Some surprising conclusions regarding creativity and innovation

Howard Gardner is well known for his theory of multiple intelligences. He is less well known for a fascinating book on creativity.  [This is obviously anecdotal, but I don’t know a single educator who has even heard of this book.] In his Creating Minds (1993), Gardner explores the lives of seven famous persons from the 20th century – Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot, Martha Graham, and Mahatma Gandhi – from the point of view of their creativity and innovation.

Gardner finds at least three commonalities amongst his seven subjects, and concludes that these factors are necessary, though certainly not sufficient, to explain the emergence of a creative and innovative mind. One of the factors is not surprising, but at least one other is.

Factor 1: Personality and Temperament – No surprise here; innovators must, from an early age, show a natural inclination to take risks and explore new options or places:

Individuals who ultimately make creative breakthroughs tend from their earliest days to be explorers, innovators, tinkerers. Never satisfied simply to follow the pack, they can usually be found experimenting in their chosen métier, and elsewhere as well… Often this adventurousness is interpreted as insubordination, though the more fortunate tinkerers receive from teachers or peers some encouragement for their experimentation. (32)

Factor 2: A Sheltered and Supportive Middle Class Life – This is more surprising. Being “bourgeois” is usually the epitome of dullness and conformity, but Gardner’s Fantastic Seven show distinctly bourgeois, middle class values. So much for adversity being a touchstone of creativity!

It was into an increasingly uncertain and unsettled world that the seven modern masters were born in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, and perhaps revealingly, most were born in smaller communities outside the great urban centers and led youthful lives that were at least somewhat sheltered from the most punishing aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Their families were at least moderately comfortable, and, while in some instances personally religious, they generally showed tolerance toward “free thinking.” They embodied and passed on to their children the bourgeois values of hard work and high achievement. (393)

Factor 3: Repetition, Mimicry and Mastery – This is the most surprising conclusion, since Gardner is considered a godfather of student-centered reform. What Gardner has found is a “10 year rule”. Essentially, a creative, innovative person does not start out as a creator and innovator. He or she must pay his or her dues. And that means carefully, often painstakingly, studying the masters and often copying their work. To be a student is not to be creative, but be respectful of tradition… a decade before you turn it on its head:

… at least ten years of steady work at a discipline or craft seem required before that métier has been mastered. The capacity to take a creative turn requires just such mastery, before a decade of sustained activity has been accomplished. Even Mozart, arguably the exception that proves the rule, had been composing for at least a decade before he could regularly produce works that are considered worthy of inclusion in the repertory. (32)

The prodigy tends to work in ignorance of what is going on at the forefront of the domain and, while often extremely gifted in mimicry, cannot be expected to go beyond conventional practices. Indeed, the prodigy will focus on his or her own interests, on pleasing “significant others,” or on mastering the common code of the domain, rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue with the leading innovators of the time, or with exemplary figures drawn from history. (139)

At a time when my province’s Premier’s Technology Council announces that creativity and innovation* are centerpieces of a 21st century economy, one has to wonder if people have really considered what it takes to turn young people into creative and innovative citizens. Gardner’s book suggests that an economically secure populace and a content-rich curriculum that focuses upon mastery learning might be essential building blocks for young learners. And the pedagogical emphasis on  “critical thinking”, moreover, may be somewhat premature.

One wonders if such “traditional” conclusions are the reason why the educational cognescenti celebrate something else from Gardner’s body of work.


  • “Creativity and innovation allow one to generate ideas and concepts, to see information in a different way from others, and to approach issues from a different direction…. Such a society is well educated, and relies on the knowledge of its citizens to drive the innovation, entrepreneurship and dynamism of that society’s economy.”



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