Too often in our culture people who make great, creative contributions are portrayed as having simply been born with special talents, says Stanford Professor Carol Dweck. But the “distinguishing feature of such people is their passion and dedication to their craft, and particularly, the way in which they identify, confront, and take pains to remedy their weaknesses, she notes in Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement, a 2008 report. “Thus, students must learn that passion, dedication, and self-improvement—and not simply innate talent—are the road to genius and contribution.”

If you have read Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology for Success, you know that mindsets are powerful. And with the correct mindset, you can teach yourself anything. And that should include creative thinking.

This is what came to my mind when reading a Knowledge@Wharton management article asking: Can Creativity Be Taught? Here’s how the article begins:

The usual image of how creativity happens: A composer inadvertently hears a melody rising from a babbling brook, or an ad agency creative director crumples page after page of aborted ideas ripped from the typewriter until the right one lands. But creativity, some claim, can come from a far less elusive muse — from a structured process, one that opens up the ranks of the creative to a wider swath than the Steve Jobs, Jonas Salks and Franz Schuberts of the universe.

“I think there are individual differences in our propensity to be creative,” says Wharton marketing professor Rom Schrift, “but having said that, it’s like a muscle. If you train yourself, and there are different methods for doing this, you can become more creative. There are individual differences in people, but I would argue that it is also something that can be developed, and therefore, taught.”

The article quotes many people from varying fields who ought to know. And what each says carries a certain level of practicality and wisdom. But more than anything, what caught my eye was what Chuck Close said. The photorealist painter and photographer is quoted in the article as saying that:

“Inspiration is for amateurs–the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

And that to me carries more than a few grain of truth. If indeed creativity can be taught—there does not appear to be any doubt on the matter—the people who Chuck Close refers to as “the rest of us” have probably taught themselves ways to get their own creative juices flowing.

No one best way to learn creativity

There can be no one best way to learn creativity—or anything else for that matter. And why? Because as John Medina notes in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, “every brain is wired differently”.

The article discusses a number of ways in which organizations and individuals can foster creativity.These include taking time for day dreaming, recognizing the role mind-wandering plays in creativity, cutting down multitasking and making room for creative safe havens within organizations.

Allow time for day dreaming and mind-wandering

Think these are for fools or creative types? Think again. Albert Einstein had combined these with his scientific thinking in arriving at his relativity theory.

“I believe in intuition and inspiration,” Einstein has said. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” And that naturally means not always running towards a deadline. Planning enough time for creative projects, including time to sleep on an issue has been found to be a great way of arriving at creative solutions too.

Cutting down multitasking

“Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth,” declares John Medina in Brain Rules where rule # 4 is about attention. He goes on to say that “research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

You may be proud of what you believe is multitasking, but it is extremely bad for you and your productivity. The reason is that our brain takes time to switch between tasks. Cognitive science likens our attention to a fixed narrow pipeline. As Daniel Goleman explains in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, when we try to multitask, “Instead of splitting it, we actually switch rapidly. Continual switching saps attention from full, concentrated engagement.”

So if you want to be productive and creative learn to focus. On One Thing At A Time. You’ll probably be happier too because your ability to fully engage will increase. So will your opportunities to lose yourself in the task, what psychologists call flow, the ultimate state in engagement.

Do lawyers need to be innovative?

My guess is many lawyers do not think this is a key skill set to their success. I think otherwise. The most successful lawyers are analytical and innovative, lawyers and leaders, persuasive and empathetic. More later.

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