Creativity revisited

Voice Card  -  Volume 20  -  Larry Card Number 7  -  Sun, Apr 28, 1991 12:39 AM

I recently came upon an article in the Phi Delta Kappan by Robert Sternberg and another colleague. Sternberg is professor of psychology and education at Yale University and is widely acknowledged as one of the country's experts in intelligence. The following is a summary of the April 1991 Phi Delta Kappan article by Sternberg, entitled "Creating Creative Minds".

Creativity is not simply inborn. We can create creative minds. To create creativity, we need to understand the resources on which it draws.

We propose an "investment theory of creativity". The basic notion underlying our theory is that, when making any kind of investment, including creative investment, people should buy low and sell high. In other words, the greatest creative contributions can generally be made in areas or with ideas that at any given time are undervalued. Perhaps people in general have not yet realized the importance of certain ideas, and hence there is a potential for making significant advances. The more in favor an idea is, the less potential there is for it to appreciate in value because the idea is already valued.

A theory of creativity needs to account for how people can generate or recognize undervalued ideas. It also needs to specify who will actually pursue these undervalued ideas rather than join the crowd and make contributions that, while of some value, are unlikely to turn around our existing ways of thinking.

We hold that developing creativity involves using six resources: intelligence, knowledge, intellectual style, personality, motivation, and environment. Consider each of these resources in turn.


Two main aspects of intelligence are relevant to creativity. These aspects, based on the triarchic theory of human intelligence, are the ability to define and redefine problems, and the ability to think insightfully.

  • Problem definition and redefinition - Major creative innovations often involve seeing a problem in a new way.
  • Insight skills - Insight skills are involved when people perceive a high quality solution to an ill structured problem to which the solution is not obvious. Being truly creative involves "buying low" - that is, picking up on an idea that is out of favor. But picking up on any idea that is out of favor is not sufficient. Insight is involved in spotting the "good" ideas. We have proposed a theory of insight whereby insights are of three kinds.

    1. The first kind of insight involves seeing things in a stream of inputs that most people would not see. In other words, in the midst of a stream of mostly irrelevant information, an individual is able to zero in on particulalry relevant information for his or her purposes.
    2. The second kind of insight involves seeing how to combine disparate pieces of information whose connection is nonobvious and usually elusive.
    3. The third kind of insight involves seeing the nonobvious relevance of old information to a new problem. Creative analogies and metaphors are representative of this kind of insight. Problems requiring insightful solution are almost always ill structured; that is, there are no readily available paths to solution. Rather, much of the difficulty in solving the problem is figuring out what the steps toward solution might be.

In order to make a creative contribution to a field of knowledge, one must, of course, have knowledge of that field. Without knowledge, one risks rediscovering what is already known. Without knowledge of a field, it is also difficult for an individual to assess the problems in the field and to judge which are important.

Intellectual Styles

Intellectual styles are the ways in which people choose to use or exploit their intelligence as well as their knowledge. Thus intellectual styles concern not abilities, but how these abilities and the knowledge acquired through them are used in day-to-day interactions with the environment.

The basic idea of a theory of intellectual styles is that people need to govern themselves mentally and that the styles provide them with ways to do so. The ways in which people govern themselves are internal mirrors of the kinds of government we see in the external world.

Creative people are likely to be those with legislative proclivity. A legislative individual is someone who enjoys formulating problems and creating new systems of rules and new ways of seeing things. Such a person is in contrast to an individual with executive style: someone who likes implementing the systems, rules, and tasks of others. Both differ from an individual with judicial style: someone who enjoys evaluating people, things, and rules. Thus the creative person not only has the ability to see things in new ways but likes to do so. The creative person is also likely to have a global - not just a local - perspective on problems.


Creative people seem to share certain personality attributes. Although one can probably be creative in the short term without these attributes, long term creativity requires most of them. The attributes are: tolerance for ambiguity, willingness to surmount obstacles and perservere, willingness to grow, willingness to take risks, and courage of one's convictions.

  • Tolerance for ambiguity - In most creative endeavors, there is a period of time during which an individual is groping - trying to figure out what the pieces of the puzzle are, how to put them together, how to relate them to what is already known. During this period, an individual is likely to feel some anxiety - possibly even some alarm - because the pieces are not forming themselves into creative solutions to the problem being confronted. Creative individuals need to be able to tolerate such ambiguity and wait for the pieces to fall into place.
  • Willingness to surmount obstacles and perservere - Almost every major creative thinker has surmounted obstacles at one time or another, and the willingness not to be derailed is a crucial element of success. Confronting obstacles is almost a certainty in creative endeavor because most such endeavors threaten some kind of established and entrenched interest. Unless one can learn to face adversity and conquer it, one is unlikely to make a creative contribution to one's field.
  • Willingness to grow - When a person has a creative idea and is able to have others accept it, that person may be highly rewarded for the idea. It then becomes difficult to move on to still other ideas. The rewards for staying with the first idea are often great, and it feels comfortable to stick with that idea. At the same time, the person who has had a creative idea often acquires a deepseated fear that his or her next idea won't be as good as the first. In short, there is a fair amount of pressure to stay with what one has and knows. But creativity exhibited over long periods of time requires on to move beyond that first creative idea and even see problems with what at one time seemed like a superb idea.
  • Willingness to take risks - A general principal of investment is that, on the average, greater return requires greater risk. The result of unwillingness to take risks is often stereotyped thinking.
  • Courage of one's convictions and belief in oneself - There are times in the lives of almost all creative people when they begin to doubt their ideas - and themselves. It is natural for people to go through peaks and valleys in their creative output, and there are times when creative people worry that their most recent good idea will end up being their final good idea. At such times, one needs to draw upon deepseated personal resources and to believe in oneself, even when others do not.

There is now good evidence to suggest that motivation plays an important part in creative endeavors. Two kinds of motivation are particularly important: intrinsic motivation and the motivation to excel. Both kinds of motivation lead to a focus on tasks rather than on the external rewards that performance of these tasks might generate.

  • Intrinsic motivation - People are much more likely to to respond creatively to a task that they enjoy doing for its own sake, rather than on a task that they carry out exclusively or even primarily for such extrinsic motivators as grades. Indeed, research indicates that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.
  • Motivation to excel - In order to be creative in a field, one generally will need to be motivated not only to be competent but also to excel. The best "investors" are almost always those who put in the work necessary to realize their goals. Success does not just come to them -- they work for it.
Environmental Context

Creativity cannot be viewed outside an environmental context. What would be viewed as creative in one context might be viewed a trivial in another. The role of context is relevant to the creative enterprise in at least three ways: in sparking creative ideas, in encouraging followup of these ideas, and in rewarding the ideas and their fruits.

  • Sparking creative ideas - Some environments provide the bases for lots of creative sparks, while others may provide the bases for none at all.
  • Encouraging followup of creative ideas - People with creative ideas need to be allowed to pursue those ideas that encourage them to develop their creative thinking.
  • Evaluating and rewarding creative ideas - The value of creative ideas often are underlooked at first look. Often when the value of creative ideas are known, the individual has moved on to something else.
It is important to note that our theory of creativity is a "confluence" theory: the elements of creativity work together interactively, not alone. Addressing just one - or even a few - of the resources we have discussed is not sufficient to induce creative thinking.