“The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting.”
— Howard E. Gardner

Key Terms: Intrinsic Motivation, Fruitful Asynchrony, Affective/Cognitive Support

Howard E. Gardner’s Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi sets out to characterize factors in the development of creative thinkers. This ambitious project offers a number of fascinating suggestions and arguments, supporting them with evaluations of the titular selection of modern-era creative exemplars. While Gardner’s project tends a bit too much toward a focus on superlative creativity–creative genius, I would call it–he nonetheless offers a few particularly interesting (and, to my thinking, useful) observations about creative development and how it might be encouraged.

Gardner’s definition of the creative individual is quite useful as well: “The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting” (35). He elaborates in particular detail:

1. My statement that a person must be creative in a domain, rather than across all domains, directly challenges the conceptualization of an all-purpose creative trait that underlies tests of creativity. I am focusing on the particular domains or disciplines within which an individual works, and the ways those domains may be refashioned as a result of a creative breakthrough.

2. My claim that creative individuals regularly exhibit their creativity calls into question the possibility of having a once-in-a-lifetime burst of creativity. Indeed, as Gruber has so well illustrated, creative individuals wish to be creative, and they organize their lives so as to heighten the likelihood that they will achieve a series of creative breakthroughs. In general, only the creative individual who dies at a young age is a likely candidate for one-shot creativity.

3. By insisting that creativity can involve the fashioning of products or the devising of new questions as well as the solution of problems, I challenge psychometric and computer simulation approaches, which prove far better at resolving extant problems than at forging new products or at defining new problems. Of course, much creative work does involve the solution of problems already recognized as such. But at the higher reaches, creativity is far more often characterized by the fashioning of a new kind of product, or by the discovery of an unknown or neglected set of issues or themes that call for fresh exploration.

4. I assert that creative activities are only known as such when they have been accepted in a particular culture. No time limit is assumed here; a product may be recognized as creative immediately—or not for a century or even for a millennium. But the crucial (if controversial) point here is that nothing is, or is not, creative in and of itself. Creativity is inherently a communal or cultural judgment. The most one can say about an entity before it has been evaluated by the community is that it (or he or she) is “potentially creative.” And evaluation must be undertaken by a relevant portion of one’s community or one’s culture: No other arbiters are available. (Gardner 35-36)

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

Gardner writes, “In a series of illuminating experimental demonstrations, social psychologist Teresa Amabile has called attention to the importance of ‘intrinsic motivation.’ Contrary to what is predicted by classical psychological accounts, Amabile has shown that creative solutions to problems occur more often when individuals engage in an activity for its sheer pleasure than when they do so for possible external rewards. Indeed, knowledge that one will be judged on some criterion of ‘creativeness’ or ‘originality’ tends to narrow the scope of what one can produce (leading to products that are then judged as relatively conventional); in contrast, the absence of an evaluation seems to liberate creativity” (25).

Gardner’s reference to the concept of intrinsic motivation offers rather direct support to Johnson’s claims. Much as Johnson criticizes the notion of masochistic toil–wherein students labor only for the hope of a (generally grade-based) reward–Gardner indicates that creativity thrives when tasks are undertaken for pleasure and personal satisfaction, rather than to attempt to attain some sort of external reward. Thus, Gardner’s arguments support my own claim: If we consider creative thought–following Gardner’s definition of the “creative individual”–a desirable goal, then, to foster such an academic community as described above, we must facilitate students bringing their own legitimate interests to the classroom and its associated projects.

Simply put, to encourage each student to be a “person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted,” then we must find a way to invite their legitimate intellectual investment in their work. Therefore, even if only as a way in to the academic community, it remains key that we encourage students to treat their own interests as serious, respected domains of study.

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

Gardner is primarily concerned with the environment surrounding the creative individual. He describes a key domain of his study as: “The relationship between an individual and other persons in his or her world. Though creative individuals are often thought of as working in isolation, the role of other individuals is crucial throughout their development. In this study I examine the roles of family and teachers during the formative years, as well as the roles of crucial supportive individuals during the times in which a creative breakthrough seems imminent” (Gardner 8).

In considering this, he forms the following claim: “Not only did the creators all have some kind of significant support system at that time, but this support system appeared to have a number of defining components. First, the creator required both affective support from someone with whom he or she felt comfortable and cognitive support from someone who could understand the nature of the breakthrough. In some situations, the same person could supply both needs, while on other occasions, such double duty was unsuccessful or impossible.” (Gardner 44).

Here again, Gardner’s claims orient to the (perhaps obvious-seeming) need to offer both intellectual and emotional support to students in order to foster their creative engagement. While it may be possible for the teacher to offer “affective support,” certainly it behooves us to offer “cognitive support,” particularly as we represent the person of academic authority within the classroom and, by extension, the capacity to effectively legitimize students’ interests. This may be as simple as treating those interests seriously, rather than casting students’ interests as secondary or inferior to those of the instructor or institution. (And again, Johnson’s renegade rhetoric may be necessary.)

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

This is a key component in Gardner’s understanding of creativity. He states unequivocally, “I shall argue that creative breakthroughs in one realm cannot be collapsed uncritically with breakthroughs in other realms; Einstein’s thought processes and scientific achievements differ from those of Freud, and even more so from those of Eliot or Gandhi. A single variety of creativity is a myth” (Gardner 8). Though this may not quite constitute a “how” to design to address this need, it certainly speaks to said need. However, the claims I have noted above–particularly the need for students’ intrinsic motivation–seem to indicate a beginning to this question of “how.”

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play—enjoyment and engagement—to learning, cognition, and individual development?

While Gardner does not extensively address play as a specific goal, he does note that a “childlike” approach to thinking may be key in some forms of creative thought. He states, “I argue, further, that each creative breakthrough entails an intersection of the childlike and the mature; the peculiar genius of the modern in the twentieth century has been its incorporation of the sensibility of the very young child” (Gardner 7-8). In describing his objects of study–particularly Einstein–Gardner observes that youthful fascination with particular questions was a driving force behind Einstein’s creative thinking. Particularly considering the links that Raph Koster offers between learning and play, this can be read as a fairly direct link between play and creative cognition.

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

While Gardner does not specifically address language, the broader concept of students’ inclusion/exclusion and the complexity of their identities is certainly considered. For one, broadly, he writes, “I wish to stress that all creative activity grows, first, out of the relationships between an individual and the objective world of work and, second, out of the ties between an individual and other human beings” (Gardner 9). The borderlands here are many, if subtle, existing both internally (between the creative individual and his/her work) and externally (between the creative individual and the community of other individuals within whom s/he operates.

In discussing T. S. Eliot, Gardner makes the following observation: “More so than others, Eliot affords an opportunity to consider the marginality of the modern creative figure—caught between cultures, ‘inhabiting’ diverse time periods, experiencing painful personal anxieties and disjunctions on the border of mental disturbance” (11). While I do not embrace Gardner’s claims about the “Faustian pact” that a creative individual must make, thus forfeiting elements of happiness and personal satisfaction, it does seem important to acknowledge the “personal anxieties and disjunctions” that many of us suffer within the academy. I place this in a different context than Gardner does, but I would argue that the concept applies.

Also notable here is Gardner’s notion of “fruitful asynchrony,” which he discusses thusly:

One might claim that, in the case of a universally acclaimed prodigy, the prodigy’s talents mesh perfectly with the current structure of the domain and the current tastes of the field. Creativity, however, does not result from such perfect meshes. In using the term asynchrony, I refer to a lack of fit, an unusual pattern, or an irregularity within the creativity triangle. Asynchrony within a node occurs when there is an unusual pattern at one of the three nodes. For instance, there may be an unusual profile of intelligences within an individual (as when the young Picasso displayed precocious spatial intelligence but very meager scholastic intelligences); a domain that is experiencing a large amount of tension (as when different schools of music were vying for hegemony in Stravinsky’s time); or a field that is just beginning to shift in a new direction (as occurred when certain enterprising critics emerged around the time that modern dance was taking form).

Asynchrony across nodes is equally important. For example, the talent profile of an individual may be unusual for a domain (as when Freud’s acute personal intelligences proved atypical in a scientist). Or an individual may find himself or herself in tension with a field as currently constituted (as when Einstein could not get a job after completing his degree). Or there may be tension between a domain and a field (as when classical music was moving sharply in an atonal direction, while the audiences and critics continued to favor tonal music).

Naturally, some asynchrony will mark any productivity, whether highly creative or not. My claim is based on two other propositions: First, there can be cases of asynchrony that are too modest or too pronounced; neither proves productive for creativity. An intermediate amount of tension or asynchrony, here termed fruitful asynchrony, is desirable. Second, the more instances of fruitful asynchrony that surround a case, the more likely that genuinely creative work will emerge. However, an excess of asynchrony may prove nonproductive: What is desirable is to have substantial asynchrony, without being overwhelmed by it. (Gardner 41)

“Thus, creativity lies not in the head (or hand) of the artist or in the domain of practices or in the set of judges: Rather, the phenomenon of creativity can only–or, at any rate, more fully–be understood as a function of interactions among these three nodes.”
— Howard E. Gardner


Gardner, Howard E. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Kindle edition.