What Is Creativity? A Guide to Living Your Most Creative Life
I’ve worn many hats in the workforce—the beret when I worked in the art department on movie sets, the newsboy cap as a writer, and the dramatic derby fascinator in the world of fashion. I’ve become very familiar with being the go-to creative person. More often than not, someone drops something on my desk and asks, “Can you add your magic touch?”
I was asked recently to define creativity or creative living, and I hesitated. It is so ingrained in who I am, personally and professionally, that it was hard to put into words. My first instinct was to define creativity as a character trait reserved for artsy folk. All those hats, right? Well, maybe not.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized creative ideas can come from anyone, especially those you least expect. Because ultimately, creativity is born from a problem that needs innovation to solve. And this is true in all areas of human experience such as design, business, mathematics or even in the kitchen.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how different creative geniuses and renowned psychologists define creativity. They'll help us get a better understanding of what this mysterious ingredient is and how it can be measured. I’ll also add in practical tools for you in your journey to become your most creative self. And as a final bonus, I’ll go over various ways to overcome fears you might face in the creative process, including the dreaded creative block.
No really, what is creativity?
Creativity does not have one solid, clear-cut definition. The more I tried to understand its true meaning, the more I realized the definition differs drastically depending on personal and professional experiences. For example, for me creativity is finding the connection between your ideas, imagination and dreams - and then using your curiosity to bring this innovation to life.
However, this doesn’t fully explain where creativity comes from or how you can breathe life into it. I took a look at research from some of the world’s most creative minds, leading psychologists and organization scientists. It’s interesting to see the clever, and many times surprising, definitions these notable individuals came up with:
“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will do what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.” – George Bernard Shaw, playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein, multifaceted genius and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” – Steve Jobs, founder of Apple
"Creativity involves breaking out of expected patterns in order to look at things in a different way." – Edward de Bono, physician, author and inventor
“The strange partnership between a human being’s labor and the mystery of inspiration.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, New York Times Best Selling author
Even psychologist Ellis Paul Torrance, who was nicknamed the “father of creativity” for his extensive research in the field and his development of the famous “Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking,” struggled to pinpoint exactly how to define the mysterious craft.
During an interview in 1988, he was asked what creativity really means. He replied, “I have struggled with this question for about 40 years. There are many definitions of creativity and each of them adds an insight about the concept.” Ultimately, he offers three main definitions or ways to look at creativity:
A research definition: Creativity is the process of sensing difficulties, problems of gaps in information, making guesses about these deficiencies, and testing these guesses.
An artistic definition: Creativity can be perceived through a series of evocative analogies, such as “Creativity is like digging deeper”, “Creativity is like listening to smells”, “Creativity is like crossing out mistakes.”
A survival definition: When a person has no learned or practiced solution to a problem, this is where creativity steps in.
Can creativity be taught? The age-old question of nature vs. nurture
Considering the vast variety of definitions, it should come as no surprise that there are many uncertainties about how creativity can be acquired. Certainly the biggest myth about creativity is that you can’t learn it. I do believe that some people are naturally more creative than others, but just like everything else in life, hardwork and practice helps us reach new heights. Many psychologists agree and the research confirms you can grow your creativity at any age.
Looking again to Torrance for some insight, “There are countless ways we can help people to be more creative. Perhaps the most important are to motivate and encourage them, to encourage them to fall in love with something, and to recognize their talents and reward them.”
Let’s see a different approach shared in a post by August Turk on Forbes.com. In 1956, Louis R. Mobley founded the IBM Executive School in order to teach executives working at the cutting edge of technology to think creatively rather than logically. He built the school around six insights that can help anyone boost their creativity:
1. Throw all the traditional teaching methods you know out the window. Reading, lecturing, testing, and memorization are the foundations of “the box” we are all trying to get out of. By taking a step back from problem solving in a traditional fashion and instead asking inquisitive questions in a non-linear way, we can find the key to creative thinking.
2. Creativity is an unlearning process, not a learning one. The IBM Executive School pushed these execs out of their comfort zones in outrageous and disillusioning ways. He forced them to check their egos at the door and trashed their beloved, existing assumptions. Mobley risked a lot in teaching in this fashion, but in the end he got the humbling reaction that he required to give their creativity a monumental push forward.
3. Creativity is not something we learn, rather something we become. A pianist doesn’t learn to be a pianist by reading a manual. He becomes a pianist by practicing endlessly. Mobley and his staff dropped classes, books and lectures, and instead gave their students riddles, games and all sorts of experiments where they could push the boundaries of their imagination.
4. Creativity is contagious. So you want to surround yourself with other creative-minded people–even if they make you feel inferior sometimes. In the early days of the IBM Executive School, it was a disorganized environment to the point of chaos, but Mobley soon realized that it actually helped students be more creative by fostering informal and collaborative peer-to-peer interaction.
5. Creativity is highly correlated with self-knowledge. It is impractical to open our minds to biases we don’t know we have. Mobley’s school was designed to be one “big mirror” forcing you to self-reflect and process.
6. It’s okay to get things wrong. This reminds me of the Michael Jordan quote that is written across the Wix HQ office you walk into on your first day, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” One of the biggest reasons why people never met their creative potential is they let the fear of failure or looking stupid take over. The way Mobley saw it, their are no bad ideas or stupid questions—only curiosity looking to be pieced into great ideas.
Are kids more creative than adults?
We were all kids once, living in a fantasy world where our Barbies could talk and daydreaming about becoming the next MVP for the [insert your favorite sports team here]. We learned to think out of the box before we even knew what “the box” was. It makes perfect sense that the beautiful mind of a child, unlike that of adults, is unrefined. They let their imagination go wild, to the point where they could even be considered creative geniuses. And science proves that.
In 1968, researcher George Land tested the creativity of 1,600 children aged 3 to 5. He used the same test he developed for NASA to assess the creativity of its engineers and scientists. The experiment focused on coming up with innovative ideas to solve a given problem. He was so baffled when he got the results that he decided to retest the same kids at age 10, and again at age 15. Finally, he compared the results with the ones obtained by randomly selected adults.
When I discovered this research, I already expected that kids would perform better than adults on a creativity test, but I was floored by how much better they actually did. Take a look - the percentages represent the subjects that tested above genius-level for creativity for each age category:
Same test, same kids, decreasing as the years went on. It’s crazy!
What does this tell us? Do people actually become less creative over time?
George Land points out that the primary reason for this decrease is that kids are actually taught to filter ideas with time. There are two types of creative thinking processes:
Convergent thinking, which is judgement-based, and consists of taking a specific idea and changing it through your conscious thinking process.
Divergent thinking, which is where you let your imagination do its magic and you look at ideas in different ways in order to find several solutions, often subconsciously.
Land notes that the decline in creativity arises when we teach children to use both kinds of thinking at the same time. He suggests that we need to allow people to split their thinking processes to make each of them more effective.
Basically, if you want a child to keep being creative throughout their life, let their imagination lead and encourage their new ideas. Only after they share all their ideas should you decide with them which ones are the best to push forward.
Because of criticism both from myself and others, I’ve had many ideas crushed long before I had the time to solve them properly. I wish I had been taught to split my thinking process instead of preemptively judging myself, asking for others’ opinions and shifting my ideas before they have the opportunity to shine. I would love to go back to thinking with my 5-year-old brain. My greatest idea, according to my mom, was to become a ballerina cop and simply dance around saving the world from bad guys in my pretty pink shoes.
Is creativity important for professional success?
Absolutely, at least according to most of my ballerina cop friends.
Take it from Mala Sharma, VP and General Manager of Creative Cloud at Adobe: “An investment in creativity and design is simply good business.”
If you care about moving up and growing your professional skills, creativity should be a top priority. In 2020, LinkedIn surveyed 660+ million professionals and 20+ million jobs to find the 15 most in-demand soft skills, and creativity topped the list. Similarly, IBM ran the numbers and found that for 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries, creativity is the most crucial trait needed for future business success.
One common misconception is that creativity is a specific job title, or that people are defined as creative based on what they do for a living. Your role actually has nothing to do with your creativity. Sure, people who excel at certain artistic talents like singing can make a career of it (if they’re really talented and lucky). But, take a look at the flight attendants and bus drivers who come up with brilliant welcome messages and work to make passengers more comfortable. They ooze creativity without being asked or needing to. We should expand our definition of creativity, because everyone can benefit from creative problem solving and innovative ideas, no matter what their job title is.
In 2020, we’ve been challenged both globally and locally. The world needs more innovators with big ideas who are passionate about driving their ideas forward. It’s time to join the creative kids club—no membership card needed, just a sense of curiosity, bravery and imagination.
Creative living according to Elizabeth Gilbert (and me)
“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
For the most part, I’ve embraced my creativity, but it wasn’t until I discovered Big Magic that I realized how it could help me build a more fulfilling life.
I had a few aha moments while reading this masterpiece, which helped me really embrace my most creative life.
Have courage. The jewels from Gilbert’s quote are buried within us all. I’ve had glimpses of their beauty. The tricky part is having the courage to find them in order to create and share who we are with the world.
Be curious. Question your interests and then follow them to their extraordinary, unexpected places.
Do it for yourself. I can’t say it better than Elizabeth Gilbert: “Do whatever brings you to life. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”
Bonus: How to avoid creative blocks
I learned some useful tips from Big Magic to overcome creative blocks you might encounter in your professional and personal endeavors:
Failing is part of the process. Your ego feeds off success and failures, but neither define you - they simply have a lesson to teach.
Your fear will always be there. Learn to live with it and live despite it. “Your fear is the most boring thing about you,” Gilbert said during her TED talk on elusive creative genius. “Fear only ever tells you one thing: stop. Whereas creativity, courage, and inspiration only ever want you to go. I want us all liberated from the path of fear, for many reasons—but mostly because it makes for such a damn boring life.”
Avoid complaining. Remind yourself why you enjoy your creativity! Ever heard of the tortured artist? It works for some but ends badly for most. Affirm that creativity is what you love and enjoy. It helps to find a mantra to reclaim your voice and to power through the tough times.
When you're stuck, create something else. Sometimes when I just can’t find the right words, it’s time to take a mental break from writing. For me, creating something else comes in the form of yoga or photography. The trick is to be curious about different creative outlets that will eventually lead you down the optimal path.
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Chelsea Feil, Marketing Writer at Wix
Currently living her best life in Tel Aviv. Ways to make her smile: summertime at the beach with a good book, brunch, aerial yoga and adventures near and far.