Creativity is not in your genes

23rd January 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

The idea is to stay open to new ideas and remain permanently curious It is fallacious to think that genes favour only some people to be creative.

23rd January 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

The idea is to stay open to new ideas and remain permanently curious

It is fallacious to think that genes favour only some people to be creative. Serendipity and innovativeness don’t come easier to some folks because their genes predispose them to such an advantage. It is well established that creativity is not in the genes, but in the mindset and behaviour.

Writer Richard Florida points out that creativity involves distinct habits of mind and patterns of behaviour that must be cultivated (The rise of the creative class, Basic Books, 2012). The converse is also true: that if you explicitly or subtly “classify” people, then they start to behave in line with the classification.

For example, institutions tend to subtly classify people for administrative convenience. The creative class -advertising, marketing and research departments – are expected to work with imagination and originality. The other class – logistics, operations and finance – is expected to work with diligence and accuracy. In due course, those people start to behave according to their classification.

Here are three examples to explain that there is nothing genetic about acting creatively.

When Albert Einstein died, researchers opened up his brain, Contrary to the expectation of a humungous size, or special brain bumps that might explain his genius, researchers found that Einstein’s brain was actually smaller than that of most ordinary people.

In 1973, to establish the connection between genes and creativity, Marvin Reznikoff and his team studied all the twins born in Connecticut since 1897. The genetic composition of monozygotic (similar) and dizygotic (dissimilar) twins is different but Reznikoff found no difference in the rates of creativity between the two types of twins.

The founder of W L Gore and Company, an American firm, quit a long career at DuPont to found a creative company in 1958. In the next 50 years, the Gore Company generated $3 billion in revenue from a diverse set of products. The founder organised the company so that everyone could be creative. For example, David Myers, an engineer working on cardiac implants, became curious about how to improve the performance of the cables on his mountain bike. His openness to experience resulted in his developing a suitable polymer, branded Gore-Tex. This polymer was used by the company to coat guitar strings for better tonal quality.

Creativity-boosted moments abound in every sphere and always arise out of behaviour. There are four creative behaviours: first, an insatiable curiosity, leading the person from one unexpected discovery to another; second, taking a break, thus avoiding over-fixation on the problem; third, a determined journey through the five Mihalyi stages described of preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration (“Preparing for eureka”, December 27); fourth, resilience to cope with the periodic feeling of not getting anywhere. These four behaviours apply to science and technology as much as to writing and the performing arts. Here is the story of an accidental writer.

Sudha Shah had never written a book. She is a first-time author, but of an outstanding book, The King in Exile: The fall of the royal family of Burma, (Harper Collins India, 2012). I interviewed Shah to find out how she conceived of a book on so obscure a subject.

Insatiable curiosity: It was Amitav Ghosh’s very evocative book, The Glass Palace, that first piqued Shah’s interest in the last king of Burma (now Myanmar) and his family, and got her started on an extraordinary journey. Not much had been written about King Thibaw and his descendants after his exile. Shah’s book is about the king, his wives, his daughters and his grandchildren. It has not been written as a work of fiction but as a family biography. Part I of the book depicts the life of the king and queen during their reign. She felt that this background was essential to put into context the royal family’s life during and after the exile. Parts II and III are really the heart of her research and of the book – they detail the family’s life during and after the exile. Although she has written the book as a human-interest story, it is set in its historical, political, social and cultural context, for without this it would not have had much meaning.

Journey through stages: She had absolutely no intention of writing a book but to simply learn more about King Thibaw’s four daughters, who grew up in the culturally alien environment of Ratnagiri, with virtually no education, and with almost no social interaction with the outside world.

Resilience: Shah was deeply frustrated by the absence of records and artefacts without a lot of delving and persistence. She became fascinated with, not just the princesses, but also with other family members and with other aspects of the story. The whole thing snowballed; she certainly had no idea that it would become such an obsession that she would spend over seven years on the subject, with enough breaks from the intense trail.

Avoiding over-fixation: She looked for a publisher only when her manuscript was almost ready, and was, therefore, not pressured by a deadline. Shah says that she felt like a detective. Tracking down a variety of sources and accessing new information, however insignificant, was always very exciting. It was the details that helped bring the protagonists alive for her. She took her time to research with some essential breaks, so as to craft a strong narrative.

When she began her book, her objective was to uncover and describe the lives of the four princesses. However, as her research progressed, the raison d’être of the book shifted – to provide an insight into, first, how an all-powerful and very wealthy family coped with forced isolation and separation from all that they had once known and cherished; and, second, how family members coped once the exile ended and they were abruptly released into a world they knew almost nothing about.

Through her creative behaviour, Shah produced a very creative book. The message is simple: stay open to new experiences, be permanently passionate and curious, always allow yourself to be led through the journey indicated by your curiosity, and in every way, persist.