Creative intelligence is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Part I of this series on creativity, indicated that a reasonably acceptable definition for creativity might be “the ability to generate or invent.” Generally speaking, stereotypical “creative” personalities are taken to be those individuals who produce or create artistic works—works such as musical compositions, dance choreography, and visual arts such as painting and/or graphic arts. This could also include fine arts such as theatre and/or dramatic productions, sculpture, textile arts, and works of poetry and prose.

It is accepted that an artist creates and is creative; art and creativity are therefore synonymous.

Yet must creativity be exclusive to art? Must one be an artist to “create” and be creative? Can an accountant’s creativity at work rival that of an improvising musician? Can a dentist’s? Would we label a forward’s incredible puck-handling ability creative? How about the invention of a new mechanism for the alignment and balancing of tires? Would that make headlines?

Your answer to these questions may in part depend on your own personal definition of what it means to be creative. In fact, creativity is something that is demonstrated in a multitude of ways; artists have never had an exclusive monopoly on creative pursuits. Thankfully, society’s idea with regards to what creativity is has broadened.

Author of 18 books and several hundred articles, neurologist Howard Gardner currently practices, researches and teaches at Harvard University and the Boston School of Medicine.

He is best known for his bold redefinition of the concept of intelligence. In his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he conceptualized seven disparate and valuable human capabilities.

In addition to the two accepted talents that traditionally defined “intelligence”—linguistic and logical/mathematical skills—Gardner witnessed five capabilities also deserving recognition and inclusion:musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

Gardner’s theory steps outside of the neat line drawn around all the lawyers and physicists, and gives people permission to value what some of us have known intuitively for years: that there are many more ways to be “smart” than society currently values.

It warrants mentioning that Gardner has also recognized Daniel Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence (i.e. including “skills” such as self-awareness and the ability to delay impulse gratification), and has himself added an eighth—naturalist intelligence, to his list.

Howard Gardner’s framework for multiple intelligences has set a strong foundation for recognizing creativity in both traditional and non-traditional areas. Gardner’s ideas suddenly validate the kinesthetic intelligence of a skilled athlete; the interpersonal intelligence of a good manager; the spatial intelligence of a meticulous craftsman, as well as the musical abilities of a talented violinist. Moreover, Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence elucidated a number of emotional capabilities: self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to resist immediate impulse gratification are among them. Emotional intelligence is now accepted on par with Gardner’s eight, as is often labeled the “ninth intelligence.”

Creations can involve any number of things: a problem, a solution, a garden, a new friendship, a business alliance, a computer program, a tool, a building, or a child. All people are always creating—intentionally and unintentionally.

Julia Cameron states in The Artist’s Way that “Creativity is the natural order of life. Life is energy: pure creative energy.” Cameron’s philosophy is that every person is born with the right and the ability to be “creative.” Whether or not we use our energy/life force/creativity and how, is up to us. Robert Fritz in Creating affirms, “There is a deep longing to create that resides within the soul of humanity. Beyond our natural instinct for survival … we also have a natural instinct for building, organizing, forming, and creating.”

It’s self-evident that people want to “get more” out of life. Depending on where one’s “intelligence” lies (that is, where one is naturally gifted and where experiences often “flow”), one may yearn for different things: to paint, to travel, to learn a language, to build a cedar-stripped canoe, to dance well, to cultivate new friendships, or to bang on a drum. Yet in spite of all our desires for something deeper, higher, or more meaningful, we often allow ourselves to become lulled into complacency; we refuse to take risks, and we reluctantly continue to embrace the boring and familiar. We become dissatisfied.

Blocks to creativity

Excuses why people limit themselves and refuse to explore their full creative potential are multifarious and varied. Ultimately, this abstinence from a creative life is a choice; it is a denial of inherent ability and right.

There are at least as many obstacles against forging a more creative life than desires for one. The good news is that these obstacles are surmountable in almost all cases if one desires it.

How do you know if you are, at some level, frustrated or blocked? Chances are, if you’re jealous of something someone else has created, or envious, or bitter—you might be. Have you ever said, indignantly, “I could do/write/draw/paint/act/dance better than that!” Well—why don’t you? What are you waiting for?

Hold fast while we examine some of the common blocks to creativity—a smattering of solutions and/or strategies to break the chains will follow in Part III.

Lack of self-awareness

With the busyness and constant motion of life, we may not even know what we want. We may only know a gnawing dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. If we don’t know what we would like to create (i.e. where our “intelligence” or natural flow state is found), it is difficult to bring intention to a creative process.

Myth versus reality

Creativity needs to be prefaced by an objective appraisal of one’s situation. Usually, how we view our life and current situation is coloured by our subjectivity. “No time” may actually add up to one hour per day, if one chooses to forego watching the news; get up earlier; delegate a chore; or share responsibilities for car-pooling kids to lessons.

Bad thinking

Westerners think dualistically and in absolute terms: it’s either “all good,” or “all bad.” We also like to limit ourselves, because we think we have to be excellent at everything we do. “I’m a singer, not a drummer.” “I’m athletic, but I suck at writing.” “I’m a good writer, but I can’t sew.”

The absolute viewpoint states that: “I suck at everything.” “I can’t draw a straight line.” “I can’t boil water.” “I can’t even kick a ball!” “I can’t sing at all.” “I’ll never learn how to paint.” “I have no time for that! I have to work and raise my kids!” “It’s selfish to take time out to sculpt. If I did that, I wouldn’t be a good mom.”

Truly—it’s usually the weight of our own insecurities and expectations that is suffocating us.

Separate ego from product

No one wants to come across as unskilled, not proficient, and amateurish, especially when it is a product that one has created. The fear of being “wrong” and of looking stupid hamstrings us every time. Yet whoever said that our identity had to be tied up with our neophyte attempts at construction, quilting, or silversmithing? We are not our creations. Our self-worth is not the product of our skills and experiences. I am not my drawing—thankfully!

The unknown is okay

Needing to control all the outcomes is contradictory to the creative process. Asking such questions—“How it will get done?” “What it will look like at the end?” “How long it will take?” “How much will I enjoy it when I am completed?” “Will I enjoy it?” all defeat the purpose of enjoyment gained through the simple act of consciously creating.

Performer versus learner

Strive to be a learner. Learners are okay with mediocre abilities. They don’t stress out that they aren’t good enough. Learners accept that embarrassment, failure, mistakes, and disappointment are expected stepping-stones in all endeavors where one is challenged. Learners enjoy growth and are willing to take comfortable risks.

Performers are aware that they are naturally talented in an area and selectively choose activities that advantageously display these talents. The performer avoids experiences of incompetence and/or failure. Extreme emphasis is placed on the end result: high achievement and/or perfection. Performers only ever do what they are already good at doing, and at some point, they hit the ceiling and have nowhere to go but down.

People possess both aspects of these sketches. Yet we generally favour one over the other. Creativity would likely flourish in the first scenario and wither in the second.


All real learning, creative learning included, must involve engagement and involvement on the part of the learner. Involve yourself in your creative endeavour, and ask yourself, “What am I bringing to this?” If you are looking for your creation to satisfy you, you have got the equation backwards. It is what you bring to it that counts.

Third person perspective

Separation from the irritating constraints of the ego can be facilitated by the adoption of a third person perspective. Drop the “Who am I?” and ask, “What is going on?” Gain a more objective understanding of the situation by posing the question, “What would a more creative life look like?” and then seek to fulfill that, one step at a time.

Creating should be fun. Leave your judgments and criticisms at the door, and remember what it’s like to make something and feel proud because it is something you “made” or created. Have fun!

The nine multiple intelligences:

  1. Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
  2. Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
  3. Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
  4. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
  5. Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
  6. Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
  8. Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)
  9. Emotional intelligence (“emotion smart”)


Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, New York, 1999)

Another book of interest for educators or informed parents is:

The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, the K-12 Education That Every Child Deserves (Penguin Books, New York)