There is a story of an experiment a man did on five monkeys in a cage. The man hung a banana from the ceiling and put a ladder below it.
Immediately, one monkey ran towards it and climbed the ladder to grab the banana. The man then splashed cold water onto the monkey climbing the ladder and at the same time splashed ice cold water onto the other four monkeys.
Each time a monkey tried to climb the ladder, the man would spray cold water onto all of them. They would persist but eventually learnt to not climb the ladder – banana or no banana.
The man then replaced one monkey in the cage with a new monkey. The new monkey looked at the banana dangling from the ceiling and wondered why none of them had grabbed it.
It then tried to climb the ladder, and the other four monkeys beat it down before it could grab the banana.
Although the new monkey never received the cold water treatment or knew anything about it, it would join in the treatment of beating up a new monkey each time.
The man replaced a second monkey with a new one and the entire event would repeat itself. He then replaced the third monkey and the same thing happened.
He did the same for the fourth and fifth monkey, until all the monkeys had been replaced and none of them knew anything about the cold water treatment.
One day, a new monkey was added to the group and it went to the ladder to get the banana, but as usual the rest tried to beat it down.
However, this monkey turned around to the others and asked, “Why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?”
The other monkeys stopped to look at each other a little puzzled, shrugged their shoulders and said, “Don’t know. But that’s the way we do things around here.”
Very often, over the years, nobody realises why certain habits or cultures are continually practised.
Perhaps the man with the water hose himself has long gone yet we are still doing the same things and may even beat others down for thinking differently.
But what about those who don’t feel like they are creative?
In our early years, the common misconception is that if you can’t do certain things like paint, draw, sing, dance or _________ (please fill in the blank), then you are not perceived as creative as those who can.
The truth is, if you do not think you are creative, you are probably right. But the good news is you can become more creative with a change of mind-set.
Is creativity learnt or innate?
What did Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Thomas Edison have in common? They practised.
Creativity is not exclusive to artistry. Creativity is not limited to those who take amazing Instagram photos or spend their afternoons writing songs.
You can sit at your cubicle and still infuse creativity into your projects. You can be a stay-at-home mum and be creative in the way you pack your children’s lunches.
You can be a lawyer, accountant, Uber driver, doctor, or fried chicken seller, and apply creative processes to the problems you face on a daily basis.
Tina Seelig, author of InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, believes that “creativity can be taught, that we are all naturally creative, and that we just have to unlock our Innovation Engines. We are inherently creative in communicating and responding to the world around us.”
“Interacting with the world requires creative problem-solving every day. Every sentence we utter is unique. We don’t just have robotic answers,” she says, “Our brains are creativity machines.”
The problem is that our environment and culture have squashed that, and our education system is to blame, Seelig says, because it assigns problems with one right answer, and favours multiple-choice tests.
“Yet, we are frustrated that people are less creative,” she says. Putting pressure on students to memorise facts instead of learning to solve problems is stultifying,” she says.
“While we need to teach information, there are a myriad of ways to do so, she says, for example, exams could ask students to design an experiment.”
Are you able you to solve problems with relevance and novelty?
The reality is, we probably all make creative decisions every day. We just don’t associate these actions with being “creative” due to our perception. Creativity can be learnt over time and can grow with practice.
1. Keep asking questions.
When you are faced with a familiar problem, ask questions about how you can better solve it—in future.
2. Be curious and play with ideas.
Why are children often spontaneous and curious in their way of thinking? Often it is because they are not afraid to voice their ideas and sometimes ask questions that seem silly to adult ears.
Over the years, we tend to condition ourselves to think and do things a certain way—all in the name of “experience,” that we may have forgotten to become curious about the world.
Creativity breeds curiosity.
As Stefan Mumaw, author of Creative Boot Camp puts it, “Creativity is the ability to produce relevant and novelty ideas. . .
We may not look at them as problems because we have devised a mechanism to solve them without conscious thought in the name of efficiency but they are problems nonetheless. We could choose to solve them creatively but we first have to recognise them as problems.”
Different solutions that solve the problem makes it relevant. Throw in the fact that it is unique and appeals to the audience you’re targeting, and it becomes a novelty.
When we go through the motions or follow the same process in a project, we miss the opportunity to solve it creatively.
Mumaw states, “That’s not to say our solution would be any different than what we instinctively developed, but we missed a chance to make that decision consciously . . . when you are presented with problems continuously and make a conscious effort to come up with ideas of relevance and novelty, you improve creatively.”
What do I think?
Don’t just beat up the new monkey—the new employee, or partner; the questioning of “the way we do things around here” may just be a valid one and perhaps we have just become comfortable with our ways.
As my lecturer in university once said,
People always tell you to think out of the box. But my question is . . . why is there even a box in the first place?
Tamara is a writer with Leaderonomics. She lets her curiosity get the better of her and is constantly found asking questions. To connect with her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Thought of the week articles, click here.