Creativity – What is it?

What is creativity? It’s a great question. Alas there isn’t a simple answer.

The dictionary definition of creativity (and I’m doing a bit of summarising here) is the ability to use skill & imagination to produce new & unusual ideas. That’s technically fine. But so what? Are you truly any clearer on what creativity actually is from that definition? Maybe a little. In fairness though, I could throw loads of other definitions of creativity at you and you might dance a little closer to understanding, but ultimately all of them will be as slippery as the concept itself. They don’t meaningfully get us that much closer to understanding the concept. Much less the essence of it. 

The funny thing is, I’m fairly sure we all instinctively know creativity when we see it. We can even recognise our own sparks of creativity and ingenuity when they happen. Then why do we have such a hard time defining what creativity is, or indeed where those moments of creativity come from? 

The artist John Berger once said: “All creation is in the art of seeing“. It feels like there is a deeper truth in that statement than the dictionary definition. Granted, it is a bit more lyrical and creative, but I love the interesting sense of duality to it. 

The idea that creative output only truly exists with a broadcaster and a receiver feels accurate. Both need to be tuned to the same wavelength for creation to occur. If that holds true, then creativity itself is surely the initial signal for broadcast to commence. 

Still a bit too nebulous? Yeah, I know. I told you, there isn’t a simple answer to this. 

Let’s take the basic idea that creativity is rooted in a particular (even atypical) way of seeing the world. In order to facilitate and elicit moments of creativity, we must be open to seeing everything through a different lens. And the subsequent act of creation itself is then a natural direct response to that which you see before you. The combination of these two focal points is the moment where creativity ignites. 

To put it in less metaphorical terms, creativity feels a bit like you’re being posed questions that stimulate curiosity and lead down a new path (sometimes many paths) to an interesting answer. Often a very specific answer. That’s just as true for writing a new poem as it is for cracking a business strategy. 

If we can recognise creativity (but have a trickier time defining it), then maybe we are asking the wrong question. Are we actually more interested in questions like – Why do great thinkers think that way? Where do their ideas come from? What sparks those moments of creative combustion? 

Perhaps it is not a definition of creativity we seek, but rather an understanding of what it means to be creative, and, more specifically, how to tap into creative ways of thinking and seeing. The good news is that it can be learned. The reason I know this is because I have learned it, and so can you. The answer lies in practice. Tools of the trade are critical too, of course. But primarily it just takes lots of practice. Only through constant practice can creativity become our talent.

Look, there is no escaping the fact that there are certain people who are more naturally creative, but it will only get them so far in the long run. Everyone has to sharpen their creative skills through persistent hard work and consistent application. Everyone. 

So I can hear you saying, that’s all well and good Kalle, but I’m not very creative so I’m not sure there is much to develop. Bullshit, I say. Everyone has creativity within them, it simply has to be unlocked and harnessed properly. 

If you can cook, you’re creative. If you can tell a story, you’re creative. If you can build something, you’re creative. If you have the ability to fix something, you are creative. The spark of brilliance in producing a carefully crafted piece of communication, exists in the same sphere of creative magic as a great guitar riff. Really? Yes, really. 

Now, that said, not everyone is able to transfer those creative abilities to different settings, but with practice you can develop your own brand of creativity to turn your lens to anything.

Ultimately, creativity is a form of problem solving and that is most certainly something that you can get better at. As mentioned before, it’s all about training yourself to think differently and to bring an atypical lens to any situation, and to challenge the norms and draw out different ways of thinking from those around you.

In a future post I will share some of the many tips, tricks and techniques that I have learned to stimulate and accelerate creativity, but for now, I encourage you to begin with a simple daily creative practice (even if it is just for 10 minutes). Personally I try to write something new every day. But for you it might be doodling or dancing. It doesn’t matter what it is. Keep your creative mind limber. Nothing will develop your creative abilities more than pushing yourself to consistently create. 

Most importantly though, perhaps don’t ask what creativity is, but ask yourself how you can shift your perspective to see things more creatively.

Rakattak – 14 guitars, 16 amps, 1 mallet

One of the most creative periods of my life was when I was collaborating on the website artlick.com. No idea was too big or too small to be explored creatively. One such idea was a series of pop up ads for fake products & services. We zeroed in on a series of fake musical instruments and equipment. 

The Rakattak was a wild concept whereby 14 Fender electric guitars are suspended by springs inside 16 amps (on high distortion). Each guitar is in an open tuning to a note on a musical scale (not sure why we didnt design it with 16 guitar to cover two octaves) and an accompanying large mallet to strike each guitar, as if it were a large  vibraphone or xylophone. We imagined an unruly, melodic sound that would make My Bloody Valentine smile quietly. The ads only show the instrument in glimpses, but here is the original design by Dave Bagnall

You may also notice in the ads that the company producing and selling these musical items is called ChickenScratch. This always tickled me. I believe it was one of Dave’s ideas that was thrown out there randomly. And it stuck. 

The accompanying ChickenScratch logo was designed to look like a vinyl record that is stretching (time and space?), as well as sparking thoughts of the belt in a record player, or some similar analog piece of equipment. 

We both had a deep affinity for analog equipment in a world that was becoming increasingly digital (ironically using a digital medium to say it). So, the ChickenScratch tagline is reflective of our love for all things analog – “Analog solutions for a digital world”. In this slice of creativity we managed to achieve that to the fullest.

One year. Zero drinks

This day last year I had my last drink. No major reason other than the idea of pausing for a bit. A few weeks became a few months, which became a year. I’m not gonna preach about any major revelations but I can say it has been a benefit in general. Sobriety gives you a different lens and my creative faculties are sharper. I think I’ll keep it going.

Sept 11th – a recollection

20 years ago today, around this time I was emerging from the subway at Bowling Green in Manhattan right by the iconic iron bull sculpture. My subway journey had been marred by delays and the commuting New Yorkers were getting irritable, myself included. Little did we know that above ground the first plane had struck the Twin Towers, and the second was just about to hit. As I emerged I saw throngs of people running down the middle of Broadway, some shouting and others with their eyes locked on the horizon in a catatonic stare. I shuffled through the crowd, catching snippets of conversation about a plane and the towers. It didnt make much sense. Once inside my office, with a radio plonked in the centre of the communal area, we learned piecemeal about the hijacked planes, but it was all pretty unclear still. I called my dad and my sister to let them know I was ok. My friend Dave and I went over to Battery Park to see for ourselves, and I will never forget the sight of the buildings burning and belching out smoke, with the sound of sirens all around us. As odd as it sounds now, despite the unspeakable horror of it all, we assumed the NYPD and FDNY had it under control. We returned inside and without warning our building started to violently shake. Looking back, this was the first tower collapsing and the reverberations were so fierce they shook our foundations, although at the time we didn’t know it. There was garbled talk on the radio of bombs, and with our building backing onto the NY Stock Exchange, there was a real concern for our safety and the rumbling building felt like a warning. I made a personal decision to leave and as I did so, the building announced an evacuation. Throngs of people spilled into the lobby but the doors to the outside had been locked. Mixed messages from the building management meant that thousands of people were now pressing into the confined area and it was getting uncomfortably tight. A security guard said he would open the doors and we could leave at our own risk. I exited with Dave and his sister Karin, who also worked with me. I still remember the yellowish dust that lay on the ground like a weird snow, as we traipsed through it. As we crossed Bowling Green there was the sound of planes roaring above us and I felt panic and threw myself against a wall in a meaningless effort to stay safe. They were likely military planes securing the area, given that all air traffic had been grounded. We then slowly trudged down to the bottom of Manhattan with streams of people pouring out of buildings onto the normally busy roads of the financial district. Some buildings had hauled out their water coolers onto the road and were handing out cups to drink from. Around then there was another loud boom and plumes of smoke raced down the concrete canyons around us as the second tower collapsed. Everyone started running and we made it to a slip road up onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where a kindly cop let us enter. Once I was up there I stared across and saw hordes of New Yorkers streaming out of Manhattan across the bridges. It was only then I was finally able to look back at the island and where the towers had once stood, there was now a smoking, burning vacant space. When we finally got to Brooklyn I looked up into the clear blue skies and saw the surreal sight of reams of paper fluttering down. Old letterheads and index cards from the offices in the towers, just drifting to the ground. Some of them charred and singed. I grabbed one and folded it into my wallet as a strange memento to remember those who were gone. With a sense of social duty we went to the hospital to donate blood but they didn’t need any more, and as it would turn out they unfortunately wouldn’t have a huge need anyway due to the lack of survivors from the buildings themselves. As we finally sat down in Dave’s apartment in Carroll Gardens, I called my father to let him know I was ok. He hadn’t heard from me for hours and saw the events unfolding on live television. Both of us spoke in hushed tones and in a state of shock, as well as real gratitude to be talking. Next I spoke to my sister and then a few friends & family in Ireland and Sweden. And then I did the only thing I knew to do, I sat down and wrote a brief and spotty account of my experience on an online messageboard, which I recall getting picked up by The Irish Times and the Munster Express in my home town of Waterford. The next morning I ventured out to the subway and made the lengthy journey back to Sunnyside, Queens, still wearing the dusty clothes from the day before. Commuters staring blankly to the floor. When I got home I bumped into my landlord Tom Lee,, who let me know that our neighbour Warren, who worked in Tower One, had not returned home yet. And he would never return. And as the week rolled by I heard of other sad stories, and also of unlikely escapes, like my friend Shadi who was fired from his job in the Twin Towers on Sept 10th. The week that followed was a blur of watching the news and sleeping and eating. And the return to work was an eerie one, with military personnel and vehicles on the roads, with strict ID checks at entry points from the Subway. And those fires burned at Ground Zero for months afterwards. Months. Air filters that were normally changed annually were being swapped out within weeks. Union Square become a memorial ground to those who were gone, with candles and flags and mementos and books strewn in makeshift shrines. Some sang songs. Others walked in silence. It was a strange and oddly beautiful time to be there. And as I look back now, 20 years later, I think about how grateful I am to have walked away to tell the tale, and I turn my thoughts to those who didn’t. May they rest in peace.