Where does creativity come from?

Is Creativity Inherited?


Genetics may play a role in creativity, but the choice to make art and be creative matters more. 

Creativity in all forms – art, music, writing – is so complex that it’s hard to pinpoint its source. A recent study of humans and song birds revealed that musical ability may, in fact, have a genetic determinant. 

Our abilities to perceive and produce musical sounds have a biological source that can be connected to certain genes. It’s unclear whether this applies to other forms of creativity, but just as certain body types make better sprinters or boxers or point guards, maybe there are physical elements to other types of art making skills too.

As I look back at my own family and what I have inherited, I do see elements of creativity. My uncle wrote a half dozen books. My mother’s mother was a doctor but she loved to garden. My dad likes to paint. My mother has beautiful handwriting. Many of my ancestors on my father’s side were bakers and cooks. 

So, is my love of writing and art somehow in my DNA? 

Born to be creative

I don’t believe in talent or creativity as a magical quality that some people “have” and others “don’t.” Creative ability is something that all humans are born with and with basic skills and creative habits, anyone can make amazing art.  

You can see it by handing any five-year-old a box of crayons. Their imaginations are rich and nimble — we were all born that way. 

Creativity is the ability to think differently and come up with new ways of doing things. It’s present in our culture and has been essential to humans’ survival, to confronting and responding to changes, to problem solving, to advancing our species. 

By the time that 5-year old grows up, they may not have the same sense of imagination. Whether creativity continues to flourish is often a matter of environment. Was creativity encouraged or not?

How creativity gets repressed

While creative ability lurks in every family, it’s often neglected or hidden. 

Some families may have a bias against creative careers and discourage art school or careers in music or acting. Others may think it’s frivolous or self indulgent or a dead-end career path. Some kids don’t receive the positive feedback they need and just drop creative pursuits all on their own. 

I spent most of my life not considering myself an artist in any way. I liked art class as a kid, but struggled to follow “the rules” — and my teachers didn’t give me such positive feedback. I was never confident enough in my abilities to gamble my future on my creative abilities, nor was anyone else in my family. My family had lots of doctors and PhDs, but not a single person studied art or music. 

Everyone seemed to agree: I needed a bankable degree and a real job, so my anxiety around failure made many decisions for me — I squashed my art-loving kid brain and got a degree in political science. Convinced it was just a frivolous waste of time, I eventually stopped making art in my spare time too. 

The irony is that I became a successful creative director in the NY advertising industry — although I stifled my creative urges, they found a way to manifest and make me successful. But I’ve heard from many people who ended up in careers that wouldn’t be categorized as creative, and they felt inauthentic and unfulfilled because of it. 

I’ve seen a lot of doctors who make amazing anatomical drawings and lawyers who have a half-finished screenplay in their desk drawer. They may have made their families proud as they became surgeons, engineers or accountants, but inside they felt incomplete.

Tap encouraging memories

One of my relatives was a minor movie star in England in the early ‘60s. Then he had a top 10 pop song. Then he became a fairly famous potter. 

Despite his apparent success, the family story is that he was a bit of a rake and always ended up needing financial support from the less “creative” Gregorys. He was the creative back sheep in our family.

Is there a creative black sheep in your family tree who went astray — and created a cautionary family legend? The reverse can be true too.  

You loved hearing your aunt in the church choir so you felt empowered to become a musician. You remember your grandpa’s love of Irish poetry and became a writer yourself. So many top chefs point to fond memories of their mothers’ or grandmother’s kitchen as the source of their passion for cooking. 

Positive, encouraging associations help you to cultivate the gifts you may have been born with. You feel it’s okay to put in the hard work to learn to paint or play the violin or audition for plays. And in doing that work, you develop your skills. It becomes self-fulfilling. 

Your gift emerges because you let it.

Find your own family

Even if you didn’t get that support from the family you were born into, you can still find a warm and supportive community to be a part of as an adult. Join a life drawing class and meet up with a group of like-minded sketchers once a week, then share a beer and share your drawings. Join an urban sketching club and spend Saturday afternoons watercoloring some local architecture or draw in a museum. 

You’ll meet architects, engineers, mail carriers and dentists who all love drawing.  Hang out with them and I’ll bet you’ll find even more things you have in common. Did you love performing in high school but haven’t done it since?  Join your local community theatre or a church choir. Looking for people who have taken courses you love? Join our very own SkoolYard.  You can also meet other SBSers in your community or who share other passions like textile arts, baking or mixed media journaling.

No matter what talents you think you did or didn’t inherit, and no matter how long you have neglected them, you can still learn to express yourself authentically and beautifully. Find a creative family of your own and get the encouragement you and your gifts deserve.

Want to tap into your own creativity and join our awesome community of artists? Sign up for How to Draw Without Talent today!

4 mins

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