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We often talk about creativity as if it’s an innate quality: You have it, or you don’t. We think that creative innovations, whether technological, artistic or scientific, only come to the chosen people in moments of inspiration, and the rest of us are out of luck. But is this true?
No way, says Allen Gannett: big data entrepreneur and the author of “The Creative Curve: How to Come up With the Right Idea at the Right Time.” Gannett believes that, given the right tools and knowledge, we can all learn creativity — as well as when the time is right to share our ideas with the world. We spoke to Gannett to learn how creativity can be fostered individually and at work to inspire innovation.
Dispelling the creativity myth
With his background in data and analytics, Gannett is passionate about helping people across industries harness the science of creativity. He became interested in the subject when he realized his views were unique. Working in marketing insights, he was surprised by how many people claimed they weren’t creative.
“I kept hearing this over and over again, and I had grown up believing that creativity is a learned skill,” he recalls. “I realized that I was in a minority where most people believe that creativity is a sort of innate, semi-divine thing that you’re either given or not.”
But which viewpoint was correct? Gannett began digging into research on creativity from disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience and business, and found his inclinations were correct. Creative innovations are not a semi-divine phenomenon. They take time, dedication and knowledge-building to achieve, and require collaboration and promotion to make widespread.
“What we tend to get wrong when it comes to creativity that we think of it as this [act of] lone genius,” says Gannett. “But what’s funny is a creativity is such, such a social phenomenon.”
However, the myth of the lone creative genius persists in popular culture. Take the story of the hit Beatles song “Yesterday.” As the legend goes, Paul McCartney heard the song in a dream, wrote it down and the rest was history. But Gannett learned that it took nearly two years for McCartney to complete the song, reworking the lyrics over and over. The moral of this story? Creativity takes effort and multiple iterations.
“These stories that we have of people, the stories that we have of people having these aha moments that lead to a sudden creative output are complete malarkey,” says Gannett. “In reality, even the most famous stories are of iterations and of improvement.”
To learn creativity, prioritize immersion in your field
But how can you learn creativity? To find out, Gannett conducted interviews with professionals renowned for their creative contributions — from Michelin-star chefs to leaders in technology, media and entertainment. He noticed that all of them were “massive consumers,” devoting approximately 20% of their waking hours toward reading, watching or listening to content in their field.
“They are these obsessive niche consumers going very, very deep in…