#252 from R&D
Innovator Volume 5, Number 12
What is Creativity?
Cook teaches workshops and conducts creativity training for the
University of Wisconsin Division of Continuing Studies.Phone
This article is adapted from his book, Freeing Your Creativity (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio,
We don’t know
what, when or how to call it—or even if we should try to call it
It’s a vital
part of us, that subconscious force that powers our inventiveness,
but we’re not sure how it works or where it comes from.
We marvel at it,
rejoice in it, are a little afraid of it when we sense its power
at work in us. It
feels like the stirring of the spirit or the whispering of the
At the turn of
the century, a writer named Charles Haanel called it “a
benevolent stranger, working on our behalf.”
One writer friend
of mine calls hers “Lefty.”
we’ll never be able to define or fully understand creativity,
let’s explore it a bit, beginning with four common myths about
#1. If I like it, it must be “creative”
Sometimes when we
speak of work as being “creative,” we really mean that we
think it’s good or unusual or that we like it.
But are “good” and “likable” really synonyms for
“bad” work “uncreative”?
The creator goes
through the same process, regardless of the outcome.
Your work is the product of the creative process, whether
you later judge that product to be a triumph or a tragedy.
Keep evaluations of quality separate from the creative
#2. If there’s a lot of it, it must be “creative”
We call people
“creative” when they produce a lot.
Isaac Asimov, Anthony Burgess, James Michener and other
prolific writers certainly merit the title.
But just as the term “creative” doesn’t necessarily
apply to the quality of the product, it shouldn’t apply to the
quantity either. I
think that Harper Lee, who published only one novel To
Kill a Mockingbird is as good as they come.
Also, haven’t some of our scientific Nobel Prize
laureates only achieved one “great” discovery?
#3. If it feels good, it must be “creative”
We also use the
term “creative” to name the feeling we get when ideas and
images explode in our minds without conscious effort.
Athletes refer to this feeling as “the sweet spot” or
“the zone.” Musicians
talk of being “at one” with the instrument.
In his book Healing
Journey, David Smith talks about a similar sensation achieved
while running, a state “beyond meditation” in which the runner
seems able to arrive at a subconscious awareness of universal
truth. Gamblers call
it “playing a hunch.” And
don’t good researchers “play their hunches?”
ecstasy don’t define creativity any more than feelings of
frustration and struggle signal its lack.
You’re creative when ideas flow in a burst of euphoria
and also when you have to struggle and scratch for every inch of
#4. If it’s made up, it must be “creative”
Most of us agree
that writing poems, short stories, novels or plays requires
creativity. But some
might refuse to apply the term to technical writing, and many
folks get downright disrespectful when they talk about lab
History, Barbara Tuchman complained that nonfiction gets
treated like a remainder category.
But it’s no less creative, she maintained, than other
forms of writing. She
wanted to create a special name for “writers of reality” and
said she would have picked “realtors” if the term hadn’t
already been taken.
There’s no such
thing as “non-creative” work.
All research requires creativity and can benefit from a
has more to do with process than product, more to do with how you
approach the task than with how well you do it or how much of it
you do or how you feel about it while you’re doing it.
four myths about creativity can help us understand and use our own
let’s explore five tentative truths about creativity.
is the triumph of originality over habit
We do a lot of
things today the same way we did them yesterday, because we did them that way yesterday. Habit can be helpful. (Do
you really want to think
about tying your shoes or brushing your teeth?)
But a habit can also shut out possibilities and produce
We become more
creative precisely at those times of extreme frustration when
yesterday’s habit solutions don’t solve today’s research
problems. Don’t be
frightened of “researcher’s block.”
Welcome it. The
subconscious mind, let loose upon the task at last, begins to play
with combinations the conscious mind wouldn’t allow. The muse mulls and in its own time proposes new combinations
the conscious mind wouldn’t allow.
At such times I
experience a sudden release of energy and emotion.
Most often I’m elated; occasionally I’m filled with
doubt. Whatever my
feelings, I’ve learned to accept the gifts of my “benevolent
stranger,” withholding judgment until later.
If you’re like
me, you don’t always get your breakthroughs when you need them.
More likely, they come when you’re least able to take
advantage of them. I
do some of my best breakthrough thinking while jogging, bicycling
or driving. I think
that’s because the conscious mind relaxes and lets loose of the
problem, giving the subconscious a chance to play.
Can you learn to
create these creative moments on demand? Can you schedule your inspirations? Not entirely. Creativity
is more like a slot machine than a vending machine. But you can help prepare for and encourage creative
breakthroughs, and you can be more attentive to them when they
involves making new combinations
your creativity when you allow yourself to play with new
combinations of words, images and ideas.
The folks who
grappled with the problem of how to create a better potato chip
bag had no success until they stopped thinking “bag” and
allowed themselves to combine potato chips with other sorts of
visualized putting chips into the sort of sealed tube used to keep
tennis balls fresh, and a breakthrough in packaging was born.
is the great “Yes”
We all learn to
say “no” too much and too soon.
“Let me play
the Devil’s Advocate,” we say when confronted by a new idea,
whether our own or someone else’s.
Then we think up all the reasons why the idea
kills the infant idea, and kills all the other ideas that might
have come after it.
approach means saying “yes” first.
Creativity means playing the Angel’s Advocate, a term I
first heard in Sydney X. Shore’s workshop on creative
“What’s good about it?” with every new idea, Shore urges.
Think of all the reasons why it might work.
Let the idea grow. Let
it suggest other ideas. Keep
open to all the possibilities.
When the great
animator Chuck Jones, creator of the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote
and other cultural icons, called his team together to brainstorm
an idea for a cartoon feature, he never allowed negative comments. “If you couldn’t say something positive,” he says,
“you keep quiet.” These
“YES sessions,” as Jones calls them, produced more good ideas
than could ever fit into a six-minute cartoon.
Won’t you also
come up with a lot of silly ideas that way? Sure. The most
creative people I’ve ever met are often fools in the eyes of the
world. But what are
you risking? You can
always say “no” later. If
you try to choke off the “silly” ideas and only receive the
“good” ones, the can’t miss ones, you might not get any
ideas at all.
means being all of what you are
We imitate others
(who are imitating others who are imitating others).
We settle for the trite and true, and when we do, we become
less than what we really are.
You must instead
become more of what you
are. Discovery your
strengths and emphasize them.
Become more powerful by becoming more authentically
yourself as you go about your research experiments.
Only then will you draw fully on the creativity within you.
means getting out of the way
drawings I do are hardly mine,” author and artist Frederick
Franck wrote. “Only
the bad ones are mine for they are the ones where I can’t let go
and am caught in the ME-cramp.”
If you can quiet
the yammering of the conscious, controlling ego, you can begin to
hear your deeper voice. Then
you’ll begin to give yourself surprises of insight and vision.
It’s still you doing the work.
If fact, it’s more
you. It just isn’t
the noisy little you that sits out front at the receptionist’s
desk and tries to take credit for everything that happens in the
When you bring
all of yourself to your creative problem solving, and when you
learn to trust your deepest, most authentic intuitions, a creative
attitude can pervade and enhance every aspect of the research
process. You experience creativity.
You store that experience creatively.
You keep open to all the possibilities.
You combine images and ideas, eager to see what will
them all. You can’t really judge them while you’re having them
openness must come first.