Creativity is not a symptom, it’s a system

To be creative is not the same as creating a painting, writing a book, or performing on Broadway, and it’s well past time we stopped treating it as such. To be creative is to create change in the world around you.

The famous Kelley brothers (founders of IDEO) said that last line, and I think it’s worth reiterating: Creativity means creating change in the world around you.

It’s with this phrase that we can see creativity as a system of thinking. Not a symptom of artistic ability or other-worldly genius.

Your brain itself is a system, a set of complex moving parts that together form a larger whole. Your entire body is a system, as is your social circle, your school or job, your city, and so on.

These systems work by having each individual part making movements toward a wider whole.

Today there are ample arguments that state creativity is little more than a buzz word, that it’s no different from “ordinary thinking,” or that it is an act reserved for only a select few of artists or geniuses born with the ability.

I’d like to argue against those points and help clarify what creativity actually is, based on my decade-long endeavor to research and write about it.

Creativity is a system of thinking that has been recorded for thousands of years. It’s not merely ordinary thinking, it’s beyond that (otherwise we would view every surprisingly novel idea or solution as “just another idea”). Creativity is also something anyone can experience, not only a small group of talented individuals, because it’s something that can be learned and trained as we’ve seen in both research studies and real-world examples scattered across the web, in movies, and in books.

To treat creativity for what it is–a system of thinking–is to see it as something we can not only learn and teach, but something we can manipulate and increase as necessary.

If creativity is a system, what are the elements that make it up? Creativity entails many different areas that contribute to our overall ability to generate new and worthwhile ideas and to solve problems. The system itself is comprised of mental modals, but there are some areas outside of the mental system that affect it as well. To name a few of the components that play a part in creative thinking: our experiences and our ability to recall them, our empathetic intelligence, our physical energy, our curiosity, our ability to endure, our imagination, our levels of stress, and many other components.

To utilize the creative process of thinking we merely must rely on these components together. We should have many diverse experiences and inspirations to pull from, we should learn to meditate or otherwise guide our thinking, we must pay attention to when biases or assumptions are standing in our way, and so on.

To think creatively is to utilize these methods of thinking and observing in proactive ways.

Neuroscientist Paul King explains:

“…The brain adapts according to use. So if the brain is used extensively in a certain way…then it will get better at that. So what you are exposed to and what your brain spends its time doing really does shape who you become and what mental skills you (and your brain) have.”

Those we view as being “more creative” than us simply have used the necessary parts of the creative system more often than we may have. They aren’t necessarily more intelligent or even fortunate, they’ve simply trained their brain to think creatively. They have surrounded themselves with inspiration, they have developed a keen eye for unique information, they continue to press forward even after amounting failures, and they hold tightly to a curious mentality through their work.

In her book, Mastermind, Harvard psychologist Maria Konnikova elegantly echoes the point:

“Insight may seem to come from nowhere, but really, it comes from somewhere quite specific: from the attic and the processing that has been taking place while you’ve been busy doing other things.”

The creatively trained mind is one that works in a way it has been trained to: by imagining solutions to problems, by being acutely aware, and playfully dreaming of possibilities whenever possible.

Often we find ourselves struggling to think creatively due to one or more “blocks” in our thinking that prevent the creative system from being fulfilled. That’s the downside of creativity as a system: if one part of the system isn’t working, the whole system struggles. You can have all of the experiences in the world, but unless you are capable of ruminating on them and diligently working on a problem, you’re not likely to come up with any way to change your world.

In these instances it makes sense why working in a group or stepping away from the work can help us re-spark the system. Things like going for a walk or a long drive, or calling up a friend, can help fill in the creative gaps of your mental system.

For example, over on Harvard Business Review, creative author David Burkus explains the value of stepping away:

“When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions….Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory. Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities – eureka moments.”

And in my article What a group can do for creativity I explained:

“Working in a group, for example, means you not only have your experiences to build up your creativity, you also have the experiences of everyone else in the group too. If creativity is just connecting ideas from past experiences (which a part of it is), then working in a group is undoubtedly helpful.”

The point of all this is simply that creativity is not an end-result, or a symptom. Creativity is a system of thinking in order to create change in your world.

Your world can be as small as your personal life or as big as the physical world itself. The context doesn’t matter.

What matters is grasping the concept of creativity being a system of thinking that all of us can utilize, strengthen, and share, as needed.

When you think about creativity is a system–involving many different components that affect how you think–how does that affect the type of creative work you’re doing now or want to be doing?

If you find yourself creatively stuck, evaluating where your thinking system is getting stuck is a good place to go in order to get unstuck.

Photo via Flickr.