Where Does Creativity Come From? – Freakonomics Ep.355


From Freakonomics: Studies show kids are more creative when they aren’t promised a reward. But schools — with their incentives for performance and emphasis on quantifiable outcomes — may not be set up to prioritize creativity.(Photo: Ben_Kerckx/Pixabay)



WEIWEI: My name is Ai Weiwei. I’m 61 years old. I was born in 1957 in Beijing, China. But in the year I was born, my father was exiled.

In our previous episode, we asked the art economist David Galenson to name a true creative genius.

David GALENSON: I mean, Ai Weiwei is a giant. Ai Weiwei I believe is not only the most important painter in the world, he’s the most important person in art. Ai Weiwei has changed the world. With his art, he has made a contribution to political discourse. This is a unique person in art, almost in the last hundred years.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty)

WEIWEI: The officials came here and told them, look, there’s no way you’re going to get papers to continue. Either you go voluntarily, or we arrest you.

Ai Weiwei’s enduring obsession has been to stick his finger in the eye of the Chinese government. He helped design the Olympic stadium for Beijing’s 2008 Games; but by the time it was built, he’d attacked the organizers for cronyism and corruption. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed tens of thousands, he launched a citizens’ investigation into the poorly-built schools where so many children died; he gathered up the mangled rebar from quake sites and turned it into a sculpture called Straight. When the government placed him under surveillance, he responded by making a sculpture called Surveillance Camera. In 2011, Ai Weiwei was kidnapped and jailed by the Chinese government. Upon being set free, he decided it was best to leave China.

WEIWEI: Since I was born, I would be seen as a son of the enemy of the people. They see you are dangerous. They see you are someone who could have a potential to make big trouble.

DUBNER: They were right.

WEIWEI: They’re perfectly right. But I try to live up to that kind of conditions, too. I am not satisfied with what I did.



Maira Kalman is best known for her children’s books and her illustrated edition of The Elements of Style and her work for The New Yorker, including one of its most famous covers ever, called “New Yorkistan.” Her work manages to be whimsical and melancholy at once. Paintings of cake and dogs and demure old ladies in plume-y hats. She once bought a pair of the conductor Arturo Toscanini’s pants at auction, just to have them. Actually, she bought the whole suit …

Maira KALMAN: But his pants have a lot more panache when you say his pants.

That’s the composer Nico Muhly, the youngest person to ever have a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, in New York. He grew up in New England with a painter mom and a documentary-filmmaker dad.

MUHLY: And it’s the usual, you have to be driven to the thing and then you have to get all the books and you have to pay for these classes and whatever. So my parents were really great about that, but it wasn’t this version of the thing where it’s as if we were going to press you so hard to become a concert violinist. Nor was it, isn’t this a cute hobby but you need to work for Goldman Sachs. I think they found the good middle point.

It’s less about them being artists and more about them creating a household in which ideas were spoken about. And I think that’s the real luxury of my childhood was not necessarily being surrounded by art in that way, but by people who read and thought about a million things and channeled that into, not just artistic expression. I mean, we all know, we all have horror stories of people raised by artists.

Horror stories, maybe. But also success stories. Growing up in a creative household means learning not only that a creative life is possible; but if you pay attention, you can learn how to do it. That was the case with Elvis Costello, the singular singer-songwriter, whose father was a singer with a popular dance band.

Wynton Marsalis is one of the most celebrated musicians alive — a jazz and classical trumpeter who also composes, teaches, and runs the landmark Jazz at Lincoln Center program. His father, Ellis Marsalis, is also an accomplished jazz musician: a piano player.

So Ellis Marsalis supported the family by teaching.

Wynton’s mother was also a big influence.

MARSALIS: My mama was unique, and she had an originality. Her food tasted different, she had her own way of doing stuff. She was a big creative person.

DUBNER: The way she decorated your house, I understand was artistic? Yeah.

MARSALIS: Everything about her, everything. She grew up, she’s from the projects. So, she’s very unusual, because she very much had the street element which has become a cliché now. Then it wasn’t as cliché. And she was also it was her first to graduate from college, she went to Grambling University. She was extremely intelligent in terms of just her ability to do, she could do my chemistry homework when I was in high school and any spatial problem she understood. But she also had a very deep social consciousness that was not, it was not cliché.

And Wynton Marsalis distinguished himself at a very young age.

MARSALIS: Well, I played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic when I was 14. And the Brandenburg Concerto with the New Orleans Youth Orchestra when I was 16.

DUBNER: How did you recognize that trumpet was going to be what you were good at?

MARSALIS: Well, I didn’t know till I was 12 that I was going to be interested in it and then it was just a matter of applying, practicing and stuff. I noticed, if you practice you got better. Because a guy in my neighborhood was always picked on. And he saw Bruce LeeEnter the Dragon, and he decided to get some nunchucks. And man he would swing these sticks and then all of a sudden, maybe five months of him swinging these sticks every day, he became a virtuoso at it.

Then there was no more picking on him, calling him fat, taking his money, stuff that people liked to do him. All of a sudden it was, hey, say Fats, come swing them sticks for us. And then Fats, his name was Theodore. We called him Thedo. We grew up, we were in the country, Kenner, Louisiana the black side, segregated side. And I noticed one day, he had an encounter with a guy name we called Big Pull, and after that encounter he definitely was not picked on.

And I thought, “Man, practicing is something.” This guy, six months ago, everybody was picking on him, now he practiced swinging these sticks and his whole position in the hierarchy of this food chain has changed. I understood from watching him that just the diligence and repetition, intelligent repetition you could become better at things.


That’s the filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass, one half of another New Orleans brotherhood.

DUPLASS: We would sleep in Jay’s single bed together for way too late. Jay had already gone through puberty. I mean it was weird. But I think we started to develop this sense of we might try to become artists. And that seems like an impossible thing to do and be financially sustainable. So we better link arms and souls.

Mark and Jay Duplass both write, act, and direct, sometimes together, sometimes not. They had a pretty standard-issue suburban upbringing.

The Duplass brothers pretty much built their mental model of a creative life from scratch. For Rosanne Cash, the opposite was true. She’s the daughter of country-music legend Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian. As for Rosanne following in his footsteps:

Rosanne Cash went on to put out many records, mostly country and pop, some of them big hits; she’s also written four books. She’s about to release a new record, called She Remembers Everything. A childhood like hers — a musician father, always traveling; drugs and alcohol; fame and its attendant burdens; her parents’ divorce: it’s practically the model for what we think of as a dysfunctional family. And having a dysfunctional family is often seen as the model for living a creative life.

Teresa AMABILE: It’s false.

That’s Teresa Amabile, a social psychologist from Harvard who studies creativity.

AMABILE: Many creative people do have dysfunctional families but not every creative person has a dysfunctional family. There’s some interesting research on this by David Feldman and Robert Elbert and a number of other people who have looked at the biographical backgrounds of people who have distinguished themselves for their creativity. Very often they faced a lot of adversity in childhood. Maybe they had a serious illness themselves. Maybe a parent was seriously ill or died. Maybe there was an ugly, acrimonious divorce or they lost a sibling.

Those kinds of events can crush a child, they can they can lead to a lot of problems; they can lead to substance abuse, they can lead to various forms of emotional illness. They can also lead to incredible resilience and almost superhuman behaviors, seemingly, if people can come through those experiences intact. I don’t know if we — we being the field in general — have discovered what the keys are, what makes the difference for kids.

It is true, however, that eminent people in a range of fields are much more likely than the average person to have lost a parent at a young age. In the U.S., the rate of parental death before age 16 is 8 percent. For high-performing scientists, the rate is 26 percent; for U.S. presidents, 34 percent; for poets, 55 percent. But, we should note, the rate of parental death is also disproportionately high for … prisoners. So it may be that a parent’s death is a shock to any child’s system, but that it’s hard to predict the direction of that shock. Too much depends on the circumstances, like how talented the kid is or whether they have some key guidance.

AMABILE: Sometimes it’s one key adult who can somehow rescue them in their lives. Sometimes it seems to just be a trait of the kid. Something within themselves.

There’s also the notion that creativity itself can be a kind of coping mechanism — as it was for the graphic designer Michael Bierut.

Michael BIERUT: I was a really good elementary school and junior high school and high school artist. I was very accomplished, I could do very realistic drawings that impressed people. And boy, did I take pleasure in impressing people. Most of my other physical attributes and mannerisms were the things that would provoke many strangers just to beat me up. But this magic ability to draw things actually seemed to be a thing that even bullies would be impressed by.

Early on, I started associating creativity not with just something that I would do in a lonely room for my own satisfaction but something that somehow would give me a way of operating in the larger world. If you were designing a poster for the school play, you got to go to rehearsals. So even if you couldn’t sing or dance or act, you got to make a contribution to the overall effort that went into bringing that play to the stage.

SIMONTON: Well, that’s another example of a diversifying experience. Being in an out group.

Dean Simonton again.

SIMONTON: Being a minority, as long as you’re not oppressed. I mean, this is the problem. A lot of minorities are oppressed, and so they’re not going to realize their potential, even though they are more inclined to think outside the box. If they can’t get a job, then it’s not going to help them much. I mean, a good example of that is that Jews in Europe are well-known to be overrepresented in a lot of domains of creativity, particularly in the sciences. For example, Nobel prizes in the sciences, Jews are overrepresented.

DUBNER: It’s something like 20 percent.

SIMONTON: But, guess what? That’s most likely to be in the case where Jews were emancipated, where they were no longer subject to the kind of anti-Semitism that they saw in medieval Europe. In Switzerland and a number of other countries. So Switzerland, that disproportion is much much higher than you see in Russia, which actually has many more Jews, but had a much longer history of anti-Semitism.

Maira KALMAN: I used to use the Nazis invading my studio as a motivator to finish an assignment that I was dragging. And I would say, “Well, if the Nazis came in two hours, would it be done? What if they came in one hour — would it be done then?” And that was expecting the worst. And I was brought up, of course my family — especially from my father that sense of you never know what’s going to happen. Horrible things will happen.

Kalman grew up in Israel, her parents having escaped Belarus before the Holocaust. But the rest of her father’s family did not make it out.

Maira KALMAN: In our family, all roads lead to the Holocaust. It’s kind of an inescapable part of a section of our lives and it’s a reference point for so many things. When we talk about politics or things being bad and we say, “Well, it’s not the Holocaust so get a grip.”


The Mmuseumm is housed in an old freight elevator. (Photo: alexkalman/Wikimedia)

Maira and Tibor Kalman’s son Alex is now 33 years old. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of his creative spirit comes from his mother and his father. His main project at the moment is a small museum called Mmuseumm, he calls it “a contemporary natural history museum” and a form of “object journalism.” This is where “Sara Berman’s Closet” originated, before it landed at the Met. We visited Mmuseumm with Alex Kalman one afternoon. Mmuseumm is very, very small. How small? It’s housed in an old freight elevator. About three people can fit comfortably. And yet: it is a museum.

DUBNER: This is nicely done.

Alex KALMAN: Museum quality.

DUBNER: It is museum quality.

Alex KALMAN: It is.

DUBNER: Seriously.

Alex KALMAN: Yeah. Well the idea is that it’s a museum. There’s certain rules we felt we had to follow.


Alex KALMAN: And if we did that then, there’s other rules we could play with. So this collection is called “Modern Religion,” and it’s basically exploring how these ancient traditions stay relevant in today’s society and one way of staying relevant is redesigning the elements or the tools of that religion to fit in with modern trends. So today, everybody’s gluten-free. So now there’s gluten-free communion wafers. Or everybody’s on-the-go, so there’s on-the-go Communion kits. It’s looking at these seemingly banal objects, and 

DUBNER: And this one here is the 

Alex KALMAN: Yeah.

DUBNER: Really? It looks like a piece of Nicorette, and is that wine and a little host, then?

Alex KALMAN: That’s right, yeah. The idea in Mmuseumm is that we want to touch on many different notes of what it means to be human. So there’s things in here that are totally devastating and there’s things in here that are completely absurd and we don’t want the trick to be on you. We want you to be a part of it.

I asked Kalman how his father, and his father’s death, influenced him as a human and as a creative.

Alex KALMAN: There always felt to be a really deep and natural and profound connection between Maira and Tibor and Lulu and me.

Lulu is Alex’s sister.

KALMAN: So there is just a sensibility and a way of feeling and interacting and thinking and doing and why we’re doing and what we’re doing that feels very just binding and natural. And I often think that, subconsciously, the work that I do today feels like a way of maintaining a dialogue with Tibor and he feels very present and very active in it all.

*      *      *


So how’d that happen?

DYSON: So all I knew about creativity, or the only creative thing I did in school, was art. I went off to art school or arts university to pursue art as a career, as a painter, in fact. But when I got there — and this is in London — I discovered that you could do quite a large number of forms of design, like furniture design, interior design, architecture, ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, filmmaking, and so on. And I became interested in design but ended up doing architecture.

And while I was doing architecture I discovered that I was very interested in structural engineering. I don’t know why. Except that at that time, it was the time of Buckminster Fuller and his triadic structures, geodesic structures, and Frei Otto with cable-tensioned structures. And it was a time that concrete and, for that matter bricks, were disappearing as the structure for buildings and being replaced by steel structures of one sort or another. And I realized that architecture was going to be about the structure and the engineering, and not so much the form. And I found engineering fascinating, I don’t know why. I’d never come across it in my life before.

DUBNER: I’m curious if you were at all intimidated by the notion of architecture and engineering as much as it appealed to you, did it strike you as something that lay outside the realm of possibility for a boy who came from a family where the classics were the foundation? Did it seem at first just too hard?

DYSON: Not at all. You have to remember — or maybe it’s my arrogance, but you have to remember this was the mid-60s in London, where anything was possible. And it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t be an architect or a structural engineer or anything for that matter.

It’s probably no coincidence that moving to a big city like London changed the way James Dyson thought about his creative prospects. The same thing happened to Ai Weiwei years ago when he lived in New York City for several years.

WEIWEI: Yes, basically the whole universe is so quiet. Not everywhere is like New York City.

The world has gotten more urban over the past few decades. And that’s probably a good thing for the sake of creativity and innovation. Economists like Harvard’s Ed Glaeser argue that cities play an outsized role in economic growth.

Ed GLAESER: I think the city is our greatest invention because it plays to something that is so fundamental in humanity. It plays to our ability to learn from one another.

Our ability to learn from one another in cities. Ideas colliding, on purpose and by accident. Also, there’s competition in cities — and with that competition comes strong incentives to create. But this raises its own, larger question: is creativity best-served by external incentives and motivation, or internal? When Wynton Marsalis was first thinking about pursuing a career in music, his father warned him: he said don’t do it unless you truly love it. “Don’t sit around waiting for publicity, money, people saying you’re great,” he told him, because “that might never happen.” Things obviously worked out well for Wynton Marsalis, but he remembers his father’s message well, and passes it along to his own students in the jazz program at Juilliard, where he teaches.

MARSALIS: My first thing I have my students do is write a mission statement. And that mission statement has three sentences. What do I want to do, how do I achieve it, and why am I doing it? And based on that mission statement, I teach them. And I have, my fundamental teaching to them is, I want you to rise above the cycle of punishment and reward. I’m not going to reward you or punish you. This is information, and you can do what you want with this information. So, you’re always actualizing. And I always tell them, if you want to learn something I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn it, I cannot teach you.

What Ellis Marsalis taught Wynton, and what Wynton teaches his students, is supported by the academic research on creativity and children. A few decades ago, the Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper ran an experiment with nursery-school students in which he first watched them doing various activities, one of which was drawing with markers. Teresa Amabile, who studied under Lepper when she was getting her Ph.D., tells the story.

AMABILE: He then took all of the children, if they’d shown any real interest in these markers, he put them into his experiment. And had them go into a separate room and they were randomly assigned to one of a couple of conditions. The experimental condition was one where the children sat down, and the experimenter said, “Hi, I’ve got some Magic Markers and some paper here for you. I wonder, would you be willing to make a drawing for me with these materials in order to get this “good player award?” And the experimenter then held up this little award certificate with a big shiny gold star on it and a place to write in the child’s name. That was the expected-reward condition.

The kids in this group, as promised, got the certificate for making a drawing. A second group of kids were invited to make a drawing — with no mention of a reward — and got the certificate as a surprise afterwards. This was called the “unexpected-reward condition.” And a third group of kids, a control group, made drawings but were neither promised a reward nor surprised with one.

AMABILE: The results were amazing. They were very strong. The kids who were in the control condition, who were in the unexpected-reward condition, were just as interested in playing with those markers and drawing pictures in their free play time as they had been before they went into the experimental room. The kids who were in the promised-reward condition, the contracted-for-reward condition, were significantly less interested in playing with those markers. So this showed very clearly — and there were many subsequent experiments showing — that intrinsic motivation, intrinsic interest in children and in adults, can be undermined by the expectation of reward.

This finding — that extrinsic motivation can erode someone’s intrinsic desire to create — came as a surprise.

AMABILE: It was revolutionary at the time, which was the early 1970s, because behaviorism still held sway in much of psychology, the notion that rewards are purely good, that they motivate behavior, that you can shape behavior with reward and that is true. In fact it’s still true that rewards can be very powerful shapers of behavior. But Mark discovered this very counter-intuitive, unexpected, unintended negative consequence of reward.

Amabile herself, in a follow-up experiment, explored how extrinsic motivation affects the quality of creative work. She gave kids a bunch of art supplies and asked them each to make a collage.

AMABILE: Without a really strict time limit, although we generally guide people to finish the collage in 15 to 20 minutes.

The kids were divided into two groups. The first group was not promised any sort of reward; the second was told that the best collages would win an Etch-a-Sketch or a Magic 8 Ball. This was called the “competitive-reward condition.” Now all Amabile needed were some judges.

AMABILE: I brought in people from the art department at Stanford individually and asked them to rate each collage relative to the others on creativity on a nine-point scale, something like that. And when I analyzed the data, I found that the kids in the competitive-reward condition, made collages that were significantly less creative than the ones made by the kids in the other condition.

Based on this research and more, it would seem that the promise of extrinsic rewards — the kind of incentives that economists think encourage productivity — that actually discourages creativity, and decreases the quality. At least for kids, in these settings — it’s impossible to generalize. But the evidence is strong enough for Amabile to draw some conclusions.

AMABILE: I think that the biggest mistake we make in our schools, and I’m talking about everything from kindergarten now up through college, is to focus kids too much on how the work is going to be evaluated. Part of that is the extreme focus on testing in the United States right now and the past several years. Part of it is the way curricula have been structured, even before the current major push on testing.

There’s too much focus on “what is the right answer, what are people going to think of what I’m about to say?” and too little focus on “what am I learning, what cool stuff do I know now that I didn’t know last week or a year ago, what cool things can I do now that I couldn’t do before?” And I think that if we could if we could switch that focus, we would do a lot to open up kids’ creativity.

Kids come intrinsically motivated to learn, and we stamp that out of them through the educational system. I don’t think it’s impossible to reorient the way we teach. It’s not going to be easy. But I think we can do it. I think we have to do it.

Walter ISAACSON: I think we all see kids who are slightly rebellious, who talk back, who question the teacher.

That’s Walter Isaacson, who’s written biographies of Steve JobsLeonardo da VinciBenjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein.

ISAACSON: And at a certain point, the teacher either spends more time and lets the imagination wander or punishes them and says, “Quit questioning me.” Einstein ran away from his school in Germany because he was expected to learn by rote, and he was swatted down every time he tried to question the teacher. So he was lucky — he gets to run away and go to Switzerland, where they have a new type of school system that nurtures questioning authority.

One institution that has raised the questioning of authority to an art form is the M.I.T. Media Lab. It has research units called Opera of the Future and Biomechatronics — and Lifelong Kindergarten. That last one is run by a professor of learning research.

Mitch RESNICK: My name is Mitch Resnick.

Resnick argues that randomized, controlled experimentation — the gold standard of a lot of science — just doesn’t work very well for a subject like creativity.

RESNICK: One problem is it changes one variable at a time. And I don’t think any one variable is going to be the key to creativity. I think that what we see is the most creative environments have lots of different things that work together in an integrated way. So it’s really not so easy to take the classic approach of make a tweak in one variable and see the changes. I don’t think it’s going to be the way that we’re going to get a deeper understanding of the creative process.

Resnick argues that the lack of clear, quantifiable outcomes is a big reason why schools don’t prioritize creativity.

RESNICK: Schools end up focusing on the things that are most easily assessed, rather than focusing on the things that are most valuable for kids and valuable for thriving in today’s society. So what we need to do is to focus more on trying to assess the things we value rather than valuing the things that are most easily assessed.

Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten group develop software that lets kids make things, like animated stories or interactive Lego models.

RESNICK: Very often, traditional learning has taken the form of delivering information, delivering instruction. And the view has been if we just find a better way to deliver the instruction, kids will learn more. But I think research has shown that learning happens when kids, and adults for that matter, actively construct new ideas. There’s the expression we “get” ideas. We don’t “get” ideas. We make ideas. So I think that yes, there’s some role for just delivering information. But I think the most important creative experiences come when kids are actively engaged in making new ideas through their interactions with the world.

The program is called Lifelong Kindergarten because Resnick thinks the ideas should extend well beyond childhood.

RESNICK: We focus on four guiding principles that I call the four Ps of creative learning: projects, passion, peers, and play. So we feel that the best way to support kids developing as creative thinkers and developing their creative capacities is to engage them in working on projects based on their passions in collaboration with peers in a playful spirit.

We lead most of our lives by working on projects. A marketing manager coming up with the new ad campaign is working on a project. A journalist writing the article is working on a project; in our personal life, we plan someone’s birthday party. That’s a project. So we want kids to learn about the process of making projects.

We also want them to work on things that they’re passionate about. We’ve seen over and over that people are willing to work longer and harder and persist in the face of challenges when they’re working on things they really care about. They also make deeper connection to ideas when they’re working on projects that they really care about.

The third P of peers — we’ve seen that learning is a social activity, that the best learning happens in collaboration and sharing with others. We learn with and from others.

Then the final P of play, I sometimes call the most misunderstood P. Often when people think about play they just think about fun and laughter. And I have nothing against fun and laughter but that’s not the essence what I’m talking about. I see play not just as an activity but a type of attitude and approach for engaging with the world. When someone has a playful approach, it means they’re constantly experimenting, trying new things, taking risks, testing the boundaries. And I think the most creative activities come about what we’re willing to experiment and take risks.

Jennifer EGAN: I remember when I would come home from school and no one was home and I didn’t have a plan. There was this almost mysterious excitement that I would feel about just being alone.

That’s the writer Jennifer Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad.

EGAN: I have to say, I feel I lost touch with that through maybe even decades of my life where I was so worried about what everyone else was doing, how I measured up, how what I should be doing as opposed to what I was doing whether there was some important thing everyone else was doing that I should be doing too. And this was before social media. I think this is a scourge for young people now. From everything I hear. But if I can get that out of my head, which I find easier and easier as I get older, there’s a feeling that there’s sort of a mystery that’s waiting for me that I can possibly enter.

There’s so many childhood narratives that are really about this. I mean, The Secret Garden, all the Narnia books about passing through a membrane or a border or a door or jumping into a pool and being in another world. It’s a really basic fantastical longing. This wish to be at a distance from one’s own life and to touch something outside it, which is first of all thrilling in and of itself. And second of all returns you to your real life charged in some way. That’s what fiction writing does for me.

ISAACSON: I think that when we’re young, we really indulge our wonder years.

Walter Isaacson again.

ISAACSON: That notion of playing and being imaginative, and having downtime where you can be creative — that’s something we sometimes lose in our school systems today.

One beneficiary of this creative downtime? Leonardo da Vinci.

ISAACSON: He had the great fortune to be born out of wedlock, which meant that he couldn’t go to one of the Latin schools that middle-class families of the Renaissance went to. And so he’s self-taught — he sits by a stream and puts rocks and different obstacles in it to see how the water swirls, and he draws it. And then he looks at how air swirls. All of these things you get to do when you’re young, you’re full of wonder, and you’re using your imagination.

We see that in Ben Franklin as a young kid, just being interested in, “Why does condensation form on the outside of a cold cup?” The type of thing that maybe we thought about, but somehow we quit thinking about. So that’s the number-one secret of being imaginative and creative, is almost being childlike in your sense of wonder. Albert Einstein said that. He said, “I’m not necessarily smarter than anybody else, but I was able to retain my childlike sense of wonder at the marvels of creation in which we find ourselves.”

But Walter Isaacson — like Mitch Resnick and Teresa Amabile — isn’t calling for a ban on conventional instruction.

ISAACSON: I think that creativity is something you can nurture, and even try to teach. But more importantly, creativity without skill — creativity without training and learning — can be squandered. If Louis Armstrong had not found somebody — King Oliver — to teach him how to play the cornet, all of his imagination would have been lost. So we should not disparage the role of training, of learning.

The same is true of Einstein — as a little kid, he’s wondering how the compass needle twitches and points north. What’s important is that he goes to the Zurich Polytech and starts understanding the concepts behind Maxwell’s equations. So people who think we should just nurture creativity without the skill sets and the training that allow creativity to be turned into action, to allow for things like applied creativity, they’re being too romantic about it. Leonardo had to work in Verrocchio’s workshop and learn how to do a brush stroke.

There are, of course, plenty of obstacles that may keep a person from gaining both proper instruction and the latitude to play and imagine. Nor is every kid lucky enough to grow up with two parents as talented and creative as Tibor and Maira Kalman. Or with parents like Margaret Geller’s, taking her to Bell Labs and indulging her passion for acting. These are privileges, not rights. They’re not always fully appreciated. Here’s John Hodgman, the comedian, author, and former Daily Show correspondent.