It is probably no surprise to anyone that Knowledge and Creativity share an interesting relationship. You need some knowledge about any domain in order to be able to create – but can you have too much knowledge?
Rod Judkins says in his book, The Art of Creative Thinking, to “be like a beginner.” He describes that experts often get locked into patterns of thinking and doing things “the way they are done” and fail to see new and unique opportunities. This makes a lot of sense: an amateur won’t know these accepted ways of doing things so they will come up with new ones.
Not only does this sound logical, but research seems to back it up. Prior knowledge has been shown to reduce problem-solving ability (Sternberg, 1999, The Handbook of Creativity, 230) Research by Simonton (1984), that studied 300 creative individuals over the years 1450 – 1850 (including, among others, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Mozart, Rembrandt), found that the relationship between formal education and creative eminence would be plotted in the shape of an inverted “U” (Sternberg, 1999, The Handbook of Creativity, 229). That is, the most creative individuals had a moderate amount of formal education. The graph may look something like this:
Note, I have used the terms, knowledge and creativity – these may not be strictly accurate in terms of the above research study, but they describe the general view of this line of thinking.
But that’s not the end of the story, because there is a different viewpoint. You might have heard of the 10-year rule. This is based on research by Hayes back in 1989, that stated that major innovative eminence in a certain domain only came after the individual has been working in that domain for an extended period of time (claimed to be around 10 years) (Sternberg, 1999, The Handbook of Creativity, 230).
What does one make of these seemingly conflicting studies? The logical answer is that they are both correct. Although this sounds like a contradiction, it is logical because they are both backed by research. What this tells us is that knowledge, practice and exposure in a domain is necessary, but so is the ability to keenly see what existing practices and assumptions can be questioned.
Thinking of the above graph, we are either in a situation where we are increasing creativity by increasing or decreasing knowledge. We note that it is impossible to move from left to right on the graph (increase knowledge) through cognitive willpower alone: the only way is to actually increase your knowledge. However, it is theoretically possible to move from right to left (decrease knowledge) in a practical way: by questioning assumptions and finding new ways of doing things, illustrated below. Thus, it is always better to have more knowledge, because there are ways to move the other way*.
Research tells us that the amateur will be more efficient at finding new ways of doing things but that doesn’t mean it is impossible for the rest of us egg-heads. I will always advocate knowledge as a benefit. This point links back into one of the main foundations of creativity: collaboration. Share your ideas and work with others and share with those outside your specific domain: they may see something you don’t and you’ll have the knowledge to appreciate it. Remember, what is plain old boring knowledge for someone else might be a tremendously insightful creative solution for your situation.
*As a disclaimer, these graphs represent only the findings of the discussed research study which regards “education” and “creativity” in strict definitions suitable for this research. It is not suggested that creativity and knowledge always share this relationship
Feature image courtesy of Texas A&M University Commerce Marketing