We Can All Learn Creativity: An Interview with Allen Gannett

how to learn creativity

We often talk about creativity as if it’s an innate quality: You have it, or you don’t. We think that creative innovations, whether technological, artistic or scientific, only come to the chosen people in moments of inspiration, and the rest of us are out of luck. But is this true? 

No way, says Allen Gannett: big data entrepreneur and the author of “The Creative Curve: How to Come up With the Right Idea at the Right Time.” Gannett believes that, given the right tools and knowledge, we can all learn creativity — as well as when the time is right to share our ideas with the world. We spoke to Gannett to learn how creativity can be fostered individually and at work to inspire innovation. 

Dispelling the creativity myth

With his background in data and analytics, Gannett is passionate about helping people across industries harness the science of creativity. He became interested in the subject when he realized his views were unique. Working in marketing insights, he was surprised by how many people claimed they weren’t creative. 

“I kept hearing this over and over again, and I had grown up believing that creativity is a learned skill,” he recalls. “I realized that I was in a minority where most people believe that creativity is a sort of innate, semi-divine thing that you’re either given or not.”

But which viewpoint was correct? Gannett began digging into research on creativity from disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience and business, and found his inclinations were correct. Creative innovations are not a semi-divine phenomenon. They take time, dedication and knowledge-building to achieve, and require collaboration and promotion to make widespread. 

“What we tend to get wrong when it comes to creativity that we think of it as this [act of] lone genius,” says Gannett. “But what’s funny is a creativity is such, such a social phenomenon.”

However, the myth of the lone creative genius persists in popular culture. Take the story of the hit Beatles song “Yesterday.” As the legend goes, Paul McCartney heard the song in a dream, wrote it down and the rest was history. But Gannett learned that it took nearly two years for McCartney to complete the song, reworking the lyrics over and over. The moral of this story? Creativity takes effort and multiple iterations. 

“These stories that we have of people, the stories that we have of people having these aha moments that lead to a sudden creative output are complete malarkey,” says Gannett. “In reality, even the most famous stories are of iterations and of improvement.”

To learn creativity, prioritize immersion in your field 

But how can you learn creativity? To find out, Gannett conducted interviews with professionals renowned for their creative contributions — from Michelin-star chefs to leaders in technology, media and entertainment. He noticed that all of them were “massive consumers,” devoting approximately 20% of their waking hours toward reading, watching or listening to content in their field. 

“They are these obsessive niche consumers going very, very deep in their verticals,” he says. “If they wrote fantasy books, they had read every single fantasy book. If they were a musician, they listened to every single album in their genre.”

For example, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos spends four hours each day watching videos. By why was consumption so critical to their creative success?

“If you want your [brain] to connect the dots, you have to actually have the dots to connect,” explains Gannett. Immersing yourself in content gives you the raw data to start generating new ideas. It informs you about what skills you need to develop and practice; what subject matter to focus on; and how to distinguish areas of innovation from waning trends. 

“What goes in is what comes out, so consumption is hugely important,” Gannett notes.

What’s more, this helps you find your creative community: a group of like-minded individuals that offers crucial opportunities for inspiration, collaboration and promotion. Whether it’s an artist offering an apprenticeship or a successful musician taking an up-and-coming band on tour, everyone needs a mentor to lead the way — offering access to their networks of fans, marketers and distributors.

“A big part of the creative process is getting the exposure to actually get your ideas looked at,” Gannett says. “That human element of creativity … is not just helpful, but essential.” 

He adds that while practice, hard work and community are important, these factors alone will not necessarily yield results. Your work must also be meaningful and intentional, with a focus on quality over quantity — and you must find a schedule that works for you, rather than trying to muster creativity on cue. 

Timing is everything 

Of course, history is full of people who worked hard on creations that never became innovations. Even with the right connections and discipline, it’s difficult to produce groundbreaking ideas, transformational products or timeless works of art. So what separates the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Beyoncé from the pack? 

“[Creativity is] a social phenomenon where … people create something that is at the right point in the zeitgeist,” Gannett says. 

Developing this sixth sense for timing is an important part of learning creativity. The true innovators have learned to read the tea leaves by consuming content; immersing themselves in their industry; connecting with creative communities; and understanding human nature. 

According to psychologists, humans are hardwired to seek things that are familiar, yet we also crave innovation. This creates a contradiction: introduce a unique idea too early or too late, and it will fail, no matter how great. 

The sweet spot in the middle is what Gannett calls the “creative curve: … where [ideas are] familiar enough to be safe, but novel enough to still have plenty of room to grow in popularity and preference.”

For example, Apple’s first tablet wasn’t the iPad. It was an early-1990s product called the Newton — and it was a total flop! After the initial setback, Apple took a more gradual approach. They first released home desktop computers; then the iPod; then the iPhone; and, finally, the iPad. Once the market had caught up, the tablet was a huge hit.  

But the creative curve goes both ways. Once people have been overly exposed to a product or an idea, they lose interest. This is what distinguishes successful companies and career musicians from one-hit wonders: They know how to deliver the right product at the right time, and they do it again and again. 

“Timing comes down to learning how to create ideas that are at this point of the creative curve, where they’re familiar enough to be safe but yet novel enough to still have plenty of upward room to grow in popularity and preference,” Gannett explains.

Companies can nurture creative workforces

Gannett’s findings on creativity are useful for individuals, teams and companies, and can be easily applied to the workplace. Follow these strategies to help your teams learn creativity:

Form creative communities at work. Instead of generic brainstorms, bring employees with diverse skill sets together for collaboration sessions around a common end goal. Whether it’s developing a new product or planning a marketing campaign, grouping employees from different teams, backgrounds and perspectives can bring new ideas to the forefront. 

However, let this be a time for free-flowing ideas, without a required outcome; remember, creativity isn’t available on demand. 

Make space for multiple iterations. Expecting a perfect product on the first try will only stifle innovation. Instead, company leaders should give workers and teams the freedom for multiple iterations. For example, writers should be able to submit multiple drafts as they work with editors, and product teams to release multiple versions.

Prioritize content immersion. No matter what sector, employees need to stay abreast of trends and innovations in their field. Offering opportunities for training and professional development helps them nurture existing skills while developing new ones.

Employees should also be encouraged to follow the 20%-consumption rule. For example, managers could schedule an hour each morning for teams to read industry blogs and news. Not only will this build knowledge, it will also help them gauge where ideas or products fall on the creative curve — and assess when the time is right for something new. 

We can be lifelong creative learners

As Gannett shows, we can all learn creativity. While ability and talent are important, never underestimate the need for good timing, multiple iterations and collaborative work. And companies can support creative development among their employees — which drives innovation for the entire organization.

“If you look into the future, the jobs that will really thrive are jobs that are creative,” says Gannett.

Why wait? With Gannett’s approach, we can all take our creativity to new levels.

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