#252 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 12          December 1996

Just What is Creativity?
by Marshall J. Cook

Mr. Cook teaches workshops and conducts creativity training for the University of Wisconsin Division of Continuing Studies.Phone 608-262-4911, marshall.cook@ccmail.adp.wisc.edu.  This article is adapted from his book, Freeing Your Creativity (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1992).

We don’t know what, when or how to call it—or even if we should try to call it at all. 

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 muse.

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.”

Knowing that we’ll never be able to define or fully understand creativity, let’s explore it a bit, beginning with four common myths about creativity.

Myth #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 “creative?”  Is “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 process.

Myth #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?

Myth #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?”

Feelings of 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 progress.

Myth #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 reports.

In Practicing 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 creative approach.

Creativity, then, 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.

Dispelling these four myths about creativity can help us understand and use our own creativity.  Now let’s explore five tentative truths about creativity.

Tentative truth #1. 

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 stale research.

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 occur.

Tentative truth #2. 

Creativity involves making new combinations

You encourage 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 containers.  Somebody visualized putting chips into the sort of sealed tube used to keep tennis balls fresh, and a breakthrough in packaging was born.

Tentative truth #3.

Creativity 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 won’t/can’t/shouldn’t work.

Such thinking kills the infant idea, and kills all the other ideas that might have come after it.

A creative 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 problem-solving.  Play “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.  Withhold judgment.

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.

Tentative truth #4.

Creativity 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.

Tentative truth #5.

Creativity means getting out of the way

“The good 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 building.

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 happen.

“Great” ideas?  “Terrible” ideas.   Embrace them all.  You can’t really judge them while you’re having them anyway.

Judgment comes later.  Creative openness must come first.

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