The three astronauts of the third manned mission to the moon, Apollo 13, were about to die. Because of an on-board explosion, they’d been forced to abandon their command module and crowd into the small lunar carrier. They were becoming hypoxic, losing breathable air, and without a quick solution would pass out and never wake up.
NASA engineers in Houston had one possible fix. The main command module of the ship had usable carbon dioxide filters. But they were cube-shaped, and the lunar module needed cylindrical ones. In a matter of hours, the engineers on Earth had to figure out how literally to put a square peg in a round hole, using only parts available on board the ship.
A short time later, the stranded astronauts received a set of instructions from Houston. They named the device they built with the instructions “the mailbox” for its shape and the life-saving materials it delivered.
The kind of creative thinking that saved the Apollo 13 astronauts doesn’t just happen.
It’s the result of an intentional effort to foster a creative culture. (In fact, to an uncreative world, such feats seem impossible. A poll in 2009 by the British periodical Engineering & Technology found that 25 percent of people believe the moon landing was an elaborate hoax, perpetuated on a Hollywood soundstage.)
In the buildup to the Apollo 11 mission, a NASA deputy director had approached a researcher named George Land. He had lots of applicants, he said. But measuring people by standard intelligence measures (that is, the conventional IQ test) wasn’t sufficient. He needed a way to select the people who would create the best solutions because they had unusually tough questions.
NASA didn’t just find intelligent people, but people who could think differently.
They needed people who could demonstrate the sort of ingenuity that could solve the sort of problem that plagued the aborted Apollo 13 mission. Land and his team developed an instrument to measure creative thinking, and NASA implemented it as an additional step in their candidate vetting process.
The test was a rousing success and, as a measure of employee performance, highly predictive for NASA. Afterward, a question remained for Land and his research crew. They had determined how to measure existing levels of creative thinking in prospective employees, but that didn’t solve more fundamental questions. Is creativity innate, learned, or—perhaps—unlearned?
Since the test questions were simple to understand, they decided to give the same test to a group of young children. They administered it to a sample of sixteen hundred five-year-olds.
The results were astonishing.
98 percent of five-year-olds are what the NASA test described as “creative genius.”
George Land and his team of NASA-contracted researchers decided to track their young creative geniuses over time. They turned their research into a longitudinal study and, five years later, retested the same group of students. Among the same group of children, now ten years old, there was a drastic change: only 30 percent were creative geniuses. Again, at fifteen years old, 12 percent were creative geniuses. Throughout the period of the study, and since, Land and his team tested thousands of adults, far past the flat line of statistical analysis. They learned, with an average age of thirty-one years old, that 2 percent of adults are creative geniuses.
In their famous study, Land and his team not only solved an important issue facing NASA leadership but also discovered a fundamental problem—one that plagues business, education, culture, and the life of faith.
Each of us was once a creative genius.
Somewhere along the way, though, we lose our creativity.
We may not be complete creative dolts. We can match an entree with a side dish, we can sometimes figure out when our phone’s GPS is lying to us, we can choose among twenty flavors of stationery at the store, and, if pressed, we can actually contribute an idea at a business meeting. But we’re far from what you’d call a creative genius.
As a creative director, I hear people apologize for their lack of creativity all the time.
We like to refer to a “creative person” as some sort of special species possessing rare talent. We see ourselves as somewhere in between. Perhaps circumstances dictate our choices; perhaps we become impatient with waiting and uncertainty. When we party on the weekend or get away after work with music and a drink with friends, maybe what we’re doing is trying to regain our soul because all day we’ve been trading it in for a paycheck.
The problem isn’t that most of us are incapable of creativity.
I love this book so much. As a pastor and counselor, it has always burdened me to see a person stop taking risks, stop creating, stop living life to the fullest. Thank you Len for encouraging us to dream again.Ron Edmondson, Pastor, Blogger, Church Leadership Consultant
Land’s study and other scientific studies disprove the false dichotomy of creatives versus noncreatives. Creativity recovery isn’t a switch to turn on, and to find our creative self doesn’t mean we must drag the lake of our psyche, although this may be something you’re inclined to do. Rather, creativity can be nurtured and developed. Land’s study is a scientific insight for what I believe is primarily a spiritual issue. We’ve lost our ability to create. The problem is that when we make the unexamined declaration that we are not creative, as most of us do, we rob ourselves of a powerful means of knowing and experiencing God’s work in our lives.
It’s to reclaim the wonder of your creative power.
I’ve written a book for anyone who was once a creative genius. In Think Like a Five Year Old, discover what you once had in the beginning, how you lost it, and how to get it back. It’s time to reclaim your wonder and create great things.