Why it’s hard to identify “creativity”

“Creativity, in short, is not something mystical; it’s an extension of what you already know.” That’s Robert Epstein in his article Capturing Creativity.

While Robert is absolutely correct in this summary, it’s worth noting that creativity is much more than this succinct definition says it is.

Yes, creativity is the conceptualization of novel ideas, but, while an idea may be original and entirely unique, it only becomes labeled as “creative” once a community defines it as useful.This one fact alone explains why it’s so hard for many people to identify what’s “creative” and what’s not.

Take the ideas regularly thought-up by mentally ill individuals for example. People who have mental disorders or physical ailments of the brain often have a lot of ideas that might seem completely random, useless, or absolutely nonsensical. Now consider the fact that those same definitions would have been what people living in medieval times would have used to describe any ideas from Jackson Pollock, or Mozart, or Einstein, people we view today as creative geniuses.

At it’s center, creativity has a core meaning: it’s the process of thinking up new ideas (and all that matters is that the concepts are new to the thinker). Yet, cultures cannot define what is and is not creative until after the idea has been proven useful for the community at large. If an idea is not readily useful, it’s labeled as fantasy, or illogical, or even “insane.”

Did you get that? It’s only when an original idea becomes practical and useful to a larger community that it can be defined as creative

by the culture.

We can see examples of this in any number of historical contexts.

Vincent Van Gogh is one of history’s greatest, most celebrated creative artists. He is one of the defining post-Impressionist painters in all of history, his colorful and shapely works of art have inspired countless artists through-out time. One of his paintings has sold for more than $82 million! Yet, during his lifetime, Van Gogh was considered a failure and an outcast. His style wasn’t appealing to many at the time he lived. His ideas were crazy and often shunned. He eventually gave up, took his own life, and missed the revolution in art that he had helped propel for decades to come.

Alfred Wegener, who predicted that the continents were slowly moving around the Earth, was viewed as someone with radical and impossible theories. It wasn’t until well after his death that his creative ideas were proven to be, in-fact, true.

These same stories could be told for Galileo, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Vermeer, and plenty of other creatives whose work wasn’t fully appreciated until much later, after they had passed away.

Because of the widely accepted view on the term “creative” – that is: looking at ideas only for their value to the culture at large – it’s hard to truly define whether an idea is creative or just silly. What may be considered insane or fantasy today could very well be proven creative or innovative tomorrow. So is it fair for us to view the label like this?

Perhaps not. Instead, maybe we should consider viewing any original thought as creative. Or state that the idea must provide some value, if not to the community then at least the individual.

What do you think: is it better to define creativity as the process of coming up with new ideas which provide value to the individual or a group or community?

No matter what label we decide to use moving forward: the next time you have an idea that might be illogical, completely fantasy-driven, or ahead of it’s time: run with it anyway, see where the idea takes you. A label shouldn’t determine the value of an idea if it’s potentially important to you.

To paraphrase computing pioneer Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Photo by Sara V.