Creativity is a decision

Creativity is not a sudden inspiration, a fleeting “aha” moment reserved for a lucky few born with the creative gene.

It is a decision, a deliberate intention, entailing lots of hard work that all can cultivate in their work and in all work places, even in the bureaucracy.


This was how eminent psychologist, researcher and educator Robert J.  Sternberg spoke about creativity at the 4th Leadership Conference Series organized by the Center for Measurements and Campaigns and Gray with De La Salle University (DLSU).

Held at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel Grand Ballroom, the conference started with DLSU’s conferment on Sternberg of an honorary doctorate degree, his 12th.


Intelligence is triple jump

Sternberg’s theory on Successful Intelligence looks at three types of intelligence: Creative intelligence—to come up with ideas; analytical intelligence—to decide whether the ideas are good or not; and practical intelligence—to make the ideas functional.

Creative intelligence means finding good problems, while analytical intelligence is finding good solutions and practical intelligence refers to making the solutions work.

Making a creative decision is not easy; often it means defying someone, even the boss. By disposition, in defying the crowd, you create your own oppression. The essence of creative work is to formulate the right vision—deciding firmly where to go, and then to figure out how to pull other people in that direction.

Creativity costs much, but lack of creativity costs more. Leadership involves both skills and dispositions (attitudes) to produce ideas and products that are relatively novel, high in quality, and appropriate to the task at hand.

One is not born a leader. Leadership skills are flexible and dynamic rather than rigid and static. To some extent, creativity, like intelligence, is a modifiable form of developing expertise.

Multiple processes


Problem redefinition is most important in making decisions. A creative person shows the attitude and skills to decide on the exact nature of the problem using his/her own best judgment—not just going along with someone else’s definition.

The redefined problem then goes through analysis. When the best solution is found, the creators have to decide how to sell their ideas.

Creative ideas and products do not sell themselves. Creative thinkers must recognize that knowledge can both help and hinder thinking. They should be willing to take sensible risks, surmount obstacles, maintain strong self-efficacy, tolerate ambiguity and continue to grow intellectually.

In the long run, creative people will be pleasantly surprised to be rewarded extrinsically for something they were intrinsically motivated to do in the first place.

Panel discussion

After his talk, Sternberg interacted with a panel of professionals and educators to clarify a few more misconceptions. Dr. Allan Bernardo, Sternberg’s former student at Yale, was facilitator.

Responding to former Education Undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz’s lament that creativity became a weekend activity because of such problems as class size, lack of budget and tight class schedules, Sternberg emphasized that creative thinking was not extracurricular.

He said creativity was a way of life and was needed in every school task. All teachers and students must intentionally strive for creativity in every subject.

Sternberg agreed with social entrepreneur Pacita “Chit” Juan’s definition of creativity as having an “entrepreneurial mind.”

As for Inquirer columnist Solita Monsod’s assertion that she was not creative because she was good in mathematics and did things step by step, Sternberg said the professor emeritus was, in fact, very creative in presenting her case. She just needed to believe in herself, to have high self-efficacy, he said.

Monsod elicited laughter with her creative analogy. She said there was really no shortage of Filipino creativity, noting that in the Philippines many people indulged in “creative accounting.”

In a one-on-one talk with Sternberg later, this writer asked for more information about his theories on intelligence and wisdom, his take on culture and values, and himself.

What was the role of genetics, for instance, in Successful Intelligence?

Certainly genes mattered, Sternberg said. However, “if you are grown in a closet by a set of abusive parents, it does not matter what your genes are, because you are not going to amount to anything.”

Since nothing could be done about genetics, the best thing that could be done was, he said, “to provide the best environment possible for everyone to optimize his opportunities.”

Sternberg’s theory had often been compared to Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligence. What did he think was the most important difference between their theories?


Sternberg said his and Gardner’s theories were complementary. While the latter dealt with different domains, verbal, logico-mathematical, musical, etc., Successful Intelligence was about processes.

To succeed in any field—writing a novel or composing a piece of music—one had to tap into his/her creative, analytical and practical intelligences.

In recent years, Sternberg had also been expounding on his theory of wisdom that grew out of his earlier theories of intelligence.

Wisdom for him was “the ability to use one’s successful intelligence, creativity and knowledge toward a common good by balancing one’s own interests with other people’s interests and the larger interest—the society, the world, the universe, over the short and long terms.”

But was balance possible when one’s own interest was often in conflict with another’s?

Sternberg was optimistic, suggesting appealing to higher order principles where two parties could agree and be willing to curb some of their own interests to make conflict resolution possible.

Wisdom was working toward a “win-win situation.” Sternberg said, “Values and ethics are crucial to wisdom. Look at failed leaders. They are not lacking in IQ, nor lacking in creativity; their problem is, they are unwise, unethical.”

Culture, intelligence, risks

Many years ago, in a seminar in Canada, this writer asked Gardner, a Jewish-American, what made the Jews so intelligent and prominent in many fields. He said it was the child-rearing of a Jewish family and opportunities provided in a society like the United States.

When asked the same question, Sternberg, also of Jewish lineage and whose maternal grandmother suffered in the Holocaust, said it was not any religion or ethnicity that spelled the difference. What was really important, he said, were “the values that we inculcate in children toward intellectual aspirations, to encourage their curiosity and creativity, toward achievement.”

He cited Japan, where the culture emphasized effort, vis-à-vis Americans putting emphasis on native ability. Without effort—if people did not try, they could not achieve anything.

Since he said creativity involved taking risks, was there any risk he took that did not succeed?

With much candor and without hesitation, he said, “My failed romantic relationships that did not turn out well and research studies that were okay but never went anywhere.”

Recently, he made a risky career decision. After three decades as a professor at Yale University, he applied for deanship across universities in the US, something many theorist-academicians would not do.

He said he wanted to try out his theory—that bureaucratic problems could be solved creatively. As former dean of Tufts University and now provost of Oklahoma University, he proved that his theory was not only abstract and hypothetical, but concrete and real.

Sternberg’s favorite book, “The Trial,” by Franz Kafka, offers a glimpse of what other interests he had. Asked why he liked the book, he said, “Because so much of life is like that—you’re being judged by a system and you can’t quite figure out why you’ve been accused.”

He is now reading Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” an African-American domestic helper’s point of view of white American families.

The two books seem, in fact, to be quite similar, revolving around the themes of injustice, discrimination, systems and suffering.

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