Courtesy of Wikipedia

As I learned about Creativity and how to teach it, the bit of information that radically changed the way I understood this field was the study of NASA psychologist George Land that he began in 1968 — the year I was born, and the year before the moon landing.

Land took the same test he used at NASA to select the most innovative researchers and scientists and gave it to a group of a couple of thousand five-year-old children. The point was to see if they could learn anything about the nature vs nurture argument as it applied to creative thinking.

The result was as shocking to Land and his team as it was to me when I read about it. 98% of these five-year-olds scored at the top of the charts as what could be called creative geniuses. 98%!

This got Land wondering enough that he went back five years later to test the same children at the age of 10. There was nowhere to go but down — and in fact, their scores went very far down. At age 10, only 30% of the same children were still creative geniuses.

Five years later, he returned again. At age 15, the same youth had now dropped to only 12% scoring at that high level. As Land reveals in his TED Talk on this story, the educators administering the test got so depressed that they didn’t want to carry on further.

Instead, Land compiled results from tests of 280,000 adults aged 25 and over. And the result of this effort is even more depressing: only 2% of grown-ups scored as creative geniuses. Land points out that the historian Oswald Spengler estimated that only about 1 in 50 people were the ones who came up with the new ideas in society, and the rest of the people just implemented them — “turns out his estimate was just about right,” Land added.

The first clear result of this study is the victory of nature and the abject failure of nurture. It’s obvious that all or nearly all of us are born creative, and that we lose it as we get older. We lose it very fast, in fact.

Educator Ken Robinson argued in his own 2006 TED Talk that today’s education practices, designed in the (First) Industrial Revolution, crush students’ innate creative talents. This presentation of Robinson’s has become the most popular TED Talk of all time, with over 62 million views,

Yet I don’t think that so much of the blame for this creative “dumbing down” should be put on traditional schooling. To me, it seems that the tendency to “think in boxes” by adults is not an externally imposed mechanism of control, but is a perfectly natural feature of humans. For the majority of people in traditional societies, creativity in adulthood was far less important than the ability to make quick and decisive determinations of external threats and opportunities which mostly means using the experience to select appropriate actions.

Only a very few people in a traditional society would have needed creative thinking — these would be the inventors, the strategists, and the shamans, and they would have had training and lifestyle guidance to maintain their creative minds.

Creativity usually loses hands down to static traditional wisdom in a crisis. If you run into a lion, there is a right way to respond: do not run! Instead, stop, look at the lion, and slowly back away, while waving your arms around and talking to it — and, apparently, if it still charges you, punch it in the face. This gives you the best chance for survival.

Courtesy of Wikihow

A modern equivalent is a drunk driver speeding toward you in the middle of the road — you don’t need to ponder a variety of alternatives — you just need to get out of the way as fast as you can.

At age five, we don’t worry about survival and protection. We can play and experiment and take risks. In fact, we are designed to. The point of our mind at five years old is to try out new things, learn, and design the mental boxscape that will shape who we become. So while school is surely part of the process of our Creativity being reduced, it’s also because it’s an appropriate tool designed to help us become effective grown-ups.

It’s only recently that creativity has become useful for all adults, so our systems now need to shift to reflect that new reality. It’s likely that human creativity scores will now begin to increase as we grow up, rather than plummet. This is no solace to those of us caught between generations. But the good news is our creativity is just hiding. It’s not lost.

It’s easy to get it back. As Land points out, the basic step is to separate divergent and convergent thinking — aka ideation and critical thought. These are two radically different types of thought, yet we tend to rush them together, assessing our ideas as soon as they come out.

This is one reason why creativity does not work as well in crisis — there’s no time to let new ideas bubble up, and incubate them. And it seems like most adults spend their lives in a form of extended crisis, worried about everything that’s happening being life and death. The fast pace of modern life only encourages this crush in its demand for getting everything done. And most schooling does as well.

So, one simple hack to get your creativity hack is to slow down and chill out. Realize that where creativity is useful or demanded, taking care and giving up multi-tasking and fast action is not the recipe for success.

There is, after all, a more creative way to deal with a lion if you think about it… It’s not the kindest method, but it works: bring friends who are slower than you in your walk through the bush, then run like hell. You don’t have to outrun the lion. You just have to outrun everyone else.

Previously published in The Startup on

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