and the confidence that a creative solution exists, it is unlikely that one will be found. In addition, we all live and work within communities with cultures that have a powerful impact on how we feel, think and act. If the culture does not support experimentation and reward the generation of new ideas, then it is unlikely that creativity will flourish.  

BND: How can we learn to change our frame of reference? How important is this to the creative process?

TS: You can look at every situation, every challenge, and every opportunity from different angles. Each angle provides a different perspective on the situation and unleashes new insights. We are creating frames for what we see, hear and experience all day long, and those frames both inform and limit the way we think. In most cases, we don’t even think about the frames — we just assume we are looking at the world with the proper set of lenses. However, being able to question and shift your frame of reference is an important key to creative problem solving. 

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Image Credit: . / Credit: Creativity image via Shutterstock