Decoding Creativity Pt 1: The Origin of Creativity
August 3, 2023
What do dreaming, a thunderous train of air, and a falling spoon have in common? On one hand, despite being mundane experiences for many, these events have served as sources of inspiration for some of the greatest inventions, poetry, and art of the last few centuries. On the other hand, these stories, along with many others, formed the basis of my team's recent exploration of creativity and how scientific research can help us enhance our individual and collective creative abilities.
Don't worry, we'll come back to these stories in a minute! But before we get to that, I want to introduce you to this latest written series, Decoding Creativity. Last year, my team dove into the concept of creativity with four extensive sessions about its history, significance, and application. Our goal with the workshops was to create an environment where we could better understand creativity, practice research-backed skills for developing creativity, and form a greater confidence in their creative abilities. It wasn't an idea workshop, and there was no intention to come away with anything actionable. The purpose was creativity for creativity's sake.
This series will serve as a catalog of the valuable insights we gained during those sessions, allowing you to apply them to your own creative practices. One of the most impactful realizations for ATB Ventures was that while "creativity" often feels like an elusive state that only some people can tap into, it is actually a well-researched field, albeit not yet fully understood. With intentional effort, we can decode creativity.
Is the aha moment the pinnacle of creativity?
When trying to describe creativity, many mention that slippery "aha" moment that came suddenly and unsuspectingly.
Let's start with our first story. Elias Howe, the inventor of the lockstitch sewing machine, found inspiration in a turbulent dream. After years of failed designs, he dreamt that he was taken prisoner and given the task of completing his invention. In the dream, he failed and was sentenced to execution, but he noticed his captors holding spears with holes at the top. In a moment of realization, he leapt out of bed and immediately reworked the needles of the sewing machine, moving the holes from the middle to the point. This solved his long-standing problem and led to one of the most significant sewing machine designs in history.
Similarly, mathematician Jules-Henri Poincaré experienced a creative breakthrough while solving a complex math equation. After wrestling with a problem for two weeks, the solution came to him unexpectedly when he was boarding a bus for a geological trip with friends. Poincaré described it as follows: "At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it." It wasn’t until he was out of the context of solving the problem that the solution actually came to him
When we think of creative individuals, we often envision artists, innovators, or writers—people whose lives are filled with serendipitous "aha" moments. While these individuals are undoubtedly creative, their overt display of creativity through their artistic endeavors is neither rare nor dependent on luck. In modern history, there has been a popularized belief that creativity is an innate quality tied to artistic skill or elevated thinking, which some are born with — despite research challenging this belief. Let's briefly explore how we arrived at this perspective.
History of creativity
Like most beliefs we hold in society, our current perspectives surrounding creativity didn't always exist. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed creativity was a gift bestowed by the divine. Greek philosopher Socrates even attributed his ideas to a small spirit called a "daemon". It was during the Renaissance Period's focus on rational thinking that creativity was redefined and no longer considered from an outside force. Instead of having a genius (or a "daemon," in Socrates' terms), you were a genius. Creativity was individualized.
During the Cold War era in the U.S., the sociopolitical climate yielded a renewed focus on creativity. This time, the emphasis was on giftedness, especially in the educational system. The resulting understanding was not simply that creativity was an individual, personalized trait but also that it was a responsibility. One's contributions to society depended on the ability to be creative, and this quickly translated to business endeavors as well. Creativity was valued where it produced profit, innovation, and success. However, even decades later, we continue to perceive creativity primarily as a means to an end. This global mindset diminishes the true essence and purpose of creativity.
The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity offers a concise definition: creativity is "something that is both new and task-appropriate." There is a general scientific consensus around this description. However, understanding creativity requires considering the cultural movements that have shaped our perception of the concept.
Throughout history, communities have used the language of creativity inconsistently. According to our definition, creativity doesn't have to yield groundbreaking ideas or masterpieces of art. It can be as simple as brushing your teeth in a slightly different way each day without even realizing it, or leaving a clever comment on a friend's Facebook meme. It can be offering constructive feedback to your teammates. The key is that it must be new and relevant to the task at hand.
This stands in contrast to the present world, where creativity is often measured solely by its output. Those who provide the most direct value through their creativity are deemed important. It is crucial to break free from this mindset as it creates a self-limiting cycle, where the expression and experience of creativity are constrained by a self-perceived lack of skill.
If creativity is a skill, can we train it?
By dissociating creativity from being solely an innate quality, whether internal or external, we open up new possibilities for exploration. Modern research studies demonstrate that everyone has the capacity to be creative, and there are specific methods to enhance the likelihood of creative output. Creativity is not merely a phenomenon; it is a scientific reality ingrained in the wiring of our brains. While those "aha" moments are indeed captivating and exciting examples of creativity, the creative process is generally more straightforward and doesn't rely on unexplained, seemingly random strokes of genius.
I acknowledge that the mention of "scientific research" may appear vague, and I understand that there are still two more stories from the introduction to share. However, these stories will be presented in future parts of this series. For now, I encourage you to reflect on your preconceived notions about creativity. Does creativity stem from an innate source within us, from an external influence, or is it something we can learn by approaching it with the right intention?