Creativity defined?

part one: from process to setup, chapter 2

“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” ― Terry Pratchett, Diggers

It will be kind of strange for a book about Creativity to start with the following statement, but I won’t lie to you: I don’t really want to go into the definition of Creativity. Allow me to explain why.

If you Google the term Definition of Creativity you will get 2.5 billion page results. That is somewhere in the middle between the number of results for Definition of God and Definition of Love, which is not that promising if you are looking for a clear answer. But, you don’t really need to go beyond the first page of results to realize there are enough different definitions of Creativity to fill several books with numerous interpretations and implications.

Let’s briefly explore a few of them to understand why I think it is more effective to leave the task of defining Creativity to others. As you will see throughout this book, when looking for definitions, my first preference is a good old dictionary.

The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines Creativity as “the ability to create.” I read this, and immediately, the circular-definition-alert sets off in my mind. The first definition of Create in the same dictionary is “to bring into existence.” When these two definitions are combined, one can easily deduce that any act of production is the result of Creativity, and even reproduction falls perfectly into that definition. Clearly, this is not the definition we are looking for. To be fair, somewhere down the page, the Meriam-Webster dictionary does offer a definition that makes better sense in our context, but its position just demonstrates the pitfalls we can get into when seeking for a definition.

The next resource I used was the Oxford dictionary. Here the definition of Creativity is more focused: “The use of imagination or original ideas to create something.” This definition seems to be what we are looking for. It does raise a few questions, though. What are “original ideas?” Is there an objective scale of originality? What exactly is the use of imagination in the process? And most importantly: if nothing is created in the process, does that mean the idea was not creative?

These are all important (and not trivial) questions. We will discuss some of them in the following chapters. What they imply, however, is that the starting point of our journey is not a clear, simple definition of Creativity. The two explanations provided by leading dictionaries are either too simplistic or too vague.

Next in line: the Cambridge dictionary. Here Creativity is defined as “the ability to produce original and unusual ideas, or to make something new or imaginative.” By this definition, Creativity can result in nothing more than an idea, but we are still left with the question: what makes an idea original or unusual? The second option is to make something new or imaginative. For some reason, this second part of the definition does not require the thing we are producing to be original. I might as well imagine something created numerous times before. Confusing.

When I tried my luck with less formal resources, things became even more bizarre. Inc. magazine, for example, provided no less than 9 definitions for Creativity in one short article, and this kind of articles is not unique. There are hundreds of similar lists. I’ll spare you the quotes, and settle for the conclusion: defining Creativity is not that simple. And while a clear definition of the thing we wish to explore can generally help us, I feel that in this case it just sets us back.

Here is an example of how misleading such definitions could be. Many people writing about or researching Creativity define it as the ability to create something new (or original) that also has value. This definition calls for actual production (as opposed to merely conceiving an idea) but also adds Value into the equation. Now, consider Vincent van Gogh. Unfortunately, Vincent van Gogh was not acknowledged as a gifted artist in his lifetime. Few people saw the value in his work. He himself was tortured by some of it. Can someone argue that his work was not creative? Can we seriously claim Vincent van Gogh was blessed with Creativity only after he died because the value of his body of work was only then discovered? Can something external to the outcome of the process such as its value in the eyes of others affect the definition of the work as creative?

If that isn’t confusing enough, you can find some partitioned definitions of small-c Creativity versus big-C Creativity. And if you look further, you will soon encounter the four types of Creativity1. And each such split of terms seems to make sense simply because Creativity is everywhere and can be applied to everything, but no formal definition can easily capture its entire scope.

And yet…

We use the term Creativity freely. Some will claim many people are abusing it, and maybe that is true. But most of us have a deep intuition as to what Creativity is. The least we can say is that most of us can identify Creativity when we encounter it.

That is why, in this book, I would like to take a different path.

My goal in this book is to describe the core-functions that make humans creative in any context, from art to science, from solving a problem at work to improving your relationships, from coming up with the next world-changing idea to writing a poem nobody will ever see. I believe we can find the set of skills or functions that operate in any instance of Creativity, even if we skip the part where we try to define Creativity. At least for now. I dare say, we can have this discussion only if we skip the attempt to find an agreed definition. Instead, we will analyze a variety of examples from diverse domains which we intuitively label as Creative.

To take this approach even further, I would like to ask you to think of additional examples as you read this book. Don’t take my word for it — challenge each of the core-functions I will describe by thinking of examples of Creativity as you perceive it. These core-functions are all taking part in any creative act, although not always to the same extent or in the same order. We will soon see that Creativity cannot be captured as a process — its nature is more chaotic. But all seven functions of the Creativity Operating System are essential in any chain of events resulting in a creative outcome — whether it is small-c, big-C, or any other uncharted C.

By the end of this book, we might be able to define Creativity as one’s ability to apply the Creativity Operating System, but having such a definition is not my goal but merely a side effect. Getting familiar with the Creativity Operating System, its functions, and how to practice and enhance them on a daily basis will have a direct impact on your ability to come up with creative results. Whether you decide to apply it to everyday problems or world-changing projects is up to you. Aiming for a commercial success (which requires much more than just executing a creative idea) or just creating something for yourself is your call. If you apply the concepts described in this book seriously, you will see results. Celebrate them, define your goal, and set a course to achieve it. Whether it fits how someone else defines Creativity is far less important.

While trying to find my way through the countless definitions of Creativity, I found one by Earl Nightingale which caught my attention. It is an enigmatic definition as much as it is intuitive. It is probably not the most practical definition to work with. I didn’t see it quoted anywhere else. And yet, I think it delivers a perfect message to carry with us as we start this journey.

“Creativity is a natural extension of our enthusiasm.”Earl Nightingale

Instead of trying to accurately define Creativity, focus on your enthusiasm — on your passion — and use the ideas in this book to extend it.

Be creative!

1 Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity

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