Why Critical Thinking Is Not a Creativity Killer

21 Nov

By Mark McGuinness | September 28, 2009 | 19 Comments

Man holding up magnifying glass, making one eye look much bigger than the other.

Photo by Okko Pyykko 

Everyone knows critical thinking kills creativity.

Suspending judgment in order to come up with new and unusual ideas is one of the sacred cows of the creativity movement.

Everyone knows that instant judgment is the enemy of creativity.
(Edward de Bono, Serious Creativity)

Judgment and creativity are two functions that cannot occur simultaneously. That’s the reason for the rules about no criticism and no evaluation.
(Nancy R. Tague, Brainstorming)

It’s important to remember that brainstorming is a creative, not a critical or analytical process. These rules are designed to encourage creativity. Postpone criticism and analysis, because they tend to stifle creativity.
(Tom Arnold, Improve Your Brainstorming Sessions)

During brainstorming sessions there should therefore be no criticism of ideas: You are trying to open up possibilities and break down wrong assumptions about the limits of the problem. Judgments and analysis at this stage will stunt idea generation.
(Mind Tools, Brainstorming)

creativity-relevant skills are the possession of the skill and ability to to think creatively (e.g. generate alternatives, think outside the box, and suspend judgment)
(Jing Zhou, Christina Shalley, Handbook of Organizational Creativity)

While you are engaged in a creative process make sure that you suspend judgment. Reserve evaluation for later, when the creative flow gives way to design and organization.
(Jean Trumbo, Creativity)

This fear of critical thinking extends to the Inner Critic, usually demonised as the little part of your mind that interferes with your creativity and tries to tear your ambitions to shreds:

One of the greatest deterrents to creativity is the inner [critic]… When doing your creative work, keep the critic in its place. There’s a time to create and a time to evaluate. When you’re in the midst of the creative process, you don’t want this judging presence looking over your shoulder, stopping the flow of creativity. Later, you want to be able to discern what works, what doesn’t, what improvements are needed. That’s when the judging voice becomes useful.
(Sharon Good, The Inner Critic)

For many artists, challenges are very personal. And one of the biggest challenges is the Critic in the room, the Inner Critic. This gnarly Inner Critic is the voice of your self-doubt and fear. It is the emotional ties that bind you, hold you back, keep you stuck, limit you in what you think is possible for you as an artist.
(Valery Scatterwhite, The Artist Soul Can Be Kidnapped by the Inner Critic

Nothing Kills Creativity Faster than Criticism: Enter the Inner Critic!
(Emily Hanlon, The Inner Critic, the Enemy of Creativity!)

When you read so many writers all saying the same thing, it starts to look like common sense. But then, I’m usually suspicious of common sense.

For one thing, it’s odd that so many of these authors equate creativity with creative thinking – as if the hard work of actually creating stuff didn’t count as creativity.

It’s even stranger that they limit creative thinking to idea generation. As if evaluating something and working out how to make it better were not really a creative activity.

Not all of them have such a limited view of creativity. Several of them suggest that it’s only at the early, idea-generation stage of the creative process that we need to suspended judgment. Later on, there’s a separate stage for reviewing and evaluating, when it’s time to wheel out the Inner Critic and do some hard critical thinking.

I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

The Case for Critical Thinking

Stop for a moment and imagine how much crap you would produce if you didn’t have an Inner Critic to tell you when something wasn’t up to scratch.

Scary huh?

Believe it or not, your Inner Critic wants nothing more than for you to do the best you can do, and experience the thrill of creating something awesome.

This is because the function of critical thinking is to make something better. Used wisely, your critical faculty is one of the most powerful creative tools at your disposal.

Many of above examples centre around brainstorminglateral thinking and thinking outside the box – and as regular Lateral Action readers will know, we have reservations about all of these approaches.

For example, one research project examined the brainstormers’ claim that the technique succeeds by banning criticism and judgment from brainstorming sessions. The researchers compared classic brainstorming sessions with sessions where brainstormers were told what criteria would be used to evaluate their ideas. When they used these criteria to guide their thinking, the second group produced fewer ideas than the first – but a larger number of high-quality ideas.

One reason why experts are typically better than novices at solving complex problems is that they begin the problem-solving process with sharp critical analysis:

Studies comparing problem-solving performances of experts and novices have indicated that experts are able, because of their knowledge, to focus on the important aspects of a novel problem. The expert is able to relate a novel problem to something already known and used this knowledge as the basis for performance.

(Robert Weisberg, Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius)

So much for brainstorming and problem-solving. But surely more artistic forms of creativity rely on pure inspiration, and are more susceptible to being ‘blocked’ by criticism?

Poetry is supposed to be one of the arts that relies most on inspiration. But I once spent a whole year’s worth of evening classes at The Poetry School with the wonderful Mimi Khalvati, doing a course called ‘The Critical Faculty’, which was all about using critical thinking to improve our writing at every stage of the process. It was one of the most creatively empowering courses I’ve ever done.

As I draft these words, I’m constantly reading, reviewing, tweaking and editing as I go along. Tomorrow, there will certainly be an editing stage, where I give the whole article a thorough review and proofread – but it’s not simply a case of ‘draft today, edit tomorrow’. It’s more like a spectrum, with writing at one end and critiquing at the other. Or an ongoing dialogue between two voices. The first writing session involves more writing than critiquing, and the final session has more critiquing than writing, but I’m using both skills together, right from the start. And having coached hundreds of professional writers and creators over the years, I get the distinct impression I’m not alone in this.

So Why Does Critical Thinking Get Such a Bad Press?

Critical thinking is often confused with ‘criticism’ in the sense of finding fault or censuring someone, which is clearly not conducive to creativity. I’ll call this ‘negative criticism’. Having spent a long time working with people and organisations to improve their creativity, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two specific cases where critical thinking spills over into negative criticism, and interferes with creativity:

Negative corporate cultures

I once ran a seminar for a large organisation, which included an activity where I asked the group of managers to think of ‘the second right answer’ to a problem (drawing inspiration from Roger von Oech). Instantly, the temperature of the room dropped. People froze in their chairs and looked very uncomfortable. When I asked them what was wrong, they said “This feels very risky for us, we’re always told we have to find the right answer and we’re in for a lot of criticism if we get it wrong”.

Sadly, there are many organisations like this, in which it’s easier to score points by criticising other people than thinking of something original. This may explain why brainstorming is more popular among corporate types than professional creatives, as it provides a ‘walled garden’ where the early shoots of creativity can develop without being trampled underfoot. But remember that this is a very specific kind of culture, and beware of using it to make generalisations about critical thinking and creativity.

Creative blocks

I’ve worked with many coaching clients suffering from creative blocks or stage nerves, in which their Inner Critic becomes overactive, and starts delivering negative judgments on anything and everything they do. It can get so bad that they are paralysed, unable to write a word, make a mark on canvas or step out onto the stage because the inner critic is telling them it’s a waste of time, they have no talent and they should stop kidding themselves.

Again, this is a distressing situation, experienced by many creative people at some stage of their career. But again, it’s a specific problem, with a specific solution. Just because the Inner Critic can get out of hand at times, it doesn’t mean the Inner Critic is the enemy of creativity.

Apart from these exceptional cases, the norm in creativity is that critical thinking is essential for success – often right from the beginning.

So next time someone tells you you need to suspend judgment to be more creative, feel free to quote the words of Oscar Wilde:

Imagination is imitative – the real innovation lies in criticism.

Critical Thinking and You

Do you agree that critical thinking is essential for creativity?

What role does critical thinking play in your creative process?

How do you stop critical thinking deteriorating into criticism?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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