Creativity myths


Dear Artist,

A new study at the University of Graz in Austria is attempting to bust culture-spanning myths about creativity. Professor of psychology Mathias Benedek and his team first surveyed people from diverse backgrounds to find out what they believed creativity was. They then compiled four groups of widespread misbeliefs.

Le Nouveau-Né, 1920 Polished bronze 5.9 x 8.3 x 5.9 inches by Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957)

Le Nouveau-Né, 1920
Polished bronze
5.9 x 8.3 x 5.9 inches
by Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957)

The first group of myths involves the very definition of creativity, surmising that it cannot be measured, that it’s basically the same as art, that creative ideas are inherently a good thing and that most people can’t distinguish the difference between abstract art from children’s drawings. Basically, amongst the people surveyed anyway, creativity is a mysterious talent bestowed upon a few special people with its products’ value highly subjective.

The second group of myths deals with the creative process. Zeroing in on misconceptions surrounding the creative impulse, those surveyed answered true or false to questions around how creative accomplishments are usually the result of a flash of inspiration, that creative thinking belongs almost exclusively to right brainers and is summoned by lone wolves in the privacy of their studios. Work, it seems, doesn’t really factor into it.

Torse de jeune fille, 1922 Polished bronze 12.5 x 9.5 x 7.2 inches by Constantin Brâncuși

Torse de jeune fille, 1922
Polished bronze
12.5 x 9.5 x 7.2 inches
by Constantin Brâncuși

The third group of myths examines the creative person; a unicorn who possesses a rare gift and burden. This unicorn’s special talent is not easily developed or diminished, and it flourished most when she was a child. She’s simply exceptional. As a result, she’s also more prone to mental health challenges.

The last group of myths centers around creative stimulation, including the use of drugs and alcohol. Apparently, to many, the doors of perception are still very much installed, and gate-kept by the altered state. Other beliefs around process include the attitude that too much school kills imagination, that group brainstorming generates more ideas than what individuals alone can muster and that total freedom of movement, expression, materials and behavior are the best route to a creative life.

While preserving a delicious mystique and supporting many components of the living organism called “art,” Professor Benedek and his team say this magical thinking approach around creativity in general — is problematic. Correlating it with getting into a childlike state just diminishes the sweat and commitment creative achievement requires. Also, holding onto the myth of “waiting for the muse” cripples the would-be artist and undermines the agency and personal responsibility needed to get to work. Work is unglamourous and unspecial. These hard yards are the unvarnished truth behind how our creativity appears before our eyes, magicless. Why can some just do it, and others not get started?

Jeune Fille Sophistiquée, 1928 Polished bronze 21.6 x 5.9 x 8.6 inches by Constantin Brâncuși

Jeune Fille Sophistiquée, 1928
Polished bronze
21.6 x 5.9 x 8.6 inches
by Constantin Brâncuși



PS: “Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave.” (Constantin Brancusi)

“It is the tension between creativity and skepticism that has produced the stunning and unexpected findings of science.” (Carl Sagan)

Esoterica: “Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity,” wrote John Updike. “Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.” With this in mind, embrace the notion that all movements are creative ones, and all actions, when infused with thoughtfulness, are pointing in the direction of new thought, new solutions, and the advancement of the artform that is life, lifemanship, craft and human expression. In our tiny corner of the universe, this may look like what my Dad called, “brush-pushing.” Pick up the brush. At my easel, brush-pushing is a salve for the rigor, heartache, plodding and ecstasy of life. It is the simplest form of prayer, not possible without first picking up the tools necessary to practise the devotion. “To create a little flower is the labour of ages.” (William Blake)

Constantin Brâncuși in his studio, n.d.

Constantin Brâncuși in his studio, n.d.

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“The creative personality never remains fixed on the first world it discovers. It never resigns itself to anything.” (Anais Nin)



  1. Hmmm, I’m aware that today the term ‘myth’ has become synonymous with ‘falsehood’. As a long time fan of Joseph Campbell, I prefer his observation that myths in western society are ‘things that never happened but are always happening’. In other words, they are stories that reveal essential truths about what it means to be human. Mythos for me is an essential element in what I think of as my art journey.
    Pedantry aside, I thoroughly agree with Robert’s observation that going to your room, picking up your brush and pushing paint is the precondition for making art. It might have been Richard Schmid who said creativity is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.

  2. Quite a down to earth approach, and one best employed day to day, Sara. While a split between left-right brain always seemed lame to me, there is a certain tension arising within my gut before and while the brush moves across the canvas. This tension unleashes enormous energy into whatever piece I choose to work on in the moment. Light, color, moving around the studio all energize me to experiment, opening the floodgates of flow.

  3. So many of these myths infantilize artists, and set up a lot of people to be taken advantage of. These ideas make us easily commodified, and it’s absolutely maddening.

  4. Professor Benedek is wrong in considering the varied thoughts about the meaning of creativity “misbeliefs”. Beliefs are conceptual, and the definition of creativity is conceptualization made manifest. One must believe in the value of a polished hunk of brass before it becomes a priceless piece of irreplaceable sculpture, and the variety of “myths” surrounding the creative process enhance the alchemy. Analyzing the creative process might work well for psychologists, but it’s a death knell for artists.

  5. IMHO, so many people are convinced that the definition of creativity is extremely narrow, and mostly involves “art”, especially 2D art. Even with an expanded definition (fine craft, theater, music, etc.) there are still so many “unchecked boxes”. And how we judge ourselves in those very-sharply-delineated boxes is also harsh. My own definition has broadened over the years: Does it make you happy, despite the risks and challenges and boring parts? Does it make you a better person, able to help you deal with a “real” career or whatever supports you and/or your family? When you share it with others (sales, yes, but also exhibiting, sharing on social media, donating, gifting, etc.) does it make THEM happy? Is the world a better place, even a teensy bit, because of it? Can we accept that we may never achieve fame nor fortune from it, but someone, somewhere, has their own heart eased because of that? Then that to me is creative work. Not just making of all kinds (hair cutting, food/cooking/baking, construction, etc.) but also caretaking, healing, gardening, service, teaching, fixing/repairing, restoration, etc. In the end, the only person who can truly stop us from making our creative work is ourselvs. And as a newsetter I subscribe to said earlier, “Everyone can create one thing or another, even if it’s creating excuses.”

    • Holly Tashian on

      I strive to find creativity in everything I do. To me it’s a matter of being present and doing the best job I can. Once I get an idea, I image that some sort of muse has sent it. I can accept the challenge ( even if it’s the thought to make a zucchini casserole, or clean the bathroom floor) or reject it. If I accept, then it’s a devotion to being fully present while executing this task, and doing my best at it, from the way I cut the zucchini to the way I shine the floor. When it comes to art projects, knowing when its finished involves trusting that the challenge has been answered and that enlightenment has been gained. I do art for myself. If others enjoy it, that’s a plus.

    • Bart van Kempen on

      Art/Why?….” someone, somewhere, has their own heart eased because of it ” is a lovely thought.

  6. I have always thought a person with an extra lean towards being “creative” was someone who is constantly hit with ideas. To me, a creative person often ends up buried in clutter because half way through one idea being worked on, they get distracted by another idea that leads to another venue to pour some focused energy into. Not always people who create artwork, could be any kind of activity that draws their attention. I think hoarders are probably creative people because they see so many ideas in so many things that many would look at as junk. I love the comment left by the reader above, especially the final quote. I call being a creative person a curse quite often. Doesn’t make life in general easy, maybe a lot of fun, but not easy.

    • This sounds so familiar. I majored in Fine Arts and Photography in college in the 1970’s, then switched to oils in the 1980’s, acrylics in the 1990’s and finally watercolors in the 2000’s. I have a tendency to bounce around from medium to medium, and my studio is a disaster area, but I wanted to try it all while I had the energy. And I’m happy. Isn’t that ultimately what it’s all about?

    • I am a hoarder of art supplies. Your description of having constant ideas to try out does distract one from finishing one before starting another painting, project, etc.
      How to break free of these tendencies? Suggestions wanted from other creatives.

      • I have lots of unfinished projects..and one thing I realize is the fear of failure prevents me from completing..not every thing ..but often the uncertainty of how to complete something is part of it..Iam trying more to complete before moving is always more interesting than doing the hard work to go deeper..

      • I was a bit of a bower bird :attracted to one shiny thing and then another. To make a longer story shorter and living in a space that could not acquire more equipment as well as children’s accoutrements, I enforced a limitation on myself, as is sometimes suggested when creating a series. I decided on painting.
        As one looks the other way when passing the bakery, I refrained from other creative activities(some of which I had dabbled in) that required more stuff. Consequently I could focus in on my painting and improve to a professional level. I do still enjoy others work in other mediums but no longer have the “I could do that or that or that “ niggling in my thoughts.

  7. Creativity to make it simple for me is expressing yourself and jump into a creative imagination.
    Go with the flow of creative energy , waking up in the morning one day abstract, next day sketching.
    It is limitless !

  8. The concept of ‘seeing through things’ is how I describe creativity. At least it’s what I feel about my work when it is most pleasing, most pure to me. I think at its essence it is Platonic. Most of the time, I think I miss, but when I get it right, I feel it’s worth all the time and effort I put into every piece. And this feeling has something to do with how others see my work, but it’s not a 1:1 ratio. And this ‘seeing thoroughness’ is almost impossible to discuss intelligently. Perhaps it too is a myth.

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