A strong thesis begins with a lot of reading
Sir Isaac Newton, inarguably a creative thinker, is credited with the phrase, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”1 In that spirit, I have dedicated the last several months to reading, listening to podcasts, watching TED talks and talking to people about the concept of creativity. I have been climbing up those tall shoulders, and though I have farther to climb, I have have a good view of the landscape of creativity and have formed my own opinion of it.
Creativity interests me because it has been a word that I’ve used to define myself since childhood. I was the ‘creative one’ in the family, the ‘creative one’ in the classroom, and eventually ‘the creative one’ at work. However, in the last few years, as my professional work progressed from activities that were artistically creative (such as sketching new ideas and building sculptural props for window displays) to activities that on the surface were not ‘creative’ (such as negotiating prices with vendors or scheduling a team to work a special event) my definition of creativity has broadened.
My summer reading list included foundational texts from the 1970s and 1990s like Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono and Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi through newly released novels that call for a refreshed and intensified contemporary need for creative thinking, such as Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow, 2018 and Francesca Gino’s Rebel Talent from the year prior. Layered on top of the formal readings were TED talks by Adam Grant, Ingrid Fetell Lee, Simon Sinek and Patty McCord. I listened to some elucidating NPR Hidden Brain podcasts with Shankar Vedantam, and read articles from UPenn’s Wharton School of Business, McKinsey & Company Insights, and Forbes.
The texts ranged in subject matter from psychological analyses of the brain mechanisms behind creativity, qualitative interviews with well-regarded creative professionals, the application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to the development of human creativity from ancient history through today, and contemporary practices of creativity in the workplace.
My opinion—my thesis—on creativity involves three main ideas: creativity is not exclusively artistic creativity, creativity is available to everyone, and human creativity is not threatened by AI.
My guess is that if you ask random people on the street if they are creative, they might answer something like, “No, I don’t write or paint or anything. I’m not creative.” The dictionary definition of creativity does not specify artistic expression, so it’s curious that we generally define creativity by that feature. I agree with Merriam Webster that creativity is “marked by the ability or power to create," which is not a superpower relegated only to artists. As I experienced in my own professional life, the product of creativity is oftentimes not a painting or poem, but rather takes the form of a new business relationship or an efficient Excel spreadsheet. Furthermore, I think it’s dangerously limiting to use the word ‘creative’ as a noun to describe a specific type of person or type of profession. That usage puts a barrier around the word that makes it seem even less attainable.
Yes, I have a bias towards creativity. I think it’s a valuable tool, and I think that most people can tap into it.
Second, I believe that creativity is available to everyone. There are some who show a natural proclivity to it at an early age, others who develop it later, and still others who believe that it’s out of their grasp: too difficult or too mysterious for them to harness. But I think that creativity is a muscle that can be taught and developed. Yes, I have a bias towards creativity. I think it’s a valuable tool, and I think that most people can tap into it.
Lastly, when I began my investigation, I was interested in the idea that human creativity was under possible threat from AI and neural net technologies that have advanced exponentially in recent years. I was under the impression that robots were positioned to usurp the uniquely human talents for imagination and invention—rendering them neither unique nor human. However, in my reading I found several compelling arguments about the limitations of computational thinking, such as the idea that the imagination requires value, emotions and bodily perceptions, which computers cannot achieve 2 and "computers are heading toward ever-faster calculation, [and] that hasn't translated to ever more elastic thinking" (Mlodinow 44). I believe now that computers might actually aid us in becoming more creative as technology relieves us of the mundane and repetitive tasks that distract us from our creative potentials. I recognize that I may eat my words one day as I’m unconsciously incubating in The Matrix and my body is farmed for electricity to fuel the robot overlord network. But hey, I’ll be unconscious.
I want to acknowledge the urgency that underlies my own renewed call for creative thinking. Humanity’s productivity has increased exponentially in the last decades, allowing us to thrive in such a way that our success threatens the very planet that sustains us. We are at a dire turning point, and in fact, we may have crossed the threshold already. Climate change, tenuous global food systems and the multitude of challenges that arise when humanity burgeons and tightly concentrates into urban areas are coming to a head, and we need creativity to find innovative solutions to these crises and the crises that are on the horizon. But this increased need for creative thinking and creative problem solving is coming at a moment when they are increasingly unavailable to us: we are so distracted by and reliant upon technology that we’ve lost that tactility and flexibility required for creative thinking. Csikszentmihalyi’s writing helped me formulate this idea when he writes that, "creativity is necessary for human survival in a future…when the results of creativity tend to have undesirable side effects...human well-being hinges of two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas." (322)
I don’t think it’s contradictory to argue that technology will both aid us in accessing our creative abilities and undermine our ability to access to it: we need a referendum on what constitutes effective technology use and integration.
As a practical side note, I’d like to acknowledge that the word creativity has several adjacent terms, which I will explore in greater detail later: elastic thinking, divergent thinking, flexible thinking, lateral thinking, problem solving, flow state, imagination, second universe, improvisation and innovation.
Much of the literature I consumed was focused on how creativity is cultivated and exhibited. This dissection of the mechanisms of functionality is of great interest to the average reader, since I think many people are motivated to better understand and harness their own creative abilities. I’ve compiled two handy lists that summarize the characteristics exhibited by creative individuals and conditions that spark creativity, which I will use as references for the products that I will develop.
Characteristics exhibited by creative individuals
Discipline & focus
Comfort with ambiguity & complexity
Tolerance for failure
Neophilia (the degree of affinity for novelty)3
Schizotypy (a cluster of characteristics that include a tendency to have usual ideas and magical beliefs) 3
Integrative thinking (the ability to hold in mind, balance and reconcile diverse or opposing ideas) 3
“one cannot be exceptional and normal at the same time” (Csikszentmihalyi 177)
Plurality of personality
“[creatives demonstrate] contradictory extremes--instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."... A complex personality does not imply neutrality, or the average. It is not some position at the midpoint between two poles...involves the ability to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires." (Csikszentmihalyi 57)
Though I find Csikszentmihalyi’s perspective dated, ageist, and mildly elitist, I would like to include his summary of the personality and work habits of creative people, which he formulated after having interviewed nearly 100 esteemed creative professionals (all were over 60 years of age):
“1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest...2. tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time...3. combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility...4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other...5.Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion...6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time...7. A tendency toward androgyny...8. both traditional and conservative at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic...9. Most creative persons are very passionate abut their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well...conflict between attachment and detachment...10. the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.” (59-73)
Conditions that spark creativity
An upbringing that includes: time alone, exposure to the wealth and variety of life 4
Resource deficiency 5
Emergency or high-stakes conditions 5
Going for a walk 6
Messy workspaces 6
Marijuana and hallucinogens
Diversity of thought and experiences in a team/group
Intellectual humility 5
“limitations mean freedom" (Kleon 137)
Relaxed mind (also a productive mind), contradictorily Central paradox: activity vs idleness as instigator of creativity (Asma 240)
* 14. This final condition for creativity is so crucial that it deserves an explanation outside of this reductionist list. It’s the idea that “creativity does not happen inside people's heads, but in the interaction between a person's thoughts and a sociocultural context. It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon." (Csikszentmihalyi, 23)
1 Wikipedia contributors. (2018, August 14). Standing on the shoulders of giants. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:56, September 19, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants&oldid=854854736
2 Asma, S. (2017). The Evolution of Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
3 Mlodinow, L. (2018). Elastic: Flexible thinking in a time of change. New York: Pantheon.
4 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
5 Gino, F. (2017). Rebel Talent : Why it pays to break the rules at work and in life. New York: Dey St Books.
6 Burns, W. (2018, February 15) Four Scientific Studies that Give Us Clues to Improve Our Creativity. https://www.forbes.com/sites/willburns/2018/02/15/scientific-studies-give-us-specific-clues-to-improve-our-creativity/#23476316ef81
7 Kleon, A. (2012). Steal like an artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative. New York: Workman Publishing Company.