Friday, April 16, 2010

Does intellect stifle creativity?

One of the absolute, hands-down, best seminars I do is also one of the few I didn't come up with myself. Instead, I learned it seventeen years ago from a chief executive at the Coca-Cola Company. Just in case anybody reading this blog ever ends up in this seminar, I won't offer too many sundry details on it. But at its core, this is a workshop that examines and measures creativity in individuals and small groups. Although this is not the session's only point, the session is outstanding at showing not only how individuals and groups think creatively, but also when they don't.  It showcases the way many creative individuals don't put forth new ideas for fear of rejection, and how so many groups avoid and ignore creative ideas, even when they're the right ones.

Like I said, it's a great workshop. I wish I could take credit for it.

I led this seminar twice today for two groups of high-school students; one, an advanced group studying Java programming (yes, a high-school group studying advanced logic and programming concepts!), and the other, a slightly more basic group from a class on Microsoft Office. (in case you're wondering, neither group seemed to be big fans of Kenny Chesney)

Guess which group did better and proved to be more creative: the advanced group, or the basic group?

Before you answer that, consider that over the past seventeen years I've done this particular seminar with eight-year-old elementary students. I've done it with junior high school kids. I've done it with high school groups. I've done it with university groups. I've done it with groups of teachers. I've done it with Masters students. I've done it with executives. I've done it with millionaires. And once, I did it at a retirement community in a rather beautiful part of Oklahoma.

Guess which age-group came across as the most creative.

Hands-down, my reigning champions have been the elementary students. They didn't have any trouble with the exercise at all, using an astonishing amount of creativity to solve my presented problem almost immediately. In fact, they thought it was overly simple, and seemed surprised when I told them about how much trouble other groups had with it.

On the other hand, my all-time losers have been... the millionaires.  They exhibited a startling lack of ability to think of a process or problem outside of their established comfort zones. They imagined and assumed rules where there were none, limited their behavior based on those nonexistent rules, attempted to repeat the exact same process ad nauseum continually hoping for better results, and failed the activity utterly.

The difference between these two groups, I believe, is in how they see the world. The executives saw rules everywhere and conformance as a necessity, as well as a need for decorum and a minimization of failure potential. The eight-year-old's acknowledged no rules, assumed none, and probably wouldn't have cared even if there were any.  The older, successful mind did not want to risk failure or embarrassment by trying something startlingly different from what had gone before, while the fresh young mind relished the opportunity to do something strange and new. The young students didn't mind trying something different, even if they might fail and be embarrassed by it. The successful executives didn't see any need to do anything other than what they'd always done, even if what they'd always done obviously wasn't working.  Hmmm... there's a business lesson there, I think.

I presented the seminar today to two groups: a basic class, and an advanced class. And the basic class was more creative.

This got me thinking: can intellect be a barrier to creative thought? Are the smarter among us so caught up in our own intelligence and ideas that we may forget to come up with new ideas?  Like the executives, were the more advanced students hindered by an over-reliance on experience and logic, and an unwillingness to explore the unknown and attempt something untried? Or am I missing the point entirely?

I'm going to have to think on this some more.


  1. I think this might be a chicken-and-egg situation. Did the executives do poorly because they are logical, or did they become executives because they aren't creative? If you could go back in time to when they were 8 years old, would they be the kids trying to solve the problem logically or creatively?

    I definitely think there is a minority of people who are both logical and creative, but the majority of people lean towards one side or the other (maybe there's some sort of logic-creative scale similar to Kinsey's scale for sexuality).

  2. Great post and great pondering. A place to start in unravling this further refining by what you mean by intellect vs. creativity.

    Your post seems to equate success, experience, wealth, basic/advance, rules, and age all in one lump and call it either "high" or "low" intellect.

    If you pull these apart and analyze one by one you might get closer to your answer.

    For example, we can all find cases of highly intelligent and brilliant people who have no creative skill and others who have unbelievable vision and creativity so vast it boggles minds (e.g. perhaps DaVinci).

    We can also find examples of people who have an 8th grade education (either because they are in 8th grade or because that's just as far as they decided to let their mind go) that exhibit exceptionally poor creativity and unexectedly high creativity.

    So, a recommendation is to refine your meaning of intellect first. Second, perhaps concentrate on the "rules" side of the debate, I think you'll find more conclusion and connection there.

    I know from personal experience that I use aquisition of knowledge as a main driver for my creativity. The more I know, the more that everything seems possible and wild approaches can be refined into something that just might work.

    I also know that the people I associate with drive my creativity. I'm inspired by them and it further encourages me to unleash my creative side. Especially when I get the chance to have unbridled collaboration...that's when I feel most creative.

    I also think creativity is also somewhat unique to cirumstance and setting. Take an artist who many would deem highly creative in a nontraditional environment (say a football game or a military strategy meeting) and find that they might not look so creative after all.

    In my opinion, creativity has its roots in the environment and experience you surround yourself with. It's not as simple as "intellectual people are not creative and nonintellectuals are." I think when you factor intellect alone you find predictability. You can almost guess what a so called "educated" person might do in a given situation; and you'll find a range of surprising answers from those who might be deemed "uneducated."