Whether You Think You Can, Or You Think You Can’t – You’re Right
Are we born creative or is creativity something we can develop? Can we only be creative in certain domains or can we be creative across contexts? These are big questions, and there has been a great deal of research on creativity over the past couple of decades. One thing that seems to make a huge difference in the outcome of these answers comes back to you: Do you think you are creative?
Believing that you are creative, it turns out, has a critical impact on your creative performance. This is where another topic is gaining research footing: the idea of creative self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, a concept developed by Albert Bandura in 1995, is an individual’s belief in his or her capabilities to accomplish a given task or goal. Having a sense of self efficacy, i.e. simply believing in oneself, actually enhances the ability to succeed. Bandura himself saw the correlation between self-efficacy and creative performance, noting self-efficacy as an essential element to successful creative output. So creative self-efficacy can be seen as feeling that your capabilities match the creative challenge before you. In other words, because you feel creative, you will be more likely to demonstrate creativity (Tierney & Farmer, 2002).
Conversely, having the mindset that you are not creative can potentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy, thereby hindering your creative ability. Carole Dweck (2006), a psychologist at Stanford University, has dedicated much of her career to studying what she calls fixed and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is one in which an individual does not believe that intelligence or talent are malleable. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that if they fail there is little they can do about it, and that even extensive efforts will not increase their performance. An individual with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that intelligence and talents are just the beginning of their potential, and that through hard work and persistence, they can learn and accomplish anything. Failure is an opportunity to continue learning and enhancing their skills.
Connecting this concept to creativity, a fixed creative mindset means that one believes creativity is an inborn trait, talent is innate, and creativity is not something one can change or build. Having a fixed mindset toward creativity can potentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy, thereby hindering an individual’s ability to be creative (Karwowski, 2016). In contrast, a growth creative mindset means that one views creativity as malleable, able to be increased through practice and hard work. Having a growth mindset toward creativity can help an individual learn creative problem solving and techniques to increase creativity across domains and endeavors. Therefore, the type of creative mindset an individual possesses can impact creative self-efficacy (Karwowski, 2014, 2016).
The concept of creative self-efficacy first entered my research into creativity when, in my most recent undergraduate career, I decided to study whether engaging in play would increase the creative performance of a group of individuals, as compared to a control group. While the results did not pan out the way I had anticipated, the refrain I heard the most from both groups was, “I’m not creative” or “I’m not good at coming up with ideas.” I watched the nervous faces of my participants as they wracked their brains to come up with some creative way to play with the modeling clay I gave them, or to find innovative uses for a paper clip. The reactions of these participants had an interesting consequence: when they voiced their doubts in their own creative abilities, they actually stunted their ability to be creative. In a sense, they froze, or shut down, and were less able to simply let go and play. They didn’t allow their imaginations to run wild coming up with out-of-the-box uses for paper clips. In fact, I noted that the participants who voiced their lack of creativity could hardly come up with any uses for a paper clip beyond the obvious: “to hold paper together.” Obviously there could be many explanations for this phenomenon, such as stress, a lack of creativity in the particular tasks they were asked to do, fatigue, or any number of other reasons. Still, I wonder what the result would have been had a “creative self-efficacy” intervention been implemented.
So, what can you do to increase your creative self-efficacy?
First of all, realize that creativity is not limited to the arts. When people think of what it means to be creative, the first thing to come to mind is often artistic ability or being gifted in the performing arts. In reality, however, creativity comes in all shapes and sizes across domains. Creativity could mean designing a streamlined procedure or an engaging presentation at work. It could mean coming up with a creative new vision to strive towards. Or it could be as simple as coming up with a new recipe, or altering one that already exists. When you stop limiting creativity to artistic ability, you can begin to see opportunities for creativity literally everywhere.
Monitor your self-talk regarding your own creativity. Building off the work of Dweck (2006), part of fostering a growth mindset has to do with realizing what kind of mindset you have toward creativity in the first place. If you hear yourself saying things along the lines of “I’m not creative,” “Creativity is only for artists,” or “I’m not good at coming up with creative ideas,” you could have a fixed mindset toward creativity. Take a step back and look at your life with a more open perspective and a broader definition of creativity. You may be surprised at the little ways you actually are being creative without even realizing it. The more often you do this, the easier it will become.
Creativity will come easier in an area in which you have some expertise. Think about your current passions and skills. Are there areas where you feel like you’re an expert? Are there things that you have practiced so much that they almost feel second-nature? These are areas in which you will have a greater likelihood of being creative. One note of caution: research has also shown that being too much of an expert in something can actually block your ability to be creative (Sawyer, 2012), so even in areas in which you are an expert, continually find new ways of looking at your domain that will keep you open and flexible in your thinking in that area. Conversely, if there is an area in which you’d like to be more creative, be sure to spend time deliberately practicing the skills necessary to work toward expertise.
Practice being creative in big ways and small, which will exercise your creative muscles. Even small acts of creativity such as tweaking a recipe or putting together a scrapbook begin to open you up to the process of being creative. While these types of creative endeavors may seem a far cry from the grand inventions and innovations of the “greats,” we all have to start somewhere (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2007). The more of these activities you do, the easier the process of creativity will become and the more creative self-efficacy you’ll be likely to build.
Be persistent. Creativity doesn’t come in a flash of insight; it takes time to evolve. This is probably one of the most persistent myths of creativity. While it may seem like the creative giants come up with ideas via sudden divine inspiration, what is actually happening is that the mind has been incubating on all of the time and effort one has been spending, as well as the knowledge one has been accumulating. It is often after “hitting a creative wall,” taking a break, and engaging in an entirely different activity that the mind is able to work out the kinks and find workable solutions. So the flash of insight is really just another step in an ongoing creative process. Moral of the story? Don’t give up when you find yourself stuck, just go do something else and let the problem solve itself.
In short, increasing creative self-efficacy is possible for each of us. While it may take time, practice, and a shift in mindset, the benefits of increasing your own creative self-efficacy can be immense. Whenever I find myself struggling with my own creative self-efficacy, I call to mind the famous Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” It usually snaps me right back into remembering that my own beliefs about my creative abilities truly do matter.
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Bandura, A. (1995). Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset. Ballantine Books. New York: NY.
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Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. 2nd ed. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
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