Knowledge & creativity (or three creativity downers due to shallow knowledge)

There are a lot of things we connotate with creativity. Some are indeed important others are myths and misbeliefs (like confusing creative with artistic). Knowledge, in our everyday language, is rarely mentioned as key factor for novel and appropriate ideas (aka creativity). Knowledge seems like the boring, "unsexy" part of creativity. Matter of fact, you can google anything and fill your knowledge gaps instantly, right? Why bother?

In this blog post we'd like to reflect on the following question: Why missing/shallow knowledge curbs creativity? 

In the following we describe three dangers that occur from a lack of knowledge that affect creativity negatively. Consequently it also affects subsequent phases of creativity like innovation or entrepreneurship. The three dangers that we explore in this post are:

  1. The technology trap
  2. The curiosity low
  3. The resources shortage

The technology trap

Technology offers great services to boost our knowledge. Just type in your query into a search engine and voilà, your answer is served. And it will go even further if we can believe Larry Page, one of the two Google founders, interviewed back in 2004 in a Newsweek "Search will be included in people's brains ... When you think about something and don't really know much about it, you will automatically get information" (TheGuardian, 2013).

This is a great technological achievement but used incorrectly, it hinders creativity. 

First of all, it might serve you information, but by no means it makes you knowledgeable about a certain domain. For instance, it just takes seconds to know about the four forces of flight (drag, thrust, lift and weight) but that does not make you a space engineer. More importantly, it does not allow you to change the domain with novel and useful responses to a problem because that (shallow) knowledge does not allow for new ideas to spur innovation. 

Secondly, just because all the information is at our fingertips, it still needs a reflective mind to ask the right questions in the right way. Problem-definition is just as important as problem-solving from a creativity perspective. Paradoxically, the more accurate search engines get, the lazier the questions become to get the information according to Amit Singhal, Head of Search at Google in a 2013 interview

It really depends on how we use tech. If you use it to accumulate dangerous half-knowledge and rely on smart algorithms to auto-complete your queries you might experience your creativity to atrophy. If on the other hand you see it as a starting point and as something that needs further reflection, it might indeed offer unprecedented opportunities. 

The curiosity low

There is another danger that can affect creativity resulting from a lack of knowledge. Let's call it the 'curiosity low'. Curiosity, your inner drive to explore new and unknown things, can certainly be seen as an important characteristic of creative people. But why are people curious? 

One of the most wide spread curiosity theories comes from psychologist George Loewenstein. He basically suggests that information propels curiosity by raising awareness of our ignorance on a certain topic that in turn sparks our desire to know more about it. In other words: as we get to know something about a subject, we also get to know all the things we don't know about it and want to close that gap. On the other extreme, when we know too much about a topic, we feel like we got it and stop further exploring it. Curiosity is sparked, when we know just enough to close the gap between existing knowledge and the assumed (subjective) knowledge on this topic. 

As a consequence, if you have very little (or shallow) knowledge about a topic, you might not get curious enough to learn more about it. As a consequence you might not acquire the knowledge-building-blocks for creativity which brings us to our next point. 

The resources shortage

There are several ways to talk about creativity and to define it. One widely spread theory is that of Teresa M. Amabile. 

According to her, knowledge is (part of) one of the four key components of creativity. Amabile, a Phd psychologist, Harvard professor and creativity expert, first published this theory in 1983 and evolved it, based on new research, in the mid 90ths and 00ths. 

Her theory suggests that creativity requires: 1) domain relevant skills, 2) creativity relevant processes, 3) task motivation and 4) a favouring social environment. Knowledge, like expertise and technical skills, are part of the domain relevant skills. They comprise the raw materials that feed the individual's creative process. Domain in this context is a certain area as specified by certain rules (math, music, aerodynamics, ...).

When it comes to idea generation, it helps to think about creativity as the new combination of existing knowledge. Take the smartphone for example. In order to come up with this innovative idea, you need (at least) knowledge about PCs and (mobile) phones. You can't take the shortcut if you lack knowledge in both domains. The more you know, the more easily you can use that knowledge to create something new. Accumulating knowledge might seem daunting but it is necessary. Famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi even describes the attention necessary for learning (aka knowledge accumulation) as "... the price we must pay for creativity to occur."


Even though we left the (pure) 'knowledge age' and entered the 'creative age' (or conceptual age as suggested by Daniel Pink in his book A whole new mind, knowledge is important for creativity. We know that this conclusion seems somewhat unattractive and teacher-like but neglecting knowledge or leaving it to tech alone will not be sufficient for your creative endeavors.

At times it feels daunting to dedicate time, energy and resources for knowledge accumulation, knowing that you could tap into all the knowledge with a few swipes instantly.  However, to truly unleash your creative potential, knowledge is essential as both, as raw material for creativity and as a curiosity trigger and therefore can't be left to tech only.

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