What is creativity? Have you thought about it? Like about what it actually is?
Creativity is often kind of an unclear thing, and how it works and how ideas come about are even more mysterious. Ask ten people what creativity is and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Add to that many many ideas that have been infused in the cultural narrative surrounding creativity, going back as long as recorded history.
Are some people born creative? Is in some innate ability? How does creativity work and do people get ideas?
To answer those questions and explore more what it actually is we first need a definition.
I define it as
Creativity: The act of intentionally bringing something new into existence or connect ideas in a way that solves a novel problem.
First thing to note is there are two parts or ways to use creativity; essentially idea generation and problem solving. Also important creativity is an intentional act, pressing down on piano keys and calling it a song took no creativity. Creativity is the act or process of bringing those things into existence, not the outcome, so creativity requires intentionality.
Historically there have been (and continue to be) a lot of myths and mystery around it. And for good reason, ideas and the idea of creating something new do seem to be mysterious and unpredictable. And well they are actually, but lost in that mystery is a lot of truth and even what creativity actually is. The main truth is simply that creativity is something all humans do. Creativity is a skill, and like every skill its something you can get better at, but it’s also something everybody is capable of.
To sum up a lot of what my biggest takeaways are: If you don’t believe you’re capable of creativity, or convinced you’re not born with it, you’ll likely never engage with it, even though you as a human are creative and can get better at it. You have to believe you are even if you don’t feel like you are.
Ok now a few questions where do ideas come from? This is a simple and obvious question, but it’s quite complicated.
Obviously (for now at least) we don’t know enough to instantly generate the ideas we want to. However there has been a lot of research into how creativity works in the brain, and I believe it can help us be more creative and generate ideas.
The two modes the brain operates in.
(IE HOW IT KIND OF WORKS TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE TODAY)
(As a note I’m taking this information from my guide on 10 ways to 10x your creativity, which you can get here…)
Creativity like every function of thinking, is ultimately about making connections in the brain. With creativity it’s specifically about making connections between all information you’ve acquired, often between disparate and unassociated information.
There are really two different modes in which the brain operates when it comes to creativity. One is commonly called the Executive mode the other is Default Mode.
Let’s start with what the Executive is. Scientific American describes it this way: The Executive Attention Network is recruited when a task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam. This network is active when you’re concentrating on a challenging lecture, or engaging in complex problem solving and reasoning that puts heavy demands on working memory. This neural architecture involves efficient and reliable communication between lateral (outer) regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back (posterior) of the parietal lobe.
In other words this is when you are actively trying to come up with an idea, solve a problem or be “creative”. This is what most people think of when they’re thinking of “creativity”. And that’s where most people’s idea of creativity usually stays.
Recently research has shown a second mode, commonly called Default Mode Network. This is a brain mode that becomes more active when we’re at rest, and the Executive mode is not active. When you’re not actively trying to figure out something, like daydreaming, for example. While less intuitive this is really where the bulk of creativity comes from.
To simplify how they work together the idea behind this is, while you input information in Executive Mode your brain often needs time to make connections between information. So this is where Default Mode comes in. When you’re not actively trying to figure something out it lets the your subconscious make connections, often disparate unassociated ones, that it’s able to integrate your brain.
The Journal of Creative Behavior put it like this: ”Mind-wandering may allow the conscious to give way to the subconscious, so the brain can connect disparate ideas.”
When people suddenly get ideas, or have “Eureka” moments of sudden insight it’s not usually in that moment that the idea suddenly came to them but the processing and making connections over time that was the cause.
Overly technical stuff aside, I believe it’s pretty empowering when you learn that there is a process to creativity and it’s something you have some control over.
Who actually is creative?
Well no surprise if you’ve been reading that the answer is everybody.
If you take away nothing else it’s that everybody is creative and it’s a skill you and every human can get better at.
As mentioned in the beginning though if you don’t believe you are, you’ll probably never really engage with it. At least not in an intentional way.
Creativity, then, really needs something called a “growth mindset”
If you’re not familiar with the concept of a growth mindset Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck made famous it’s the idea “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. If you don’t think you can grow you’ll never intentionally seek out growth”. This is why you have to believe you’re creative in the first place in order to get better at it. Also why pervasive myths and narratives like about who’s creative and what creativity is hold people back from that growth mindset.
The good news is the first (and maybe most important) step to getting better at creativity is easy, just accept that creativity is fundamental to being a human and as a result you have just as much an ability to be creative as anybody else.
I THOUGHT YOU HAD TO BE ARTISTIC TO BE CREATIVE?
One last thing you may have noticed that I never mentioned artistic skills, or artists.
Which most people think of when they think of creativity. In fact most people flat out mix up artistic skills with creativity. This makes them believe if they’re not a good artist they aren’t creative.
However they are actually different skill sets. Though obviously artists do use creativity to create art, they also use technical artistic skills. Same thing with most professions or hobbies such as scientist, engineer, athlete, etc
In part two of this series I’ll explore what art actually is (and it may not be the answer you’re thinking), what it isn’t and why it’s important to know if you want to get better at creativity.
Although there remains a lot of mystery around how creativity works, what it is, is actually pretty simple. Creativity is an intentional act, and one that every human participates in everyday, even of they don’t feel like they are creative. It is my hope defining it and making it less vague helps people, especially who don’t consider themselves a “creative”, feel more empowered to engage with it and see themselves as somone who is capable of acts of creativity.
Kevin Walker is the Founder of Creative Carbon, who’s mission is to inspire, and empower creativity and disruption in the next generation. He has worked in creative industries for over a decade and believes that creativity, along with disruption, is an essential part of influencing and creating culture, and that everybody is capable of learning and using those skills.