What Is Creativity Anyway?

It occurred to me that although I do something considered creative I was still unclear what the word creativity really means to me. Sure, I could go to a dictionary to find a definition (and in fact I did, but it didn’t help at all). I want something more meaningful, something with more depth than the concise dictionary definition. Although I don’t think that creativity is magic, I also don’t think that it is one simple or singular process. Which means that I don’t have an easy, clean answer like the dictionary has. Creativity is complex.

Leah Wilson in the StudioThe word creative is often used in a simple way: it is thrown around easily to express approval: ‘That was a really creative idea!’=‘I really liked that idea!’ Just because you like an idea and deem it worthy, does it mean that it is truly creative? No, but I think that it hints to an element of creativity.

Creative is also often used as an adjective to describe something that may be new to you. Magazines and blogs do it all the time to catch your attention: ‘7 Creative Ways to Make Eggs!’ You can easily call it ‘Different-To-You Ways to Make Eggs.’ You read it; you make the eggs. Is this creativity? I say it is not…. But it could be a step toward creativity.

If you are always arriving at new solutions to a problem, are you being creative? This thought gives me brief pause, but I also give it the same answer as above: no, but it is relevant to creativity certainly.

Hard Work

If you make all of the different recipes for eggs and you really learn the ins and outs of egg making you are developing a skill and a broad knowledge base for eggs. You begin to develop a discerning palette for eggs. You realize that making everything you can that possibly relates to eggs is hard work. Now you are on to something. The more you know about your subject, the more you will understand your given field and the more ideas and options you will be able to generate.

Studies have shown that it takes at least twelve years of concentrated study to develop the skills needed to master an activity. Mozart was able to make impressive music at the age of three. But it took him twelve years of hard work to finally produce his first notable composition. It takes a lot of practice to be able to understand your creative realm well enough for high levels of creativity to happen.

Lack of skill has killed more than one good idea. If there is no way to bring an idea to life, to recombine or transform it using your medium or chosen field of study, it remains an idea only. There is no short cut with this one. If you wish to be more creative, start practicing your art. And don’t stop. That is the key to it. You must keep working and learning.


Creativity requires bringing together different elements to arrive at something new, at least new to you, that is. To be able to do that you need to be able to generate many ideas, and many different combinations of those ideas. The more knowledge you have, the more likely you will be able to arrive at compelling ideas. You must have knowledge about your field of study, but you must have knowledge about the world around you too. The broader base of knowledge that you have, the more combinations of ideas you will have at your disposal.

This is almost exactly the opposite concept from the hard work it takes to develop a skill, a specialization. When developing a skill, focus is essential. But when it comes to ideas, the more things you know about, the better off you will be. Pick up a book and start reading!

Sir Ken RobinsonThe more ideas that you can possibly generate to answer a given question, the more successful you will be with divergent thinking. Sir Ken Robinson discusses divergent thinking as an essential aspect of creative thinking in his animated lecture about the need to change the current education paradigm. Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with ideas by exploring numerous different possible answers or solutions to any given question. It’s the ability to see many different meanings in a single question. Divergent thinking is creating possibilities.

It is also a fragile aspect of creativity. I agree with Robinson’s call to change the education paradigm. He believes that it is very effective at killing creativity by stifling divergent thinking. The easiest way to kill creativity in most people is to tell them that their ideas are wrong. If they believe that their ideas are not valued, they will probably simply stop coming up with any more ideas.

Ideas need to flow freely, even dumb ones. Ideas typically generate more ideas. They tend to multiply like bunnies. And even the dumb ones may offer a tidbit of value that can be transformed into a new idea.


At any given time I carry many different ideas for potential future projects. I collect them like someone may collect recipes, flowers, books, or anything else that people collect. Some of these ideas bump around in my head. Some end up on some random scrap of paper never to be seen again. And some make it to an organized system. These ideas are not creativity either. They are creativity’s potential. They are starting points or elements waiting to be utilized.

Most of those ideas never become anything more that merely thoughts. Some I keep for a while, seeing if I can combine them with something else. What I am doing is trying different combinations of ideas to see if I can come up with anything that I find interesting to explore deeper, explore with paint, for example. I am looking to see if I can see value in the ideas. A large part of creativity is the ability to discern value: which ideas are worth pursuing; which are best to leave in the files until they develop, and which are best to through into the recycling bin. This is the most subjective aspect of creativity, and the one that will carry your most easily discernable fingerprint.

Creativity Is:

  1. Skills and hard work
  2. Ideas & knowledge
  3. Capability to discern value

It is not magic, but it is a lot of work.

What do you feel creativity is? Let me know your thoughts.

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