Susie:What is the ‘I’ in Creativity?

Ingenuity, imagination, interest, illumination, intuition, insight, invention, innovation…

…words that make the heart beat faster in all those who are in some way inquisitive and imaginative. Words that make us think of magic, mystery and exploration and fill our hearts and dreams with infinite possibilities.

Words that describe the very essence of human aspirations and achievements but so often dismissed as ‘airy fairy’ or of no real value. Why? Throughout history, people have been discouraged from questioning the status quo. Religious teachings, political controls, social rules, elite groups and so on… all the way down to moral and cautionary tales for children, that describe the terrible evils and consequences of being curious. Think of Adam & Eve, Lot’s wife, Pandora, Kipling’s Elephant’s Child, and the list goes on. The result—generations of suppressed creativity and lost potential.

Today, the value of creativity is openly acknowledged and even celebrated, triggering a frenzy of research and investment into trying to work out what it is, how to measure it and how to give it a numerical value.

In all parts of the world, researchers in academia, government and assorted industries have jumped into the fray, all seeking to secure profit from creative thinkers. Rational thinkers wonder how to predict it, justify it, train it and make it work for us when and where we want it to, and in ways most cannot yet imagine. While seeking a simple, universal definition and a magic formula for creativity, different groups each want to claim it for their own. Regardless of the motivation or disciplinary approach however, so far the research from every direction confirms that creativity has massive economic and social impact.

Despite this confirmation of its value, and the overwhelmingly obvious legacy of creativity in every era, culture and field of human endeavour, there is still little understanding of exactly what it is, where it comes from, how or if we can harness it.

So what is it? What is the best working definition? One of the simplest is that of Sir Ken Robinson who states that Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. He also refers to it as being ‘applied imagination’. No argument with that, or the belief that we all are born with the potential to be creative.

In 1968, scientist George Land attempted to assess creativity. He studied 1600 children at different ages. His research found that 98% of the 5 year-old children could be classed as creative, yet by the time they turned 10, the percentage dropped to 30%. By 15 years of age only 12% of the children could be categorised as creative! He then tested 280,000 adults for creativity. A meagre 2% of the 280,000 tested were considered creative.

Land’s conclusion was that “non-creative behaviour is learned”.

I appreciate the irony of citing a study while criticising the trend towards excessive analysis and measurement, but there is an extraordinary wealth of anecdotal evidence that adds weight to this particular study. I suggest too, that many of us could admit that we learned to be less creative as we grew up.

So where does creativity come from?

How can we allow it to develop or can we deliberately cultivate it? It is evident that it appears very early in our development, however in most instances it either becomes suppressed or heavily penalised, resulting in creative inhibition and even distrust of it when we see it in others.
How does this happen? A number of things contribute…

  • Lack of encouragement to be creative (which rapidly damages creative confidence, courage, motivation and initiative).
  • Lack of practice and the iterative processes which are essential in developing enquiry and building resilience.
  • Over-reliance on measurement, assessments, rules and ‘right’ answers.
  • Lack of respected role models, negative social judgements about being ‘different’.
  • Pressure to make ‘better’ use of our time.
  • Failure by others to see value in our creative pursuits, especially when we do not have crystal clear or ‘appropriate’ goals.
  • Punishment.

How many of us can identify the things that stop us enjoying creativity or discovery or take away our pride in creative achievements?

Creativity is born from a cocktail of individual needs, curiosity, observations, playfulness, humour, emotion, information, skills, senses, cultural values, subconscious connections, thinking, instinct, complex brain dynamics and more. Add to that the ‘h’ factor, that troublesome and erratic human variable and we have a volatile mix with infinitely compounding possibilities—some good, some bad. Some seemingly prosaic, some world changing.

So what now?

My research finds so many tests and theories about how to make people creative. Who is and who is not. Tests to measure us and predict whether we will ever be creative. Label us creative or not. To me this is non productive. Each generation has produced innovative and creative solutions that were once laughed at as crazy or as fantasy. Some ahead of their time, some simply ignored or rejected. Some world changing, some not. We don’t know what future generations will be capable of, or how life will be. What challenges they will face. And how can we know what we can’t yet know?

Is it time then for new frameworks and horizons? What will they look like?

How can we re-think environments and opportunities? How can we change the way we see creativity and ideas? How can we do it differently?

We could stop the labelling for people and places. (For instance, labelling someone as creative or not. Or changing existing room signs to denote “Creativity Space”—this is useless, unless the commitment to a new approach to creativity is genuine, profound, real and enduring). We could also rethink how we value and support creativity as essential investment rather than evaluating it by simple monetary cost.

Such shifts in culture and economic thinking may seem so daunting that they will inevitably be categorized as impossible by many, but as Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Those small groups are made up of individuals. Like you, like me.

We are each the ‘I’ in creativity.

The short (4:30 min) video below is a production by the Lego Foundation and I feel it highlights some of the key issues surrounding creativity. I strongly believe we must build a cultural and economic landscape where infinite imagination can prosper, be nurtured, supported, valued and encouraged to unfold and grow for the benefit of all. Starting now.

Cultures of Creativity, nurturing creative mindsets from LEGO Foundation on Vimeo.

Yours in creativity,