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.

Investing your time to develop your creativity

I’m sure you’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. You’ve almost certainly heard his well known theory from the book, where he posits that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of an art or skill. He arrives at this nice round number by citing a piece of research about a violin school in Berlin, where the students were estimated to have put in these kind of hours to master their instrument.

The theory has been picked apart by several critics. It even turns out that the number is slightly arbitrary according to the original researcher K. Anders Ericsson, but the central premise nevertheless still holds true. Great mastery of a creative artform takes a huge amount of time. The investment in one’s craft is as vital as one’s creative ability.

Some years after the release of the book, Gladwell did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on reddit, where he discussed his work and ideas, and I particularly liked his clarification on the 10,000 hours theory.

“Practice isn’t a sufficient condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.” 

The word investment sticks out to me here. Investing in yourself as a creative person is vital to becoming a more fully realised version of who you want to be. How you want to create. The very act of writing these words is part of my continued investment in my craft. Whether 10, 000 hours is the right number is almost immaterial. The main takeaway is that none of us can get by on pure talent alone, it also takes hard work. And that is as it should be. As it happens, I am fairly certain I have clocked more than 10,000 on the odometer at this point in my creative journey, and I intend to reinvest them and go for another 10,000.

Take this survey about creativity!

I recently joined a Creative Network here in Ireland and we have been exploring what makes us tick as creatives, as well as our relationship between creativity and work. As part of that, we are curious to learn more about fellow creatives around the world, so we built this little survey to understand your creative journey, especially as it pertains to your working life, creative process, as well as creative applications & inspirations. If you have 5 minutes, we would be super grateful if you filled in the survey (we will NOT share your information with any 3rd party, that is NOT cool) and if you could pass on the link to other creatives in your network. Happy to share the final results here once the results are tallied and made into pretty graphs and charts. Thanks in advance! 

Jagged Little Pill – Not Over the Hill

Went to see Alanis Morisette last night. She performed her classic album “Jagged Little Pill” in its entirety and I was bowled over by her. Not only do the songs still sound bright and vital, but Alanis’ voice was still incredibly powerful and poised, despite her advancing age. I must admit I was cynical going in to the show, but came out mightily impressed. An inspiration to see.  

Chalkboard Quotation #3 – Werner Herzog on the creative struggle

Today on the chalkboard I am pondering the words of the great German film director Werner Herzog, and his metaphorical description of carrying a great weight with you (be it your dreams, your identity, your creative impulses). If you havent seen his film Fitzcarraldo, where he literally pulls a boat over a mountain, then do yourself a favour and watch it. Better still, make it a double feature with “Burden of Dreams”, a documentary that chronicles Herzog’s chaotic experience of making Fitzcarraldo.

Chalkboard Quote #1 – Tina Fey on being creatively brave

I have an old chalkboard that I recently hung on the door to my office. I thought it might be interesting to occasionally write quotes that connect with me on the chalkboard. Subtle prompts and boosts to my creative confidence every time I enter the room. Then I thought it might be fun to share them here with you too. So, here is the first in a sporadic series of the chalkboard quotes upon my door. I started with a quote from Tina Fey because she is a writer and performer I utterly adore. It is a great reminder that you sometimes have to take a leap of faith creatively. Tina clearly did, and she seems to be doing great so far.