What is creativity?

What makes some ideas and things creative, while others are not?

What is the definition of creativity? What is the history of creativity? And why is creativity important?

In this updated article, you will learn the fundamentals of understanding creativity, where it came from, and the science of creativity which is now helping us understand and improve creative performance. All sources are linked in case you would like to engage in further research.

What is the definition of Creativity?

Creativity can be hard to define. After all, artists throughout history have not always understood where their ideas came from, and so it was challenging to define what it was that let them execute their ideas.

This is further complicated by the challenge of identifying a set of criteria which make sense in all cases of creativity, whether they are artistic (music, visual arts, dance etc.) or non-artistic (science, military, business, personal, leadership etc.).

But over the past few decades, more and more creativity researchers have undertaken scientific studies of what it truly means to be creative. However, up until recently, most researchers seemed to be using their own definitions for what it meant to be creative.

So in 2012, the Creativity Research Journal led by Dr Mark Runco set out the parameters for a standard definition of creativity. They determined that creativity in every case, no matter what was being assessed, needed to exhibit two criteria: originality and effectiveness.

Now, different researchers may use various synonyms for these two factors: New & useful / different & valuable / surprising & appropriate.

But for any idea (or what is executed from the idea) to be considered creative, it needs to exhibit both:

  • Originality: it needs to be different than what came before. Perhaps not original in the scope of the entire world (it can be original to the person or situation)
  • Value: This does not need to mean monetary value (though that may be one measure). Instead, it can be value in any form for the recipient, which could be anything from changing an entire domain (like a new scientific principle), to an emotional reaction (for artistic works) or even just the feeling of joy or progress (for a personal situation).

Originality without value is not creative. We can program computer software to produce billions of random and unique strings of words or images, but these do not have any value just because they are different.

Value without originality is also not creative. Many businesses or performers can reproduce something they have done before, and be paid for it. While this has provided value to someone, it was not original as it was a repetition.

So creativity requires both.

Not only that, there is a third hidden factor. In order for it to display its originality, and deliver value, it actually needs to be executed and be brought into the world. An idea which is just in your head is not adding any value. It can only display its creativity when it is made into reality, by being executed and produced in some form (no matter how rough it may be initially). If an idea stays in your head, you may be imaginative, but not fully creative

Therefore, the ultimate definition of creativity is:

Creativity is the execution of an idea which has both originality and value.

What is very important to understand is that creativity is something that all humans are born with, and it is a skill which can be improved.

In fact, recent surveys by IBM and the World Economic Forum have explicitly stated that creativity will be the most important skill for companies and their employees to develop in the coming years.

History of Creativity

Archaeological and biological evidence has shown that our modern Homo Sapien (Human) ancestors have been exhibiting creativity and creative behaviour since we split from our ancestral proto-humans around 200,000 years ago in Africa.

Interestingly, while we know of highly creative people from throughout human history, the concept of individual creativity itself is actually surprisingly recent.

In fact, it was more common throughout history to believe that ideas came from external spirits than from the individual, or that people only exposed ideas which were already present and therefore could not claim these ideas for themselves.

For example, the Greek philosopher Plato thought (as researched by Weiner, 2000):

The poet is possessed by divine inspiration. The works of poets are entirely the invention of the Muses, who possess the poets and inspire them… Art could be beautiful only if it descended from God. The artist’s job was not to imitate nature but rather reveal the sacred and transcendent qualities of nature.

In fact, numerous ancient cultures, but especially the Romans and Greeks, believed that external spirits would assist human craftsmen and artists in the production of their work. In ancient Rome, every person, place or thing had a Genius or Juno spirit which acted as a protective spirit. The plural of this is Genii, which could be where the other Genie, Jinn or Djin spirits from other cultures like ancient Islamic stories come from.

Additionally, Romans believed in Muses, who were inspirational goddesses of the arts, science and literature. While a craftsman was producing a work of art, poem or sculpture, it was in fact the muse who was conducting the thoughts and actions. The human was therefore no more than a tool. In ancient Greece, it was Daemons who helped the craftsmen and artists.

In fact, for thousands of years, artists themselves would not refer to themselves as being the one who came up with an idea. It was already there, and they were more like skilled craftsmen who executed on it, rather than being creative themselves.

This is exemplified beautifully by a quote from the sculptor Michelangelo, who said:

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

David by Michelangelo

This all began to change during the Italian Renaissance period, starting around the 15th century. Here, artists began claim more and more personal involvement in the fantastic new art and innovations they were producing. It was no longer that they were merely the tools to bring ideas to life, they were in fact the humans coming up with the ideas themselves. They were exhibiting their own creativity. Leonardo Da Vinci was famous for keeping meticulous notebooks full of scientific analysis and drawings, which would end up iterating and inspiring future work. This curiosity into how the world worked also showed the movement towards modern science around the time of the Renaissance.

One of the first formal indications of this was Giorgio Vasari’s biographic work on the famous Renaissance artists of the time, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, beginning in 1550. Here, Vasari would describe the Renaissance artists as not just craftspeople, but the individuals who were coming up with the ideas themselves. This change in description may seem small, but it elevated artists to a new degree of individual fame and demand.

Following the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment continued the trend of associating specific ideas and artistic works to the people who developed them. This potentially reached a peak during the Romantic Period (early 19th century), where writers and artists began to believe that an artist needed to suffer for their creativity.

The usage of the phrase creativity itself is also a very recent phenomenon. As you can see by going through the Google Ngram viewer, which analyses the text of millions of books by their publication date, while “idea” and “create” have been written about since before the 15th century, “creativity” has only been written about increasingly since the 20th century.

google ngram creativity

The first usage of the word appears to be an 1875 text History of the Dramatic English Literature by Adolfus William Ward, and it would not appear in the English dictionary until after World War 2.

Before the 1950s, this was not a field or concept which was studied, until two pioneer psychologists called JP Guilford and Paul E Torrance set the foundations for the scientific field of Creativity Research.

Fortunately, since then creativity has become much more accepted by society, and we now have much more information about how it works and the value which creativity delivers to society.

Science of Creativity

Since the 1950s, the field of Creativity Research has now allowed us to understand much better what is going on in our minds when we are being creative.

For example, we know that children appear to become less creative as they become older, and this appears to be related to not only the schooling system we are putting our children through, but also changes in the brain which happen throughout adolescence.

Insights are also showing us how our brains are hardwired to be as lazy as possible to preserve energy, and this can result in you and me being prone to thinking patterns and biases.

The research has also given us one of the most important insights: your creativity is determined much more by your upbringing, surroundings and mindset than it is by your genetics that you are born with.

That means that no matter how creative you feel right now, you can actually improve your creativity if you are able to train your mindset.

It can be done.

And that means we can all continue to become even more creative.

If you are interested in some of the more in-depth scientific analysis I’ve previously gone through, check out some of these articles:

Further creativity research articles:

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