Generators & Synthesizers: They’re Both Creative (And So Are You!)

by | Apr 18, 2010 | Creative Thinking | 26 comments

As most of you know, I’ve been doing a lot of self-analysis lately, trying to dream up my dream job. It’s not easy. Because I don’t want just any job–in fact, I don’t want a job at all.  I want to wake up like Steve Jobs and successfully answer the question, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

In order to arrive at that mythical place, you have to know what to commit to. That is, what attributes of your future are must-haves, outside the realm of compromise? One of the big absolutes for me was finding a profession that frequently tapped my creativity. Hey, I’m a poet and a writer, so that idea seemed like a no brainer.

But wait! It turns out there are two kinds of creatives, and before you design that dream job, you’d better know which one you are.  Here’s a quick test, which I initially came across while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: write down as many different uses you can think of for a brick.

First of all, I challenge you to actually take the test. Some people impose a time limit (you shouldn’t take all day or ask your friends), but much like a fitness test that measures how many consecutive push-ups you can do, time usually isn’t the limiting factor. This is the standard creativity test in use today, based primarily on the work of J.P. Guilford from the 1950’s. It measures divergent thinking, which he proposed was the primary attribute of creativity. Mind mapping is the buzzword for this activity in the 21st century.

Here’s the rub: I do not perform well on this test. Instinctively, I knew I wouldn’t. My best creative moments happen either when I’m surrounded by other intelligent people, or shortly afterwards. Even when I write poems, I sit down with a large pile of books and journals and read as much as I can for about 30 minutes. I also have good music playing in the background. Then, and usually only then, the ideas start flowing.

I’m not the first to suggest there are different types of creatives, but whatever you call them, it’s important to note the difference in aptitude for divergent thinking. I break creatives into two groups: generators and synthesizers. Generators are those who come up with new ideas from scratch, whether they happen to be painters or engineers. They’re going to have high scores for divergent thinking. Synthesizers, on the other hand, pull inspiration from those around them. By and large, they’re probably not divergent thinkers, but will appear every bit as creative as generators in a team setting.

This is vitally important to understand. First, how a business might use these two creative types to drive innovation is completely different. If you set up a competitive environment as opposed to a collaborative one (as many businesses do), you’ll lose the benefit of your synthesizers.  Second, if you don’t understand the basis of your own creativity (which honest to goodness was not apparent to me until I took that test), you’re likely to set yourself up for a lot frustration by picking a career that doesn’t suit you. Third, I suspect a lot of people claim they aren’t creative because they don’t match the generator stereotype. I love this article from Fast Company, which discusses the research behind creativity myth-busting. If businesses embraced the ideas in that article, I likely wouldn’t have a hard time finding that dream job. And neither would you.