Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Can Creativity Be Taught?

Where does creativity come from? How do entrepreneurs use creativity? Why is innovation often a collaborative effort?

These three intriguing questions are posed by Julia Hanna in her article “Getting Down to the Business of Creativity,” published by the Harvard Business School. Hanna, who is associate editor of Harvard’s Alumni Bulletin, draws on the work of three Harvard Business School professors — Teresa Amabile, Mary Tripsas, and Mukti Khaire — to examine how the workplace environment affects creativity.

Here is the lead of Hanna’s article: “Creativity, a quality more traditionally associated with artistic endeavors, has been slow to find its acknowledged place in the business world. Yet any entrepreneur can attest to the creative power required to build an organization where none existed before.” Hanna goes on to ask what conditions foster creativity and how creativity can be an asset to entrepreneurs.

So here’s my question: can creativity be learned?

Read and Respond

In my entrepreneurship course at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, I assign Hanna’s article as a read-and-respond test. In other words, students read the article and then provide written answers to a list of questions — this constitutes their first test of the semester.

One of the reading-response questions I ask my students is this: Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile says creativity can be learned. Do you agree? If so, how can creativity be learned? If you don’t agree, why do you think creativity cannot be learned?

This question seemed to spark my students’ interest more than any other about the article.

About half the class wrote that, yes, creativity can be learned. But the other half said no, you are either born with a creative gene or you are not—and all education or training can do is unleash your already existing creative potential. In other words, this group of students said creativity cannot be learned.

The Myth of Creativity

Here’s what Amabile says in the article:

Creativity does have a reputation for being magical. One myth is that it’s associated with the particular personality or genius of a person—and in fact, creativity does depend to some extent on the intelligence, expertise, talent, and experience of an individual….But it also depends on creative thinking as a skill that involves qualities such as the propensity to take risk and to turn a problem on its head to get a new perspective. That can be learned.

So, are things like intelligence, talent, risk-taking, and an ability to think outside the box inherent, hard-wired characteristics some people are born with? In other words, are they genetic, buried deep in some people’s DNA? Or, as Amabile seems to suggest, are they things that can be learned and fostered, given the right environment?

In other words, are they products of nurture rather than nature? Can creativity be learned—and therefore taught? Or does the “creative gene” need to be there first?

What My Students Wrote

As I said, my students were evenly divided on this issue—with about half the class favoring nature and the other half favoring nature. Here’s a sample of their opinions.


One student wrote that creativity is “innate“ and cannot be taught by one person to another.

He or she can be placed into situations where that person experiences what another might do and therefore be able to apply it to a similar predicament. However, that is not learning creativity, it is copying it. Certain types of people are better at brainstorming; these are the creative people.

Another student wrote that creativity is something you are born with, not something you can learn. However, he said, creativity can be stimulated by environmental factors.

In order for one to be creative, that person must initially be presented with a predicament. It seems to be this way with everything that has ever been invented—people see problems, and then they create something to solve that specific dilemma. Their great minds were not cultivated by great professors, nor were they taught creativity by anyone—it was their natural, god-given intelligence and creativity that, when sparked by a need, let them create some of the world’s greatest inventions.

Several students wrote that creativity is “natural” but needs to be nurtured in order to reach its full potential—a seed that must exist before it grows into a tree:

Creativity is like any other trait. For example, most would agree that Michael Jordan was a naturally talented basketball player, but he required training to become the star that he did. Someone could spend the same amount, if not more, attempting to develop basketball skills and never reach the ability of Michael Jordan. The same principle can be applied to creativity. An individual can learn a systematic process for problem solving but never have the capability of someone that was naturally born to do so.

Creativity cannot spring up out of nothing, wrote another student, but the right conditions can foster an already existing inclination to be creative:

I believe creativity is a gift that one can hone, but if you have never been a creative-minded person, then it is doubtful that one day you will become a creative genius. Furthermore, if someone is gifted with a creative mind, and you place them in a sort of creative incubator, it is likely that they will come up with some type of creativity, whatever their specialty.


On the other side were those students who said creativity can be learned — here’s an example:

People are not born with amazing business skills from childhood; they are learned through an individual’s experiences. That’s not to say that there aren’t those who pick up and learn these skills faster than others, but they have to learn how to be creative over time, not just get it or not.

One student expressed frustration at the idea that creativity is a magical gift, bestowed on a lucky few — rather than the result of dedication and hard work.

I cannot count the number of times I have been sitting in an art class or a design class and heard a chorus of students complain that they just aren’t creative. I always, and will continue to, scoff at this statement. Creativity is objective. People who are not creative are so because they do not believe they can achieve something creative. In my opinion, and from what I have gathered from the lessons of many teachers, if you have not come up with something creative, you have not tried long or hard enough. Anybody can be creative as long as they know that it does not always come naturally. The creative process is tedious and can take a very long time.

In terms of artistic creativity, another student wrote, perhaps it is something you are born with; however —

…creativity in regards to entrepreneurship is something that I believe can be learned or improved. Entrepreneurial creativity is simply an approach to problem solving.

Finally, one student expressed the tabula rasa, or clean-slate theory, of human development:

Of course I think creativity can be learned. We are all human and start out with the same amount of material implanted in our mind and must learn everything that we know now. If I had to, I could learn what it takes to fly a rocket ship but that would be incredibly difficult for myself. Just because it is difficult does not mean that it is impossible for me to learn how to do that. Anyone can learn anything if they truly want to.

You Be The Judge

How stimulating to consider these diverse opinions! So, you be the judge — can creativity be learned, or is it something innate?

And just to throw another log on the fire, a few days after we discussed this issue, the radio program “Marketplace” had a segment on whether entrepreneurship itself has a genetic component, passed down from parents to their children.

Perhaps a topic for another column? Stay tuned and let me know what you think.

4 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Can Creativity Be Taught?”

  1. Rather than weigh in directly, I would like to suggest a book I just finished reading on this subject: "A World of Fragile Things: Psychoanalysis and the Art of Living" by Mari Ruti. Ruti posits that while creativity (a creative life) arises and is motivated by need (lack), a discipline toward an open mind is also required (and can be directed).

  2. I really like the term "discipline toward an open mind," Patrick. Because too many people's minds close out of intellectual laziness and convenience.

  3. Creativity is a gift. For example, a son of a great writer has not necessarely the same talent. He can get better with training, but will not archieve the same results. That's my opinion

  4. I believe everyone has, as mentioned before, the "seed" of creativity. However, not every seed is the same - some people have apparently innate talent for literature or poetry, others for visual arts, others for more abstract concepts such as theoretical physics and the associated mathematics (my mom is one of the last category - and I learned at a young age that I definitely do not have anything near her ability for math, and, in fact, generally despise it, lol).

    There are far too many variables to account for to say, definitively, that creativity, in general, can or cannot be learned. But I do think it would be harder for someone with more left-brained creative skills to try learning right-brained creative skills (i.e., a writer learning to paint). Not saying it's impossible, but shifting gears like that can be challenging.

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