Permutations of Creativity and Intelligence (and How to Work with Them)

Creative, intelligent people want to create things, intelligently.

This was the thrust of a conversation I had with a coworker this week. We were commiserating over the barriers that we’ve faced in doing so in our jobs; without getting into an inappropriate level of detail, there are plenty of cultural issues that can make “doing something” a surprisingly difficult task.

Being humble and modest, I consider myself intelligent and creative. I suspect most people feel that way about themselves. So what, exactly, does creativity and intelligence look like? And more broadly, what would other combinations of the two look like?

One bit of oddness in this rumination: It’s all filtered through my professional experience in publishing, an inherently creative field. (I think museums would be inherently creative as well.) It’s odd to think of non-creative people working in a creative field, but interesting.

The easiest to define: A creative and intelligent person will create things intelligently. Those things may not be flawless–the products of experiments rarely are–but they’ll have thought and logic behind them. These things will likely have variety: creative people will be bound by what the needs are, rather than tradition or specialty.

What about someone who is intelligent but not creative? The result is not necessarily laziness. In fact, the people I’ve known who I’d place into this category probably produce more than anyone else. But that quantity is often aggregatory in nature: collection of material, without judgment of what’s most important and relevant. Other work is repetitive: in the case of a magazine, the same type of story over and over again.

It’s a surprisingly difficult archetype to work with, I’ve found. These are people who are often good at deploying the “this is how we’ve always done it” argument to destroy creativity. They’re often drawn to the creation of rules and policy, but because of their lack of creativity, their intelligence is often static. As a result, they often misapply out-of-date knowledge to a situation.

People who are creative but unintelligent make things, but they aren’t good, and they’re never good. There’s just no thought put into them, their purpose, or how they’ll be used.

Working with them is actually easier, in a way. It’s a matter of mental preparation, understanding the ways that what they make won’t work and what can be done to fix them. There’s also the possibility of finding what they are good at (because this strict binary classification is, obviously, grossly oversimplified) and taking advantage.

Unintelligent, uncreative people are a breed that I don’t think I’ve seen since my very first position, itself an uncreative place where we copy edited and that’s it. It wasn’t a good situation; if the quality of the copy editing had any real importance, they could have done some serious damage. As it was, their energies tended toward petty squabbles, bickering with each other over nothing and making it a thoroughly unpleasant place to be.

One final caveat from this little mental journey of mine: I don’t really think that anyone is completely unintelligent or uncreative (or absolutely intelligent or creative, for that matter). People behave differently in different situations; someone who does the minimum to get by in one situation may put forth much better efforts elsewhere.

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