Creativity Myths

Interview with Keith Sawyer, Author of "Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation"
By Vern Burkhardt
"To explain creativity we need an action theory, a theory that explains how the process of doing a work results in the product." Creativity is fundamentally a social and collaborative activity. Keith Sawyer also says "Scientific creativity and business innovation are even more deeply social and collaborative than…artistic creativity."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): When did you become interested in explaining creativity, and what attracted you to this topic?

Dr. Keith SawyerKeith Sawyer: I've been a musician since a young age. I started with classical piano training at the age of ten, and got to a fairly high level by high school. But when I joined the high school jazz band at the age of 16, I discovered to my surprise that I didn't know how to play at all! I had to learn piano all over again – this time, by ear, by listening to what the other musicians were doing. Jazz is a collaborative, improvised art form, and I'm just fascinated by how it works.

So when I started graduate school in psychology, I naturally sought out Mike Csikszentmihalyi and learned everything I could about the psychology of creativity.

VB: You say defining creativity may be one of the most difficult tasks facing the social sciences. Would you describe the "sociocultural" approach that you use to explain the many facets of creativity?

Keith Sawyer: Creativity is very elusive. Scientists always start by getting clear about their definitions and concepts. Psychologists need to be able to measure variables in the laboratory to be able to use their statistical methodologies. Creativity has always been resistant to this approach, in part because we all carry so much cultural baggage around the term “creativity.” The mythical views that we have about creativity and genius are almost impossible to reconcile with the scientific method.

But when we focus on real-world examples of creativity and innovation, it keeps us grounded and helps us avoid being swayed by myths. My colleagues and I have combined a variety of methods to home in on creativity – including biographical studies of famous creators, interview studies with successful creators, laboratory studies of the mental building blocks associated with creative behavior, and even anthropological studies of creativity in non-Western cultures. This interdisciplinary approach is absolutely essential if we want to fully explain creativity.

VB: Socioculturalists define creativity as resulting in a novel product that attains some level of social recognition. Would you explain why creativity doesn't exist unless it is appropriate to some domain of human activity?

Keith Sawyer: This definition is universally held by all psychologists who study creativity, and there are always two criteria for creativity. It has to be original, and it has to be appropriate in some context of human endeavor. We need the second criterion to exclude a wide range of behaviors and products that might seem to be creative but really aren't – crackpots and eccentrics, the inventors who come up with a perpetual motion machine, which we know can't exist in nature.

A clothing iron with spikes in its face isn't appropriate because it would destroy the clothes as you attempt to iron them. The Dadaists created just such an iron – although it was not appropriate to the context of housework, it was appropriate to the artworld context of that time. Appropriateness is always defined relative to some group of individuals engaged in a shared human endeavor such as artists or scientists.

VB: You identify a number of creativity myths prevalent in Europe and America – beliefs about creativity that are inaccurate or misleading. Such as creativity comes in a sudden burst of insight and spontaneous inspiration, children are more creative than adults, creativity is the expression of a person's inner spirit, creativity is a form of therapeutic self-discovery, many creative works go unrecognized in the creator's time, and creativity is the same as originality. Do you think understanding and debunking these and the other creativity myths you identify will enable more people to realize they can be creative?

Keith Sawyer: Absolutely! The creativity myths are not just wrong, they're dangerous because they make us all believe we have no hope of being creative. If we're not playful and childlike, if we're not a bit schizophrenic or depressed or alcoholic, if we're not always having flashes of brilliant insight, then we don't seem to fit the mythical image of the creator.

The good news is that these beliefs aren't true. Successful creators are stable, happy people; after all, being creative is just about the most fulfilling activity a person can engage in.

VB: You say "Creative ability involves both hemispheres (of the brain) equally." Does it surprise you that myths still persist in our culture, such as creativity is related to the right brain, creativity is an inherited trait, and mental illness and creativity are linked?

Keith Sawyer: I'm not surprised because these myths come directly from a deep-rooted feature of U.S. culture – its strong individualism. And that's not going away anytime soon. It's in our books and our movies – the rugged individualist, rejecting convention, fighting against the stifling powers that want things to always stay the same. We celebrate the outsider who crashes the party and turns out to be smarter than everyone in the room. Many of us hold to new-age style beliefs about creativity – that it's a pure expression of the inner spirit of a unique individual, and the uniqueness of each individual is a core part of individualist cultures.

In my book I talk about cultures that are not individualist – they're usually called “collectivist.” And people in those cultures hold very different beliefs about creativity and about the artist.

The bottom line is that the myths we hold about creativity are based in our broader cultural beliefs and attitudes. But the mission of scientific inquiry is to get to the bigger truths, whether or not they align with our cherished cultural beliefs.

Explaining Creativity VB: In explaining creativity you say "our contemporary Western conception of the artist as an inspired, solitary genius originated only in the early 1800s." What explains the persistence of this myth – which has often led to artists feeling the need to be eccentric, to talk about the inner meaning of their art works, and to develop a unique style of painting?

Keith Sawyer: Conceptions of creativity are different in other cultures, and they also differ quite a bit across historical time.

Prior to the romantic period of the early 1800s, even our own cultures had a very different set of beliefs about creativity. Much of this was focused on inspiration by God, or becoming closer to the divine. Imitation of nature, God's creation, was highly valued – unlike today, where imitation is equated with a lack of creativity. Artists were thought of as skilled craftsmen, something like a silversmith or a blacksmith – respected to be sure, but not exalted as expressing the pure inner spirit of the human experience. That came with the romantic period, when combined with America's frontier culture.

VB: Will this individualist concept of creativity soon disappear given that many of the most visible forms of creativity in our culture are known to be collaborative? Examples include movies, television programs, music videos, recorded music, software programs, and videogames?

Keith Sawyer: In my book I contrast the romanticist conception of the artist with the rationalist conception. And the art world moved away from romanticist notions in a big way in the 1960s, with pop art imitating commercial art, with Andy Warhol saying “I want to be a machine.” The rest of society hated it, largely because these artists were challenging their deeply held cultural beliefs about creativity. I think today the art world is coming to more of a synthesis of romanticist and rationalist conceptions.

The art world has embraced collaboration. Of course, the most important and influential creative works are those that are generated by the “creative industries” of movies, music, software, videogames, TV, and book publishing. A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report found that over eleven percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is due to the creative industries. And every one of these products results from a deeply collaborative process.

For us to maintain our myths about creativity, we really have to put blinders on and focus on fine art painting and poetry, two of the few remaining creative outlets that aren't unavoidably collaborative. But even those art forms are collaborative; artists build on what others do, and poets are often heavily edited by colleagues and friends.

VB: You say creativity is not a scientific concept but rather a culturally and historically specific idea that changes from one country to another, and from one century to another. Have you any speculations about how the perception of creativity will change in the coming decades ,given the pace of technology change we will experience – Web 2.0 and globalization being a portent of the future?

Keith Sawyer: In the last five years we've heard a lot about “collective intelligence” and “Web 2.0” and how it represents an emergent form of group creativity. I agree with a lot of that.

My own research shows that creativity, more often than not, emerges from interactions of lots of people who come together in “collaborative webs.” This has been true throughout history; but now, the Internet makes the process happen so much faster. In the 19th century you had to write letters, and travel long distances to meet a colleague. Today you can do it before lunch, using a series of emails or blog postings.

VB: Many creativity researchers believe creativity involves problem finding as well as problem solving. You say "Problem finding is a bigger part of our conception of creativity today than it's ever been." Would you explain?

Keith Sawyer: Problem finding is a term that was coined back in the 1960s to contrast with problem solving – solving a known problem often requires creativity. The most radical innovations always come from asking a totally new kind of question, or formulating the problem in a surprising new way.

The phrase you're quoting refers to a comment I made about the art world. The art world today valorizes originality, artists who pose new kinds of visual questions. Imagine a young artist today who painted just like Cezanne, but even better – a brilliant Cezanne-style painter. That person would not get anywhere in an art career, because he's good at answering a known question – how to paint like Cezanne, but better.

Group GeniusVB: You say "If the group has to find a new problem, it's better if they don't share the same background and expertise; if the group has to solve a known problem, it's better if they share more similar expertise." Why is this?

Keith Sawyer: I'm talking about the difference between solving a known problem, and more complex situations where you don't even know what the problem is, nor how to formulate it. When solving a known problem, efficiency is more essential than creativity, and homogenous groups are more efficient. When you need a totally new way to formulate the problem, then you need insight and creativity, and diverse groups have been shown to be more creative.

VB: Do you agree with M. Yuasa's assertion in 1974, which you reference in Explaining Creativity, that a country is the world's creative center if the proportion of scientific output from that country is at least 25% of the world's. He also said the creative center shifted from Italy (about 1540 – 1610) to England (1660 – 1730), to France (1770 – 1830), to Germany (1810 – 1920) and finally to USA beginning about 1920. Is it likely that the creative center will soon shift to another country, such as China which has fifty percent – twenty-six million – of its university students enrolled in engineering, science, medicine and agro programs? If so, what might be some of the implications for U.S.'s creativity and innovation?

Keith Sawyer: I don't agree that's the only way to measure where the creative center is, but it's certainly relevant. There's an important article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs by Anne-Marie Slaughter arguing that the U.S. will remain the creative center for many years to come, because we are more networked than other countries – internally, and networked to other countries as well. That's consistent with my theory of “collaborative webs”, and my argument that innovation emerges from these webs.

It's not just about science and engineering; that's Dan Pink's argument in A Whole New Mind and I largely agree with him. China, or any other country, will need more than simply math and science graduates to become a creative leader. However, I'm pretty sure that leaders in China know that and are trying to become more innovative.

VB: You say that writing creatively, such as poems and novels, is hard work, conscious and directed, and a collaborative and socially embedded activity. What do you mean by a "socially embedded activity"?

Keith Sawyer: That means that you're always connected to others, even when you're alone. You're reading what others have written. You're corresponding via email. And, what's less obvious is that your mind itself – the very way that you think – has embedded in it the whole history of all of your previous social encounters. Creative insights are based in that history, and, in fact, they require that social history.

VB: What is Chicago-style improvision in the theatre?

Keith Sawyer: It's performing on stage without a script, usually resulting in short five-minute sketches. Some groups in recent decades have started emphasizing “long form” improvisation, where the ensemble performs for thirty to sixty minutes, completely improvised. I call it “Chicago style” because it was created in Chicago in the mid 1950s by The Compass Players, and in 1959 by the Second City Theatre.

VB: In 1992 and 1993 you were the pianist for Off-Off-Campus, an improvisional comedy group in Chicago. What were some of the highlights of being a part of this performance activity, and did the actors ever get into a flow state while improvising – into "groupmind"? If so, what was it like?

Keith Sawyer: That was a lot of fun! I also performed for several other groups all around Chicago. Most groups use only a pianist for music, because the music has to be improvised to follow what the actors are doing – and that's almost impossible for a whole band to do.

I was most likely to join the actors in “group flow” in the improvisational bits that emphasized music, like the “Musical Audition” where the setup was that the actors were playing aspiring singers, auditioning for a musical. The audience shouted out the name of the musical, the role they were auditioning for, the name of the song, and the genre; then I and the actor had to improvise it all from scratch.

VB: Was audience energy, reaction or response the reason that some nights the performance of the comedy group was less successful than other nights – or was it usually due to the actors not being at their best?

Keith Sawyer: That's always hard to say. The actors I worked with were very consistent and professional, and it was rare that they bombed completely…however, it's hard to get the energy going when the theater is half empty, I'd have to say.

VB: Were you ever tempted to change roles and become one of the acting cast – or did you?

Keith Sawyer: That's a good question! No, I never did…I've done all sorts of improv acting and exercises in workshops and in rehearsals, but never felt the urge to become an actor. I love playing piano and that's my source of creative flow.

VB: You say "By explaining performance, we can ultimately better explain all creativity." Would you elaborate?

Keith Sawyer: Most creativity researchers have studied what I call “product creativity” because the creative process results in a product at the end: a painting, a musical score, a product that you're selling.

Performance creativity doesn't result in a product. Unless of course you're producing a musical album or a movie, but those are relatively recent technologies. Performance creativity has existed in all cultures since the beginning of humankind. But in spite of that difference, I believe that studying performance gives us a unique window into the creative process more generally – because in performance, the process is the product, and then we can get great insights into the creative process in all fields.

VB: You say many creative insights result from analogy, and that research in this area promises to add to our understanding of creativity. What are some of the questions yet to be studied?

Keith Sawyer: This is too complex to answer fully in this interview. We don't have a very good understanding of exactly what happens in the subconcious mind when you take time off from a problem – what we call “incubation”. That often comes just before you experience that “Aha” moment.

Although my own research has helped us understand what happens in effective creative groups, our understanding is still just developing and we need more studies of creative group processes, using close analyses of the interactional dynamics of the groups.

VB: The Nobel Prize for science can only be given to three scientists at a time, and you observe that this is due to, and reinforces, the obsolete 19th-century view of science as solitary work rather than collaborative. What will it take to change this idea, to break down these inaccurate creativity myths?

Keith Sawyer: These myths are very deep-rooted in certain cultures – cultures that are particularly individualistic, like the United States. The more a person learns about the real processes of creativity in real working creators, the more these myths tend to fade away. Artists themselves know the myths aren't true, even though some of them try to leverage the myths to create a marketable myth that will help sell their work.

The Nobel Prize is a slightly different story, that's a historical explanation in that it was more possible to do revolutionary science 100 years ago, but today it's just not possible at all.

VB: You distinguish between creativity and innovation in business, saying "Innovation involves both the creation of a new idea, and the implementation, dissemination, and adoption of that idea by an organization." Must a creative idea be turned into a product and marketed before it can be considered an innovation?

Keith Sawyer: Yes, in my view. Of course, I also say that innovative companies have many failed products; so I realize that I'm saying the failed products are not “innovation” even though they are essential to the overall process of innovation.

VB: You say that research on organizational innovation began to focus on work teams, which are the source of most business innovations, only as recently as the 1990s. And you say that many of the researchers have compared successful, innovative teams to improvisational jazz groups. What still needs to be studied about the creativity and improvisation of work teams?

Keith Sawyer: What we need are more interaction analyses of groups in action.

VB: You say the best manager has "an almost Zen-like ability to control without controlling" – and the ability to "create an environment in which free collaborative improvisation can flourish." Who are some successful business managers who exhibit these traits?

Keith Sawyer: Being able to judge this is almost impossible unless you're deeply involved with the organization. You can't know this from the media or from case studies. I've seen such managers but through consulting arrangements where I'm not at liberty to name them.

VB: You advise that the sociocultural approach to creativity reveals problems with most creativity training programs. Does this mean that if we want to be creative we should simply focus on becoming experts in our chosen domains, work hard, as well as learn the skills necessary to work collaboratively?

Keith Sawyer: Yes, I recommend those in my book. The best advice for how to be more creative is going to be different in every creative domain, so I recommend working with a mentor creator. However, there are some general principles that can help all people become more creative.

I'm writing a new book right now that will bring all the research together to provide concrete practical advice for the aspiring creator.

(VB): You advise that we need to watch out when reading creativity advice books because many perpetuate the creativity myths, such as creativity is fun, is a burst of inspiration, is an innate individual trait, and is the rejection of convention. Can you recommend any creativity books that do not perpetuate these myths?

Keith Sawyer: I mentioned that I'm currently writing a book; it'll be just such a book. There's a huge market need.

There really aren't any creativity advice books that are based on scientific research. Some of them are better than others, some of them are mostly helpful and not all that harmful, but there aren't really any that I can endorse – although the best one I've read recently is called Creativity Today by Igor Byttebier and Ramon Vullings. It's published by BIS Publishers in Amsterdam, and probably pretty hard to find.

VB: In Explaining Creativity you include references to about 534 articles and books. Including ten of your publications. From this large reading list if you were to recommend five or six as must reads to assist in explaining creativity, what would they be?

Keith Sawyer: I recommend one list of books on, and another one at

VB: Are you working on any research projects about creativity and innovation that will result in publication of articles or books within the next year or two?

Keith Sawyer: Thank you for that question! I've referred a couple of times to the new book I'm writing, which is going to be a practical advice book for anyone that wants to become more creative. That book is still probably almost two years off – look for it in late 2010, or just keep checking my blog.

I'm also writing a book about creativity and learning, with the working title The Schools of the Future. The premise is that schools today were designed during the industrial age, and we haven't updated our schools to align with the knowledge and innovation age that we're in today.

In addition to my creativity research, I work in a field called “the learning sciences” that is using basic psychological research to better understand what kind of classrooms result in learning that supports creative behavior.

VB: Do you have any final comments or words of advice to our readers about how they can become more creative?

Keith Sawyer: There's no silver bullet, no simple way to become more creative. It takes effort, dedication, and hard work.

That's why the most creative people are always the ones who love what they're doing – they get into that “flow” state. Even when they're doing the parts of their work that the rest of us would consider boring – they love even the boring stuff. Creative chefs that love chopping vegetables. Creative artists who love mixing paints. Creative writers who love reading through 50-page drafts with a red marker, carefully crafting each sentence to read just a little bit better.

Find something you love, be ready to pay your dues and work hard, and then you're ready to make a creative contribution!

Keith Sawyer Bio:
Dr. Keith Sawyer is Professor of Psychology and Education at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. After receiving his computer science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1982, Sawyer worked for two years designing videogames at Atari. From 1984 to 1990 he was a principal at Kenan Systems Corporation, working as a management consultant on innovative technologies. In 1990 he began his doctoral studies in psychology, where he studied creativity with Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow and Creativity.

Sawyer has dedicated his career to research on collaboration and group creativity. He is the author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Creating Conversations: Improvisation in Everyday Discourse, and seven other books. (Vern's note: please see my interview of Dr. Sawyer published by IdeaConnection on November 12, 2007, in which we talked about Group Genius.)

Sawyer provides lectures to corporations, associations and universities around the world on creativity and innovation. He also provides consulting services on these topics, and creativity workshops.


Loved the article with Keith. I too am a scientist, an MBA tutor and graduate and a musician.
- P. Cook

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