Why Critical Thinking Is Not a Creativity Killer

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 brainstorming, lateral 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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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Great post and some brilliant points 🙂

    I feel balance is a key element.

    Constructive criticism through self-analysis or feedback from others, freedom of expression and allowing thinking time are all vital ingredients to creativity.

    Too much of any element can disrupt your natural flow.

    So, in addition to balance I’d add awareness – identifying when the balance has shifted.

  2. That’s exactly it Paul, you need mental flexibility and a good awareness of where to shift your thinking style at every stage of the creative process.

  3. Hmm, maybe I should try not to be such a yes man in future.

  4. Brilliant post and great questions.

    As I worked with large organizations teaching the Toyota Production System in my former life, I have witnessed the same scenario you mentioned.

    The Toyota Production System states that the number 1 form of waste in an organization is “unused employee creativity.” They encourage new ideas. But there are also systems set up in which the ideas are presented, evaluated, and implemented.

    In many organizations, people are often frightened to come up with anything other than their first solution.

    They are taught that they are supposed to know the answer. To not know can prove to discredit them within the organization. Not knowing can inhibit future career growth.

    In one such company, this had the odd effect of keeping the employees (who had great ideas about how to do their own jobs better) quiet while the higher ups came up with ‘creative solutions’ that didn’t make sense. (i.e. the guy who decided the solution to their company’s healthcare cost problem was to take the majority of his time to begin to individually meet with doctors, second guessing treatment, and demanding to know why they charged what they charged, etc. Um. Yeah. This guy could have used an inner critic.)

    I do think completely ignoring the inner critic can be helpful when working with people who are completely blocked. It’s often beneficial for these individuals to just begin creating something, just for the sake of creating.

    There are times, I believe, when doing something is better than letting one’s inner critic run amok, preventing anything getting accomplished.

    But those times are short-lived. The next step is to begin to discern what makes sense and what doesn’t, to learn what the better choices are, and to come up with better solutions and produce better work.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
    All the best!
    deb

  5. Do you think this applies when you are first learning how to do something new, that is creative?

    When I teach garden design, to new students, the first thing I get them to do, once they understand the principles involved, is to just scribble, without judgement, the first thing that comes into their heads!

    So many people are nervous about drawing & end up worrying too much about getting it right. I use it as an exercise to free them up. Then I get them to logically ‘think’ their way through the design process & I encourage people to use a mix of intuitive thought and logical thinking right the way through the design process.

    You are right about how valuable an asset the inner critic is, but I would add – once your know your stuff! Or do you disagree?! Do you think new students should critique themselves right off the bat?

  6. For me, critical thinking goes hand in hand with clarity. What am I trying to accomplish? What am I trying to convey? Am I being authentic and using my own voice? That kind of focus usually shuts down the inner critic, because there’s no room for extraneous noise.

    Critical thinking was the most valuable thing I learned in art school. I discovered the difference between what most people consider criticism (negative comments), and the kind of discussion and debate that shows us new ways of seeing. That’s the takeaway of a lifetime.

  7. @ John – Actually your relentless cheerleading can get a bit wearing at times. 😉

    @ Deb – Yes, ‘not knowing’ is an undervalued skill. I like Keats’ description of it as “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

    You give a good illustration of the problems with ‘top down’ innovation – often the people on the ground are in a better position to suggest creative improvements.

    @ Rachel – Good question! Brief answer: Yes, your inner critic is something that develops over time. At the beginning, the teacher takes the place of the critic and helps you form your judgment.

    I agree that creativity is a mixture of intuition and logic, so it follows that a teacher has a dual role: to encourage students to have the confidence to scribble/write/sketch; AND to develop their critical judgment.

    @ Stacey – That sounds like a great art school. I got a similar takeaway from the Poetry School in London.

  8. A wonderful insightful, thought provoking piece. When I went to art school in 1969 our instructors often gave us exercises which were intended to help us overcome the fear which stifles creativity.

    Often these exercises involved drawing a subject very quickly, generally in 30 seconds or less. At the end of each drawing we’d have to shift to a new seat to gain a new perspective and begin another drawing.

    The object of the exercise was to help release us from old habits, get us past looking at a subject as a person and force us to see them as simple shapes and forms, a graduation of tones light and shadow etc.

    The process is very liberating and does inspire one to see the world differently. However, no one actually expected such exercises to create finished work.

    I have also found that writing is also much like that. The initial ideas for a piece can be drawn out in bold strokes often very quickly. Getting the essential elements down fast, capturing as much insight and inspired vision as possible really does move one quickly past the critical mind set that can cause you to stall.

    As you have so precisely pointed out, there is a need for the so called inner critic to help turn those first broad strokes into a finished work that will pass editorial review as well as public consumption.

  9. Mark, Really interesting post! I agree that critical thinking is essential for creativity. For example, when facilitating Creative Problem Solving sessions understanding the current situation, identifying the root causes and developing a feasible action plan all require critical thinking. However, I think that suspending judgement in the idea generation stage of the session can be very energising and allows people to consider problems from a different perspective. I also think, as you’ve pointed out in your article, that critical thinking can get replaced by criticism and a temporary suspension of judgement allows people to contribute their suggestions in a safe environment.

  10. It’s weird to see some people claim the two are antagonistic. I’ve taught courses on critical thinking, skepticism and written on the topic in magazines *and* that’s also why I think I have a pretty high creative output as a magic creator with 40+ published books and DVDs.

  11. Great post!

    Critical thinking as often seen in ‘toxic’ cultures is that which stops things before they start; the 5000 ways that something can’t be done but not one solution offered process. Not sure one can even call that critical thinking as much as a fault analysis (not sure there’s a good word for what I’m trying to say here). The process is not about moving from better to best but is instead about pointing out the bad in closed ended fashion.

    On the other hand, truly critical observation (which by the way, should probably be tempered at some point as well as one could constantly be critically tweaking) is essential when the idea needs to be more than just an idea.

    It’s critical thinking that underlies Mark Twains quote of, “I wanted to write a short letter but I didn’t have time so I wrote a long one instead.” and Michelangelo’s, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

    That’s critical thinking!

    As Michelangelo also said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”

  12. I value my inner critic but sometimes she gets in the way, pooh-poohing perfectly good ideas as impractical or far-fetched … which is when I try to send her off to boil some water, make some tea, something productive to make her happy so I can get on with things.

    It’s true–without a certain amount of internal criticism, the amount of ridiculousness would skyrocket. The trick is finding the right balance and that can be so HARD (grin).

  13. Sarah Cheverton says:

    Mark – I really enjoyed this post, especially as I have been taught the same model of ‘no criticism in the creative stage’ in my time with organisations – I think, as you say, it’s become fairly standard.

    The balance for me about stopping critical thinking spiralling into negativity (and sometimes I find that my inner saboteur is posing as my inner critic) is to make sure my critical thinking – and I try to ensure I apply this to my feedback to others, not just to myelf – is always positively phrased.

    Doing this always takes as a starting place, How could this idea be better, rather than what’s wrong with it.

    Easier to build on a positive.

    Bests,

    Sarah

  14. @ Marvin

    The process is very liberating and does inspire one to see the world differently. However, no one actually expected such exercises to create finished work.

    I think that’s the crux of it. We need to loosen up and let things flow – but most of the time there’s more to be done than the first draft/sketch. We revere Leonardo and Michelangelo’s sketches, but they treated them more as functional objects, part of the process rather than finished works.

    @ Isobel –

    I also think, as you’ve pointed out in your article, that critical thinking can get replaced by criticism and a temporary suspension of judgement allows people to contribute their suggestions in a safe environment.

    Yes, depending on the context, that can be really helpful.

    I’ve also been in situations where the best option was simply to grow a thicker skin! 🙂 Robust critiques can be well-meant, and you can get away with some very blunt exchanges as long as you focus on the work, and there’s an underlying mutual respect.

    @ Andrew – Sounds like you’ve done a good job of combining quality and quantity…

    @ Plish –

    Not sure one can even call that critical thinking as much as a fault analysis (not sure there’s a good word for what I’m trying to say here).

    Nit-picking? Fault-finding? Yes-butting?

    That Twain quote is one of my favourites. Imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter…

    @ DebB – You should see some of the ridiculous stuff that never sees the light of day on Lateral Action. 😉

    @ Sarah – Yes, the Inner Saboteur is a master of disguise! 🙂

  15. Barbara Saunders says:

    You write that, when asked to offer raw ideas, people in some organizations say, “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”.

    Why is it that an environment that would be labeled “abusive” if imposed by a spouse upon a spouse or a parent upon a child is anywhere within the bounds of acceptability in a workplace?

    This is why I work from home!

  16. Excellent post! The balance of critical thinking and creativity is key. I actually started a discussion on LinkedIn in an HR group (and then blogged it) by asking “If you had two employees to choose from- one with strong creative ability, and one with strong critical thinking ability, which would you choose?” It stirred up a pretty interesting debate and a lot of the points you mentioned in this blog came to light.

  17. Hmm… Interesting points. I have usually taken the side of suspending judgement, but I realize that I’m actually not anti-critical thinking at all. I just had a way too overactive negative criticism “voice” so there was no other way for me to get past that than by doing activities that would bypass them. I experience the most vivid process of analytical (aka critical) thinking in an alpha wave state of mind in which the verbal, linear thinking “noise” temporarily quiets down enough for the multidimensional process to come into play. When we are using our brains on a multidimensional level the critical thinking is not focused on comparing ourselves to other artists/writers or on avoiding all the possibly embarrassing pitfalls, but on achieving something that is truly exciting and inspirational to us in the context of everything we’ve already experienced in the world. Our brains only have room for a certain amount of processing, and we can process more information when we get into alpha state, multi-dimensional processing. The problem I have with the word “critical” is just that it is too often associated with negative and that is often linked to somebody else’s statements or potential statements. Brilliant art is often the kind of art that creates some of the most hateful reactions in others, and, in my opinion it’s good to suspend that kind of thinking while in the creative state. Perhaps I would say I am all for “critical thinking” when it is independent and not self-consciously tied to what other people are going to think.

    Something to consider: In addition to writing and music, I have enjoyed acting for many years and have taken many “master acting classes.” The one where I saw the most brilliant performances coming through was definitely the one which asked people to work outside of the space of the inner critic. For acting it is impossible to be in the moment and also be in a judgemental state while doing it … the result is a very unnatural response to the situation and a disconnection to one’s body and voice…. the “in your head” phenomenon. Same for improvisational musicians. That said, if the actor or musician had never learned to become aware of what they like and don’t like and had never learned how to express that awareness through their bodies and through their instruments, then no independent creativity could take place.