As a coach who consults with leaders on how to differentiate their brand, I often recommend they share their ideas in writing. Publishing blogs on widely read platforms or penning pieces in respected business publications can help executives become recognized in their field.
Yet even accomplished professionals often feel underqualified to share their ideas more widely. One of my clients, a CEO in the healthcare industry, recently expressed a common refrain that I hear from many talented individuals: “I don’t have enough original ideas to disseminate my viewpoint as a thought leader.”
But that’s rarely the case. To find why so many accomplished individuals think so poorly of their own creative thinking skills, I spoke with Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity.
How do we define creativity, anyway?
Perhaps part of the reason so many people experience self-doubt can be traced back to how we define creativity itself. We often think of creativity as the ability to come up with unique, one-of-a-kind concepts.
But Amabile and Burkus see things differently. Amabile defines creative thinking as “how people approach problems and solutions—their capacity to put existing ideas together in new combinations,” not just come up with new ones all together.
In his book, Burkus discusses 11 false beliefs about creativity that many people hold onto as truths, even though they have been debunked by research. Below are three of these myths that I hear about most frequently when working with clients:
Myth 1: creativity is genetic
If you haven’t pursued a career in the arts, you may erroneously assume that you aren’t a creative thinker—that it’s something you’re either born with or you’re not. As Burkus explains, “We’re eager to believe that some people are born creative and others drew from a different genetic hand.” That’s just not true. Furthermore, if you buy into the myth that creativity is genetically predetermined, you may rationalize an excuse for believing you’re not as inventive and innovative as others.
Myth 2: creative ideas have to be original
“In business, originality isn’t enough,” says Amabile. “To be creative, an idea must improve a product or open up a new way to approach a process.” It’s rarely the case that a novel invention is entirely original. Many of us learned that Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press, but what’s seldom taught is that the technology Guttenberg used already existed in the form of a wine press. The point is that new creations generally result from combining existing ideas in novel ways.
Myth 3: creativity arrives in a single flash of brilliance
Stories of creative ideas arriving in a flash are often romanticized, like Benjamin Franklin tying a key to a string during a lightning storm and discovering electricity, or young Mozart sitting at his fortepiano and dashing off a symphony. It’s easy to imagine that other people’s genius ideas are a result of divine inspiration. The problem with the “Eureka Myth,” as termed by Burkus, is that it provides a convenient excuse for procrastinating while waiting for the aha moment to strike. In reality, creativity involves weeks (or months) of idea incubation.
While creativity is essential in fields like marketing and design, unconventional thinking is essential in just about every aspect of business. A study by Adobe and Forrester found that 82% of companies believe there is a strong link between creativity and business results. According to the report, companies that actively foster creative thinking outperform their rivals in revenue growth, market share, and competitive leadership.
So, knowing that business requires more creative thinking than ever, what can you do to overcome your doubt about your creativity? Here are three strategies to try:
Generate as many ideas as possible
If you’re feeling apprehensive about your creative ability, try a technique like mind mapping. Our judgmental brains often hinder us from effectively brainstorming lots of ideas around a topic or problem, since we begin evaluating and discarding some as soon as we name them. But by using mind mapping—a graphical tool that can incorporate words, images, numbers, and colors—you can generate more ideas and intuitively organize your thoughts.
Go for a walk
Physical movement has been shown to have a positive effect on creative thinking. Get out of your chair, and walk to spur solutions to a problem.
Learn something new
Another effective way to foster divergent thinking is to broaden your knowledge base by learning something new. Psychologist Robert Epstein uses an exercise called “the experts game” to demonstrate this. In it, a few people in a group with extensive knowledge of an obscure topic give five-minute lectures. Then, after learning about a subject, everyone comes up with at least three ideas for new products or services related to the topic. You can mimic this game by interviewing friends or colleagues in different industries, or by taking a course on an unfamiliar topic, and then riffing on the learnings to come up with innovative concepts.