In the Paris Manuscript B, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s oldest surviving notebooks, there is a drawing of huge artificial wings undergoing trials. Under the drawing, Leonardo describes in some detail his instructions to test the wings. He ends his instructions with a pragmatic suggestion – “If the desired effect is not achieved, do not waste any more time on it.” The casual humility of his last sentence comes, perhaps, from having produced many ideas and seeing a fair share of them fail. And he certainly produced a lot of ideas. By the time he died, he had penned more than 13,000 pages of notes and drawings that fuse art and various forms of science. About 500 years after his death, the world is still fascinated with his raw creative genius. But was Leonardo simply a lucky coincidence of the right genes or did his upbringing and environment play a role in making him creative? Or in other words, is creativity, like Leonardo’s, an innate trait or can it be acquired?
One of the best ways to evaluate heritability for any trait is through twin studies. Traits that are genetic show higher correlations for identical twins than for fraternal twins. Over the years many researchers have given creativity tests to twins and they have consistently found that divergent thinking and originality, key components of creativity, do not have any genetic basis. This implies that creativity is a skill that can be acquired with practice.
Studies have, in fact, shown that creativity trainings do help in making people more creative. Ginamarie Scott and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma did a meta-analysis of prior creativity studies and found that trainings that focused on developing creative thinking skills, like divergent thinking and problem solving, were the most effective. Originality showed the largest effect size suggesting that “creativity training is effecting the critical manifestation of creative thought—the generation of original, or surprising, new ideas”.
Coming back to Leonardo da Vinci – a strategy that he often used to get his creative inspiration was to “connect the unconnected”. It’s quite likely that his prolific output was the result of him practicing his creative thinking skills repeatedly and becoming a virtuoso at it.
While achieving great creative outcomes depends on more factors than just generating ideas, it is nevertheless true that the ability to produce large, diverse and original ideas is a precursor to creative accomplishments. Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, best captured this sentiment when he said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” And as we are learning now, the ability to have a lot of ideas is a skill that can be acquired by anyone. All you need to do is a little practice.