Creativity: What it is and Why it Matters

Without creativity, it would be difficult indeed to distinguish humans from apes.

-Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention


What the hell is that supposed to mean?!?

Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives.  Most things that are important, interesting, and human are the results of creativity.  When we are involved in it, we get a sense of engagement and excitement that surpasses the usual moments that occur in our lives.  We feel alive and invigorated.  But you probably already know this. 

Most people who talk about creativity do so in a mystical, spiritual, and abstract way.  Not that there is anything wrong with that (as I will also be addressing the more metaphysical aspects of creativity), but I feel it is more important to examine creativity through an evidence-based and scientific lens. Placing a special emphasis on this perspective will allow those interested to implement practical and systematic methods for igniting and improving their own creativity. 

Now, let’s take a closer look on what creativity is and why it matters:

History of Creativity

The history of creativityresearch has been quite limited when compared with other cognitive, behaviorist, personality, and developmental research. Before 1950, most articles on creativity were thought pieces rather than actual scientific research.  In fact, less than 0.2 percent of all entries of Psychological Abstractsconcentrated on creativity.  It was not until 1950 at the American Psychological Association convention where Joy P. Guilford, in his presidential address, called for psychologists to increase their focus on creativity.

Scientific Definition

Despite some early controversy over what constitutes creativity, most research and theory-based definitions converge into two main components.  First, creativity must represent something novel, different, or innovative.  Second, it must not only be novel, but must also be appropriate to the task at hand.  A creative response is relevant and useful. 

Are Some People Creative and Some Not?

While the definition of creativity has now been agreed upon, much debate still exists on whether “everyday creativity” is governed by the same processes that underlie creativity found in art and science, or if they represent structurally different capacities.  Misperceptions of creative persons as “mad geniuses”  are prevalent in our modern society, as many would rather mystify creativity than attempt to learn its principal mechanisms.  This is understandable though. 

“Big-C” Creativity is the sexy creativity that is exemplified by Einstein, Mozart, Shakespeare, or Steve Jobs.  It is the type of creativity that lasts lifetimes and will be remembered and enjoyed for generations to come. 

“Little-c” or “everyday creativity” is only the boring way that everybody can be creative.  I believe, however, that little-c helps underscore the important and often essential role that creativity plays in improving everyday life.  We may all not be lucky enough to create works of art that will be viewed by the world as masterpieces, but each one of us can harness our unique creative abilities and add value to the world in new and exciting ways. 

Bottom line: We are all complex being who are creative in unique ways. Embrace your talents, abilities, and interests and get to work.

You have two choices in life: You can dissolve into the mainstream, or you can be distinct.  To be distinct, you must be different. To be different, you must be what no one else but you can be…    -Anonymous

Why Being Creative Matters

In a survey of business leaders, educators, and college students, creativity was chosen most often from a list of thirty-three qualities or talents as the one most critical to effective leadership and innovation in the future (Bleedorn, 1986).  Everett and Lippert (1994) have suggested that creativity and independent thought are consequently becoming more essential for success in the workplace, as employers increasingly want decisions to be made at lower levels. 

 But taking a serious look at creativity has wider implications than just business and education.  The results of creativity enrich culture and society, thus indirectly improving the quality of life for everyone.  Not only that, but by really examining the creative person, the creative process, and the creative product,  we may also learn how to make our own individual lives more engaging and meaningful, regardless of what domain we act in.

Many will argue that creativity is an unnecessary luxury, and that we should be spending our attention on more pressing issues such as poverty, mental illness, or physical disease.  This stance on creativity, however, is not seeing the forest for the trees.  The major problems that affect the billions of people on this planet will only be solved when we devote a great deal of attention to them in creative ways. 

Basically, Creativity Rocks

Whether it is considered from the viewpoint of it effect on society, or as one of the expressions of the human spirit, creativity stands out as an activity to be studied, cherished, and cultivated   - Silvano Arieti

Further Readings:

Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of Creativity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bleedorn, B. (1986). Creativity: Number one leadership talent for the future.  Journal of Creative Behavior, 20, 276-282.

Everett D., & Lippert, J. (1994, August 12). The new work: How to thrive in the changing economy. The Detroit Free Press, pp. 10A-11A.

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5, 444-454.

Kaufman, J. C., (2009). Creativity 101. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Richards, R. (2007). Everyday creativity: Our hidden potential. In R. Richards (Ed.), Everyday creativity and new views of human nature (pp. 25-54).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schlesinger, J. (2009). Creative mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “Mad Genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3(2), 62-72.

Welling, H. (2007). Four mental operations in creative cognition: The importance of abstraction. Creativity Research Journal, 19(2-3), 163-177.