Ellen Rose

Ellen Rose 2019

The 'Aha' Movement

Designing for Creativity at Work

A Master's thesis blog: Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts


Defining Creativity | The Creative Individual

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

2. The Creative Individual and the Myth of the Lone Creative Genius

Good news: you are creative. All the expert sources I’ve read and all the interviews I’ve conducted agree. There were zero defectors when asked this simple question, “is everyone creative?” In fact, Csikszentmihalyi argues that "to be human means to be creative" (318). We might even go so far as to claim that human progress, perhaps human evolution itself is based on creativity. The human species developed and differentiated itself from our ancient ape and Neanderthal cousins because of our ability to adapt and imagine.

In present day, we most closely associate creativity with artists, musicians, poets and those with ‘creative’ built into the job title like ‘creative directors’ and ‘creative production designers.’ But there are other types of professionals who are highly creative, like scientific researchers and executive managers. Creativity exists everywhere, not just in professional life. Psychologist, researcher and author Teresa Amabile argues that,

“Creativity is possible in all realms of human activity. If we define creativity as doing something novel that works… it’s absolutely possible in everything that humans do. (Freakonomics; Amabile).

Many experts choose to categorize creative people into a two-tiered hierarchy: those who practice personal creativity (creativity with a little ‘c’) and those who practice professional Creativity (Creativity with a big ‘C’) also known as the rare creative genius. Little ‘c’ creatives are people “who express unusual thoughts, are interesting and stimulating

…[and] people who experience the world in novel and original ways” (Csikszentmihalyi 25). On the other hand, Creatives with a big ‘C’ are those who have mastered a domain so completely that they are able to transcend its confines and change the domain and our culture in a meaningful way. This latter category is the category of William Shakespeare, Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and the like.

All that being said, I would argue that it’s not worthwhile to categorize people into restrictive buckets. In a contemporary sense, we are all hyper-productive creators and fluid thinkers who can practice and apply our creativity with versatility and without labels. Furthermore, the myth of the lone creative genius is indeed a myth. These epic figures and their work are often a result of a team, institution or system. More on that later. It’s also worth noting that the successes of these creative individuals are points that are highlighted throughout history, but they rarely reflect the failed projects that preceded them. Creative geniuses don’t have a better ‘hit rate’ in terms of success, but rather, they simply produce more: the more they produce, the greater the odds are that something they create will be well received, transformative, and remembered throughout history.

Given the participatory nature of culture and the collaborative nature of work today, I believe that the myth of the lone creative genius is one that must be annulled. Successful artists have teams under them producing the work and innovative startups create products born from group brainstorming sessions.

If the ever lone creative genius existed before, it doesn’t any more today.

Is creativity bred? Yes, partly. There are certain childhood experiences that are more prevalent in the lives of those who have made creative breakthroughs compared to those who have not. For instance, education, exposure to new things at an early age, and permission to be expressive contribute greatly to an individual’s creative output later in life. As do spending a lot of time alone as a young person or experiencing traumatic or unusual circumstance. These types of experiences are formally called “diversifying experiences,” which means exposure to “one or more events, in childhood or adolescence, that puts you on a different track from everybody else…You see yourself as different. You have different goals” (Freakonomics: Simonton). As Csikszentmihalyi underlines, "one cannot be exceptional and normal at the same time." (177).

Interestingly, there is a trend of having lost a parent before the age of sixteen and making significant creative contributions later in life. Losing a parent at a young age changes a child in that they tend to develop a depth of emotion and a sense of responsibility early in life.

How do creative children transition to creative adults? Often in our teenage years, when our sense of self becomes tenuous and malleable, is the time when we stop exploring and become self-conscious about our creative abilities. I’ve spoken with art educators who notice a distinct change in children when they hit 12 or 13, and they begin to judge themselves, equating artistic talent with creative ability. Somehow, drawing well has become the litmus test for creative thinking.

Creativity is not beholden to artistic talent, and we need to instill that idea in children, teens, and adults alike. I am encouraged by this statement from Tom and David Kelley (author of The Art of Invention and founder of IDEO, respectfully) that

“all creative people have one thing in common: at some point, they decided to be creative” (75).

If parents, educators and society at-large can promote this idea, then we can harness the entire population’s creative confidence.

Creative thinking is characterized by the fluency (quantity) and flexibility (diversity) of ideas, which is also called divergent thinking. What sort of personal characteristics lead to this kind of thinking? In a nutshell: a sense of urgent optimism, resilience against failure, comfort with ambiguity, a sense of empathy for others, a mix of crystallized and fluid intelligence, curiosity, and nonconformity. Creative people are driven to produce for the sake of producing; they get joy and satisfaction from making a doing, regardless of whether it fulfills a client brief or a school assignment.

A discussion of creative individuals must not neglect the darker side of creativity, over which there is much debate and discussion. The essential questions are whether or not mental illness contribute to creativity, whether torment is a necessary ingredient in the creative process, and whether drugs and alcohol have an effect on the creative brain. These are big questions, which we’ll investigate more in depth later.