What is Creativity?

My goal in starting this blog was to provide a tour of the creative world, and that tour begins at the dictionary. What is creativity? While there are probably a number of definitions, I'll rely on the defifinition of creativity as the production of novel or useful ideas in any domain. In order to be considered creative, an idea must simply be different from what has been done before, which is a pretty low bar until we add that the idea "cannot be merely different for difference's sake; it must also be appropriate to the goal at hand, correct, valuable, or expressive of meaning" (Amabile, 1996). Note that this is a much broader grab than oil paints and art projects; creativity is fundamentally the creation of novel and useful ideas in any domain. It therefore includes almost every corner of the human world; a movie poster that catches the mind as well as the eye, a novel way to open a can, a better way to cross the road. It excludes only the rote, the unanalyzed, and the purely random.

This definition still has a couple of issues, however. First, is the person, their process, or the end product that is creative? Harvard's Teresa Amabile argues that it's actually all three: "persons can have, in greater or lesser degrees, the ability and inclination to produce novel and appropriate work, and as such, those persons may be considered more or less creative." Processes may similarly be more or less conducive to producing novel and appropriate output, and may therefore by considered more or less creative. Products themselves, of course, live by the same criteria. So creativity's a broad concept.

The second issue is thornier: is creativity a micro- or macro-concept? Let's illustrate this issue with fingerpaint. As a preschooler, you created art projects that expressed ideas that were novel (to you), using methods that were novel (to you), and created an output that was valuable (to you). In doing so, you joined the ranks of millions of other toddlers who had engaged in exactly the same exercise.

So were you creative? To the best of my knowledge, this is an issue that hasn't really been resolved in the literature, although my intuition suggests that creativity is a local (micro) phenomenon. Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan independently invented incandescent lightbulbs, for instance, but we wouldn't hesitate to apply the label of "creative" to either. Instead, the creativity of a given endeavor seems to me to reference the knowledge and experience of the individuals involved.

So we'll allow children to be creative. But how can we measure or even identify creativity? When I once suggested to a colleague that creativity can be quantified, he absolutely recoiled; creativity is usually viewed as a "mysterious, vague, slippery, or ephemeral" concept (Amabile, 1996). And there's no getting around the fact that a phenomenon as unpredictable and complex as creativity is difficult to measure. The most common approach is called consensual assessment, and derives from the simple operational definition that people or products are creative to the extent that appropriate observers agree that they are creative. For example, a poem is creative if a group of experienced poets believes it to be. At the same time, while that group of poets might be able to effectively assess the creativity of a given poem, they not might be well suited to gauge the creatitivity of a business plan. This isn't a perfect approach, but it works surprisingly well; research suggests that panels of experts employing the consensual assessment methodology produce independent judgments with fairly high intercorrelation.

And with that, we've set the stage for our exploration. Creativity is a complex and sweeping phenomenon. It broadly describes the creation of novel and useful ideas in any domain of human endeavor, and might describe people, their processes, or the fruits of their labor. It's a slippery concept, but not without handholds.

In the coming weeks, I hope to explore the components of creativity and the structure of the creative process, the ways in which we might become more creative ourselves, and the beautiful and exciting manifestations of human creativity that abound in the world around us. As we go, feedback and discussion are welcome. Creativity is, after all, a process that can't effectively happen in isolation...but more on that later.