Creativity Element 4: General Intellect

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Creativity Fourteen is a series of articles that explores the value of creativity for individuals and teams, starting from the fundamental principles.
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Intellect is important, but as intangible as creativity, and it probably requires a discussion of its own. In this sense, it’s difficult to consider the intelligence of the individual as properly actionable within the creative process.

It can, however, have a passive effect: it can be the source of creative blocks.

This happens as we have interiorized many forms of external judgement about what we can or can’t do. It can be as generic as “you’re stupid”, “you’re not creative” or as specific as “you can’t write”, “you can’t draw”. While it’s important to acknowledge one’s own interests — no need to try to be a writer if you don’t like writing for example — it’s also important to identify if any of such blocks is holding us back.

Generic blocks can bring us down and make us stop even before trying. We look at the big problem in front of us and we think it’s out of our reach. This is where our heroes aren’t very beneficial as the narratives around them reinforce this block: we see them and we feel a huge gap between us and them.

It’s important to remember that we have never seen our heroes’ first steps. The history of people we admire before we admired them is often hidden, unknown, and even when known, biographies tend to spectacularize it to reinforce the “lone genius” myth and the misleading idea of an innate talent that was always there.

A step by step approach is beneficial: start with small things, start learning, start a consistent practice. With time it’s possible to erode this belief and move beyond these generic blocks we have.

Taking this issue from another perspective: if you wanted to be a professor in quantum physics you wouldn’t expect to read and understand a cutting edge paper on the subject without any prior knowledge. It would be hard, if not impossible. Instead, you would need to start with basic math, then expand your understanding step by step until the paper becomes approachable. Our creative process is no different.

Specific blocks are more subtle and can hit anyone because they are certainties that were built inside ourselves over time either by someone we respected or just out of sheer repetition. They can take an equal amount of energy, if not more, to be overcome.

When I was in middle school, one year I asked my parents if I could exchange my Christmas gifts for books, with a long list of what I wanted. My teacher at the time was surprised as she thought I was not interested in literature and I wasn’t good at writing. She kept repeating that I wasn’t any good. Unsurprisingly, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy: my writing was bad. That belief remained unchallenged until another professor, in high school, saw something in me and challenged me to write an essay on a topic I had actual interest in. It came out very articulated and got published in the school newspaper, gathering compliments from many people, ranging from professors to students. That’s what it took to “unlock” me, that’s how I found my interest in writing. As of today I’m still very thankful to that professor as I likely wouldn’t have started blogging in 2004 and I wouldn’t be here now.

Generic blocks are frustrating, but they are also fairly evident. Specific blocks tend to be fairly hidden as they can be confused with disinterest in the person exhibiting them. Yet, I see this happening all the time: smart people, otherwise brilliant, who are convinced they are not good at specific things, while at the same time ignoring the signs of their potential.

That’s why it’s really important we try and identify these two kinds of blocks in ourselves, so we can find ways to overcome them.