ERIC Identifier: ED429186
Publication Date: 1999-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Creativity in Adulthood. ERIC Digest No. 204.
Creativity is a concept surrounded by a number of beliefs and misconceptions.
People believe it is limited to only a few; it declines seriously with age; and
it is associated primarily with uniqueness or innovation or "artists"
(Adams-Price 1998; McCormick and Plugge 1997; Runco 1996). However, research
shows that creative thinking is a universal ability that can help adults manage
satisfying lives and that is increasingly in demand in the workplace. This
Digest reviews some of this research in order to identify ways to help adults
discover and fulfill their creative potential.
NATURE OR NURTURE?
What is creativity? Torrance's
definition is often cited: sensitivity to problems, deficiencies, and gaps in
information; making guesses, formulating hypotheses; evaluating and testing; and
communicating results (McCracken 1998). Creativity is a complex of traits,
skills, and capacities, including the ability to work autonomously, curiosity,
unconventional thinking, openness to experience, and tolerance of ambiguity
(Adams-Price 1998; Albert 1996). Highly creative adults exhibit deep knowledge
of and a strong bond with their subject matter, as well as intrinsic motivation
(Amabile 1996; Keegan 1996).
Creativity research has focused on personality traits of creative individuals
(Amabile 1996). This emphasis has led to the assumptions that creativity is
largely innate or immutable and creative people are distinct from noncreative
people. Recently, more attention is being paid to social and environmental
factors that influence creativity. Newer definitions describe creativity as the
confluence of cognitive processes, knowledge, thinking style, personality,
motivation, and environment over the life span (Adams-Price 1998; Sasser-Coen
1993). It is also associated with the creation of meaning and the drive for
psychic wholeness ("Creativity in Later Life" 1991), a way to address and
resolve dissatisfactions and improve the quality of life (Adams-Price 1998), and
a "profound response to the limits and uncertainties of existence" ("Creativity
in Later Life" 1991, p. 9). For some people, creativity is an adaptive,
innovative response to environmental sources of distress such as early death of
a parent or other family problems, misfortunes, or conflicts (Adams-Price 1998;
Albert 1996), whereas in other people the coping mechanisms might be substance
abuse, depression, or withdrawal (McCormick and Plugge 1997).
A growing body of research is examining how environmental factors affect the
creativity of men and women in different ways. For many women, creative
expression is limited by their education and training, cultural standards, lack
of social support, and traditional gender expectations. Pohlman (1996) finds
that, for men, creative identity is balanced by the experience of parenthood;
for women, the two roles conflict. As parents, men preserve a creative space or
"room of their own"; women cede this space to family demands. Women inventors
(McCracken 1998) cite gender discrimination as a hindrance to creative activity.
Women artists describe difficult family-related choices they had to make that
diverted them from their art, although such obstacles as lack of support, money,
or child care contributed to the creative process and their identity as artists
(Kirschenbaum and Reis 1997).
Although the artist suffering in solitude is a common image, creative
activity is correlated with psychological and physical well-being, arising from
detached reflection on difficult experiences and transformation of them
("Creativity in Later Life" 1991). Social environment, role models, and cultural
values, attitudes, and practices also inhibit or nurture creative impulses
(Powell 1994). In school and work environments, creativity "killers" include
working under surveillance; restricting choices; working for inappropriate
extrinsic rewards; fearing failure, judgment, or appearing foolish; having to
find the "right answer"; being evaluated; working under time pressure; and
competing (Amabile 1996; Grupas 1990).
CREATIVITY, ADULT DEVELOPMENT, AND AGING
influences may explain in part why childhood creativity seems to be a poor
predictor of adult creativity (Albert 1996). Although most young children are
very creative, it is estimated that creativity diminishes by 40% between the
ages of 5 and 7 (Grupas 1990; McCormick and Plugge 1997). At these ages, formal
schooling begins, and there is some agreement that education inhibits the
transformation of early talent into adult creativity (Albert 1996; Amabile
1996). It may be that schooling and/or stage of cognitive development at that
age emphasizes logical rather than divergent thinking, or that schools (and
families) value conventional behavior, well-defined problems, and good grades
Albert maintains that "the creativity found among some adolescents and adults
shows a minimal degree of continuity from childhood" and that creativity that
"does not go past puberty is basically different from that of those children who
are creative in adolescence and adulthood" (ibid., p. 45). Keegan (1996)
disagrees, finding an essential continuity between creative child and creative
adult. He considers the differences a matter of degree, not kind, asserting that
creative adults exhibit an accumulation of knowledge, sense of purpose, and love
of their work, traits that can be approximated by children and adolescents. It
is the acquisition of expert knowledge that brings adults to higher levels of
Research on adult creativity typically depicts a bell curve, with a peak in
the 30s and 40s and a noticeable drop afterward, leading to stereotypes of
decline and deterioration in later life. However, Simonton (Adams-Price 1998;
"Creativity in Later Life" 1991) puts several qualifiers on this notion of
curve is merely a statistical average with numerous exceptions.
trajectory varies greatly across disciplines.
of creative output may decline, but not quality.
individual differences in creative potential outweigh age differences.
bloomers" attain creative peaks at later ages.
secondary peak or resurgence often occurs after the late 60s.
Bronte's (1997) Long Career Study supports these assertions. Among the 150
adults studied, over half started their most creative period around age 50, some
after retirement. Bronte suggests that recent increases in life expectancy and
the slowing of physical aging are changing observed developmental patterns. She
also notes that "youth is the most creative period of life only in a short
lifetime" (p. 11). Both Bronte and Kastenbaum ("Creativity in Later Life" 1991)
suggest that healthy adults may not experience creative declines, but for others
cognitive, sensory, or physical impairments may hinder creative expression.
However, musicians aged 65-94 (Kahn 1998) largely described themselves as
healthy or well despite arthritis, hearing loss, and other impairments. Kahn
concludes that regular participation in creative activity contributes to
self-perceptions of well-being. Lindauer (in Adams-Price 1998) concurs: the
substantial number of artists who remained creative into old age suggests that
involvement in creative activity has a positive, therapeutic effect.
Older adults do seem to experience a decrease in divergent thinking, the
ability to generate a quantity of novel ideas. However, taking a life-span
developmental approach, Sasser-Coen (1993) considers this not a decline but a
qualitative change in the creative process, because with age comes an increase
in crystallized intelligence and integrative or convergent thinking. Later life
may afford more time for reflection and creative pursuits aimed at the
construction of one's life story, the filling-in of those gaps and
discontinuities referred to earlier. Adams-Price (1998) concludes that the
association of creativity with novelty and innovation is appropriate for the
characteristics of youthful thinking, but late-life creativity reflects aspects
of late-life thinking: synthesis, reflection, and wisdom.
ENHANCING ADULTS' CREATIVE POTENTIAL
In summary, creativity
is a confluence of personality traits, ways of thinking and knowing, and social
and environmental influences. It is a universal ability that does not decline
with age but changes qualitatively with cognitive development and the
accumulation of life experience and expert knowledge. Formal schooling may
hinder rather than foster creative thinking. In fact, some research implies that
creativity training does not directly improve creativity, although it may
enhance academic achievement (Albert 1996) or develop skills relevant to
creative performance (Amabile 1996).
What can educators do to help people develop their creative potential, to
lead more enriched and rewarding lives, and to make productive and meaningful
contributions in the workplace, community, and civil society? There is consensus
that the environment in work and educational institutions is a great influence.
The organizational climate should encourage assertion of ideas, not rely on
order and tradition, and not make people afraid to fail. Other environmental
factors include the following (Amabile 1996; Edelson in press; Powell 1994):
providing time and resources; developing expertise; giving positive,
constructive feedback that is work or task focused; encouraging a spirit of play
and experimentation; providing a mix of styles and backgrounds with
opportunities for group interaction; making a safe place for risk taking;
allowing free choice in task engagement; offering rewards that recognize
achievement or enable additional performance but maintain intrinsic motivation
rather than controlling behavior. Surveillance and evaluation are detrimental,
as are stress and pressure unrelated to the project (Amabile 1996).
Amabile suggests the use of creativity heuristics that guide problem solving
and invention: rearranging/juxtaposing elements of a problem;
brainstorming--less concern with the validity of an idea than with its value in
generating further ideas; making the familiar strange and the strange familiar;
and generating hypotheses by using analogies, accounting for exceptions, and
Edelson (1996) describes an innovative method for teaching creativity and
leadership to adults in a corporate setting who wished to overcome fear of
failure and the inhibiting influences of stress within their industry. Using a
technique called "lizard therapy," each participant cut out and colored a lizard
they then placed on a picture of a stone wall in areas of their choosing. The
participants created a colony and then talked about life as a reptile and why
each lizard inhabited a specific location on the wall. The exercise highlighted
the importance of modifying the corporate culture through collective individual
behavior so that the environment could become more hospitable to creative
behavior. It demonstrated that having fun at work and acting creatively were
compatible with being professional and productive.
Personal, social, and environmental barriers to creativity might be overcome
if the popular conception of it as mysterious inspiration or genius yields to
Powell's (1994) cross-cultural definition: finding and shaping one's life
perception and telling one's experiences through creative expression.
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