What is Creativity?

Welcome back to the Creative Journey Project. Before we can really analyze creativity, maybe we should consider what “creativity” is.

In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines creativity as “any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one…What counts is whether the novelty he or she produces is accepted for inclusion in the domain.”

This gives us a lot of leeway to be creative. So we could probably all agree that Beethoven demonstrated creativity in composing his 9th Symphony, in the domain of classical music or even all music. But suppose your child has been flinging his or her vegetables across the kitchen for months, and you finally come up with a new approach that gets your son or daughter to stop throwing and start eating. Given the considerably smaller (but still vital, this is your child, after all) domain, isn’t this also creativity? And if you share that tactic with your local parenting group and other parents find it useful, your “novelty” is being included in a larger domain.

Let’s try another approach. Dr. Robert E. Franken, in his book Human Motivation, defines creativity as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.”

So nothing about domain change, but we have an end result of problem-solving, communicating, or entertaining. What really appeals to me about this definition, however, is the use of the word “recognize.” This implies that creativity doesn’t require “creating” something in the traditional sense, just seeing something that others have not. When the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming saw mold inhibiting growth of Staphylococcus bacteria in a Petri dish, it wasn’t the result of a deliberate act, but he saw its significance because of his knowledge and experience. Years later, penicillin antibiotics were the result. (Fleming didn’t develop the antibiotics himself – that is a creativity story for another day.)

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We can achieve creativity from many different directions

One more formal definition, this one from Robert W. Weisberg’s book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, where the author writes that “for something to be creative, it is not enough for it to be novel: it must have value, or be appropriate to the cognitive demands of the situation.”

Here we are looking at something of value, a very broad term, or something that satisfies a specific demand. This doesn’t have to be an act of global significance. Developing an improved filing system for your office, so that information is more readily available when your team needs it to pitch a big deal, can be a creative act.

You may have guessed by now that my point is not to dwell on a rigid definition of creativity. It’s not an activity limited to painters and musicians, or to outside-the-box entrepreneurs. It is something we all possess and can apply in every part of our lives. Maybe we can accept creativity as something we recognize when we see it. And going forward, we can look at how creativity manifests itself in our lives, what we can do to bring our own creativity into the open, and chat with some of the creative people who give us inspiring examples.

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