In May of this year, I prototyped Creative Power Day—an experiment to show young people that strengthening their creative muscles would make them better at everything they tried—from schoolwork, sports, and the arts, to being better friends now and being stronger leaders in the future. We engaged more than 500 students aged 10-14 in 22 classrooms in the US, Canada, Iceland, and Ireland. The workshops were facilitated by trained volunteers and included hands-on activities and discussion designed to build three essential creative muscles:
- Seeing connections between disparate concepts
- Developing an openness to new ideas
- Building resilience through experimentation
This triad goes beyond what most people think of when we say creativity (no, it’s not just drawing, and it’s not just being “different”). This enlarged definition is what CEOs and industry leaders are referring to when they say creativity is the magic bullet for business success. The creative mindset is highly sought-after because in this time of incredible uncertainty and rapid change, we need agile thinkers who can recognize patterns and interesting adjacencies, who naturally build portfolios of solutions not master plans, and who are comfortable conducting rapid experiments to learn quickly.
But alas, creativity is complicated.
Revisiting the studies
For years, researchers have studied the “bias against creativity” in the workplace. University of Pennsylvania researchers coined this phrase for the tendency of creative ideas – and the people who espouse them – to be systematically diminished, disparaged, and discredited. This is interesting stuff, but on closer examination we can see how there might be different factors that drive the bias that are less of an indictment of creativity and more a response to the way the creative industry “sells in” design thinking. The type of creativity espoused in pop-business books on design thinking is more mythology than reality. It’s no wonder that in the nouveau-creative workplace, it seems like the emperor has no clothes.
But even if we can rationalize away the workplace bias against creativity, we’re left with the trove of research from elementary schools that reaches the same conclusions. Studies have consistently found that teachers laud creativity as a highly desirable trait in their students, yet simultaneously rate children who display those characteristics as unappealing, and favor their “satisficer” peers. The bias against creativity starts much earlier than working age, during a time when children are forming their understanding of cultural value and their place in society.
Even against this backdrop, I have always believed that creativity is the powerful equalizer. If those students could just push through the negative feedback, maybe they could become the next generation of unicorn-wranglers, NASA researchers, and progressive policymakers. But what about when creativity is not enough?
The access advantage
In recent work from Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (H/T to @geoffmulgan), economists took a novel approach to innovation research by matching tax data to patent grants and applications for almost two decades in the US. They found that children of parents in the top 1% of the income distribution were “ten times more likely to become inventors than those in the bottom 50%.” This is significant, but perhaps not that surprising. The fact that you’re more likely to be successful if your parents have money isn’t the classical narrative of the American dream, but we know it’s true.
The real surprise in the research was that invention was not correlated with creative ability. Instead, the degree of successful invention was more closely tied to environmental factors shaped by race and gender. The conditions children were exposed to at a young age in their neighborhoods and schools were the dominant factor in predicting future success in innovation. In other words, if children didn’t see members of their family or community engaging in non-traditional, innovative pursuits, the financial barriers related to access to opportunity were virtually impossible to beat. It didn’t matter how naturally talented someone was if they had nothing to model.
Now, more than ever
“Creativity” may not be the magic bullet – but creative people are. We know that intentionally or not, we are teaching the next generation how to be good foot soldiers, but not independent thinkers. More confoundingly, we know that the products we will use in the future to communicate and convene, buy and work, drive and govern will be built by a cosseted minority who have great access, but may not have the greatest ideas. And even if they do, they will not represent the diversity that they could have.
The experience of engaging in the creative process is profoundly transformative for young people. Moreover, it’s something where each of us can have outsized impact, just by simply being present.
There needs to be many more infusions of creative thinking examples for all children, and many more Creative Power Days. If you believe in the power of creativity, and the promise of the next generation, please join us.
Valerie Casey makes products focused on social innovation. She was Chief Product Officer for Samsung’s global innovation group and has held executive leadership positions at IDEO, frog, and Pentagram. Valerie founded the international innovation consultancy, Necessary Projects, and the global design coalition focused on social impact, the Designers Accord. She is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Valerie currently works with Fortune 500s, startups, and NGOs in health, education, and technology to build their innovation capabilities and launch meaningful products.