What is Creativity?

Jared Nielsen
15 min readMar 1, 2021

Creativity is the most important problem solving skill you can develop. But what is creativity? Why is it important? How does it work? In this article, we will define creativity, identify the traits of a creative person, and outline the stages of the creative process.

When learning something new or trying to understand a concept, I like to frame it in terms of the problem for which it is a solution. So…

What is the problem that creativity solves?

The answer is: all of them!

Creativity is problem solving!

Creativity is not only useful for solving problems, it is perhaps more useful in identifying problems. Beyond “solving problems”, why is it important to develop or improve our ability to be creative? According to Miahly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Creativity, “most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity.” He outlines two main reasons we want to introduce and cultivate creativity in our lives:

  1. “…when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”
  2. “…for better or worse, our future is now closely tied to human creativity. The result will be determined in large part by our dreams and by the struggle to make them real.”

The first point is related to the subject that made Csikszentmihalyi a household name: flow. Flow is “…the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. But it’s important to distinguish flow from creativity. Creativity generally occurs during a flow state, but unlike some flow activities, “creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.”

The second point is related to the survival of our species, which seems pretty important.

But what exactly is creativity?

If you search for the term, you’ll find definitions like the following:

the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

You’ll also find a lot of images of lightbulbs or rainbow colored confetti bursting from human heads. But…

🤯 + 🌈 != creativity

For many people, the word “creativity” invokes images of art, design, or fashion, but not science, mathematics, or engineering. This is a myth. While the artistic product may be very different from the scientific, they share the same underlying process. Speaking of myths, as Fred Brooks put it in The Mythical Man Month:

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. [They build their] castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination.

Whether you are a poet or a programmer, you share personality traits and follow the same steps as other creative people.

What is Creativity?

And now for something completely different, a quote from John Cleese. In his book, Creativity, he defines creativity as:

new ways of thinking about things

If it were not for a serendipitous encounter with an improv group in college, Cleese would have applied his creativity to a career as a lawyer. Funny?

Let’s refine this defintion with a quote from Richard W. Hamming, a pioneer of computer engineering and telecommunications, who worked on the Manhattan Project and later at Bell Laboratories. In his book, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn, he writes:

Creativity, originality, novelty, and other such words are regarded as ‘good things’, and we often fail to distinguish between them — indeed, we find them hard to define. Surely we do not need three words with exactly the same meaning!

Exactly.

Hamming continues:

Evidently we want the word ‘creative’ to include the concept of value — but value to whom?

Csikszentmihalyi answers this question in Creativity with his definition of the phenomena as:

a process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is changed.

How is that symbolic domain changed?

Memes!

Yes, those kinds of memes. But also meme in the sense that Richard Dawkins defined in The Selfish Gene, as “a unit of cultural transmission”, which includes, but is not limited to genetics.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, memes are “units of information that we must learn if culture is to continue”. He continues:

Creativity is the cultural equivalent of the process of genetic changes that result in biological evolution, where random variations take place in the chemistry of our chromosomes, below the threshold of consciousness.

Just like genetics, the contributions of creative individuals are ‘only a link in a chain, a phase in a process.’

How do we know if something is creative?

Researcher and Harvard professor Teresa Amabile states that:

A product or response will be judged as creative to the extent that (a) it is both a novel and appropriate, useful, correct or valuable response to the task at hand, and (b) the task is heuristic rather than algorithmic.

She outlines three criteria for distinguishing creative contributions from others:

  • novelty
  • spontaneity
  • relevance

Novelty and spontaneity make sense. But what do we mean by ‘relevance’?

According to Csikszentmihalyi, “creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interactions between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context.” He outlines three elements for what he refers to as The Systems Model of creativity:

  • a culture that contains symbolic rules
  • a person who brings novelty into that symbolic domain
  • a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation

Let’s look closer at each of the above elements.

Domain

What is a domain? Csikszentmihalyi defines it as “a set of symbolic rules and procedures” and “an isolated little world in which a person can think and act with clarity and concentration.”

If you are a programmer, your domain is computer science. But that’s a large domain, so perhaps you work in a subdomain, such as web development, which is a subdomain of software development. If you’re a web developer, your symbolic rules and procedures consist of the language or languages you use and their syntax and control constructs, the client-server model, communication protocols, etc.

How do we know if the product of creativity is relevant to the domain?

Margaret Boden distinguishes between two forms or relevance: psychological and historical. Pierce J. Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, succinctly defines these two forms:

  • Psychological relevance is “merely something new for the individual doing the creating.”
  • Historical relevance is “something new for humanity.”

Richard Hamming sums this up nicely:

Creativity seems, among other things, to be “usefully” putting together things which were not perceived to be related before, and it may be the initial psychological distance between the things which counts the most.

Howard, in reference to the work of Robert Sternberg, outlines seven different ways that a creative act can relate to the tradition of a domain:

  • Conceptual replication, “in which one attempts to repeat an earlier study to determine whether its results were a fluke or are here to stay.”
  • Redefinition, “in which one finds a new meaning or application for an established entity.”
  • Forward incrementation, “in which one takes an established paradigm to a higher level.”
  • Advance forward incrementation, “in which one takes an established paradigm to a level higher than its advocates are willing to take it.”
  • Redirection, “in which one builds on previous work, but in a different direction.”
  • Reconstruction, “in which one takes a defunct entity, resurrects it, modernizes it, and claims that it still has value.”
  • Re-initiation, “in which one approaches something in a radically different way and direction from current practice.”

As you can see, the list above progresses from creative contributions that are easy to introduce into the domain to those that will require some convincing.

How does creativity change the domain? According to Teresa Amabile:

A product or response is creative to the extent that appropriate observers independently agree it is creative.

Who are these appropriate observers?

Field

The appropriate observers that Amabile is referring to are the individuals who act as gatekeepers to, and caretakers of, the domain. These individuals are the established and recognized experts of the field. They were likely young whippersnappers and upstarts like you and me at one time, but are now the old guard.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a domain cannot be changed without the explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.”

Person

Who is the creative person?

It’s you. Me. Anyone, really.

There are factors that may set luminaries apart from you and I, though, and we’ll look at those next. But there is one key factor that determines the success of a creative person within their domain and field:

  • luck

The domain and the field preexist the creative person, so for them it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Csikszentmihalyi places a greater emphasis on the domain and the field because “we are used to thinking that creativity begins and ends with the person, it is easy to miss the fact that the greatest spur to it may come from changes outside the individual.”

What Makes a Person Creative?

According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are three phenomena that distinguish a creative person from the rest of the pack. These are people who…

  1. “…express unusual thoughts, who are interesting and stimulating.” But only if “…they also contribute something of permanent significance.” Otherwise, they are merely “brilliant”
  2. “…experience the world in novel or original ways.”
  3. “…changed our culture in some important respect.”

It’s important here to distinguish between talent, genius, and creativity:

  • Talent vs. creativity: “Talent differs from creativity in that it focuses on an innate ability to do something very well.”
  • Genius vs. creativity: “…a person who is both brilliant and creative at the same time.”

Talent is not a prerequisite for creativity. But it doesn’t hurt. Creativity, however, is a prerequisite for genius.

The 10 Antithetical Traits of Creative People

In Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi outlines 10 pairs of antithetical traits, or dialectical tensions, that he observed in his studies of creative people. They consist of the following dyads:

  • energy vs. rest: “…creative individuals have a great deal of energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.”
  • smart vs. naive: “…a certain immaturity, both emotional and mental, can go hand in hand with with the deepest insights.”
  • disciplined vs. playful: “There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn’t go far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perserverance.”
  • fantasy vs. realism: “Both are needed to break away from the present without losing touch with the past.”
  • extraversion vs. introversion: “Only those who can tolerate being alone are able to master the symbolic content of a domain. Yet over and over again, the importance of seeing people, hearing people, exchanging ideas, and getting to know another person’s work and mind are stressed by creative individuals.”
  • humble vs. proud: The creative individual’s “respect for the domain in which they work makes them aware of the long line of previous contributions to it, which puts their own into perspective. [They] are also aware of the role that luck played in their own achievements. And… they are usually so focused on future projects and current challenges that their past accomplishment, not matter how outstanding, are no longer very interesting to them.”
  • masculine vs. feminine: “A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of resopnses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities.”
  • traditional vs. rebellious: “Being only traditional leaves the domain unchanged; constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement.”
  • passionate vs. objective: “Without the passion, we soon lose interest in a difficult task. Yet without being objective about it, our work is not very good and lacks credibility.”
  • enjoyment vs. suffering:

According to Csikszentmihalyi, “…the novelty that survives to change a domain is usually the work of someone who can operate at both ends of these polarities — and that is the kind of person we call ‘creative’.”

What is the Psychology of the Creative Person?

According to Teresa Amabile, there are three components that make up the psychology of a creative person:

  • domain-relevant skills
  • creativity-relevant skills
  • task motivation

Domain-relevant skills are more or less self-explanatory. They are “the knowledge, technical skills, and special talents peculiar to the domain in which he [or she] wishes to be creative.” And task motivation is also equally clear: you must want to do it! Let’s look closer at creativity-relevant skills.

Creativity-Relevant Skills

Amabile identifies three areas of creativity-relevant skills:

  • cognitive style
  • knowledge of heuristics
  • work style

Each of these areas is determined by prerequisites: experience and personality traits.

Prerequisites to Creativity

The first prerequisite to creativity is experience: You can’t do it unless you’ve done it! This seems like a paradox, but like recursion, you can’t call the function until you write it. Experience is iterative. You gain experience by gaining experience.

The second prerequisite to creativity is personality. The common personality traits of a creative person are:

  • Self-discipline
  • Delay of gratification
  • Perseverance
  • Independent judgment
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Autonomy
  • Absence of sex-role stereotyping
  • Internal locus of control (seeing self as responsible for one’s own fate)
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Ability to be a self-starter
  • Absence of conformity to social pressure
  • Task motivation

🤔

These look a lot like the 10 antithetical traits outlined by Csikszentmihalyi!

Cognitive Style

In The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, Pierce J. Howard describes the creativity-relevant skill as:

…the ability and willingness to break perceptual sets (as opposed to functional fixedness), be comfortable with complexity, hold options open and not push for closure, suspend judgment rather than reacting to things as good or bad, be comfortable with wider categories, develop an accurate memory, abandon or suspend performance scripts, and see things differently from others.

Knowledge of Heuristics

Heuristics are approaches to solving problems. They are also sometimes referred to as mental models. Every domain consists of heuristics, but there are countless heuristics that cross domains, as well.

And example that Howard uses in The Owner’s Manual for the Brain is the following:

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.

Work Style

According to Howard, a positive work style… “consists of the ability to sustain long periods of concentration, the ability to abandon non-productive approaches, persistence during difficulty, a high energy level, and a willingness to work hard.”

What are the Stages of the Creative Process?

In The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn, Richard W. Hamming outlines what he see as the pattern of creativity:

  1. recognition of the problem
  2. a longer or shorter period of refinement of the problem
  3. the moment of ‘insight’
  4. a closer examination of the problem shows that the solution is faulty, but might be saved by some suitable revision, or, as Hamming states, “…maybe the problem needs to be altered to fit the solution!”

In The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, Pierce J. Howard discusses the four steps outlined by researcher Graham Wallas:

  1. Preparation: Doing research, gathering factors, assembling people or materials — whatever is needed to have all domain specific information at our disposal before the creative act.
  2. Incubation: Allowing the collected materials to gestate, to be assimilated into our preexisting schemas, and to interplay unconsciously or consciously in our minds without the stress of having to produce.
  3. Inspiration: The actual “Aha! “ or “Eureka!” moment when preparation and incubation produce inspiration.
  4. Evaluation: The attempt to verify that the proposed solution is domain-relevant and logically fits the requirements of the original need or stimulus.

In Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi takes this one step further, adding a step he refers to as ‘elaboration’:

  1. preparation
  2. incubation
  3. insight
  4. evaluation
  5. elaboration

It’s important to note that, even though we can create a list of steps, the creative process is not necessarily linear. Insight is recursive. Preparation and incubation may take years, informing each other in feedback loops, returning smaller insights that ultimately result in a domain-changing breakthrough.

Let’s look at each of these stages individually, beginning with preparation.

1. Preparation

The first step of the creative process is preparation. This entails conducting research and gathering resources. Perhaps more important, though, is identifying and defining the problem itself.

According to Csikszentmihalyi:

The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere, or a task to be accomplished. Perhaps something is not right, somewhere there is a conflict, a tension, a need to be satisfied. The problematic issue can be triggered by a personal experience, by a lack of fit in the symbolic system, by the stimulation of colleagues, or by public needs. In any case, without such a felt tension that attracts the psychic energy of the person, there is no need for a new response. Therefore, without a stimulus of this sort, the creative process is unlikely to start.

Where do we find problems? What types of problems do we solve?

Where Do We Find Problems?

Csikszentmihalyi identifies three areas where problems arise, though there aren’t necessarily clean lines drawn between these realms:

  • personal experiences: these emerge from day-to-day life, from past experience, or, most likely, from the interplay of the two as the creative person gains new experience and integrates it with their memories
  • the requirements of the domain: these emerge from conflict in working with the internal logic of the domain.
  • social pressures: these emerge from the influence of teachers, mentors, and colleagues. For better or worse, these individuals shape our thinking and steer the course of our careers, as well as our lives

What Types of Problems Does Creativity Solve?

We now know where problems come from, but what does a problem look like? Csikszentmihalyi divides problems into two categories: presented and discovered.

  • presented problems: These problems preexist the problem solver, such that “everybody knows what is to be done and only the solution is missing.”
  • discovered problems: These are problems “created” by the problem solver, “situations in which nobody asked the question yet, nobody even knows that there is a problem.”

Of the two, discovered problems and their solutions are generally domain-changing. Nobody thought of the problem, or its solution, until now, and now there’s no going back.

2. Incubation: The Mysterious Time

Csikszentmihalyi refers to incubation as ‘The Mysterious Time’ because it’s difficult to study. We can observe creative people conducting research and gathering resources, but we can’t fully capture the magic of how new ideas are formed. Yet. What’s clear is that the creative person needs to stop working on the problem and let it simmer on the backburner. How long is this process? It depends. But, “…in general, it seems that the more thorough the revolution brought about by the novelty, the longer it was working its way underground.”

The Functions of Idle Time

There are several theories for what is happening during the incubation stage. Let’s look at the psychological and cognitive theories.

The psychological theory is Freudian and assumes that “…the creative person is one who succeeds in displacing the quest for the forbidden knowledge into a permissible curiosity.”

🙄

Psycholgoical theories also purports that creativity is rooted in trauma. While it is true that there is a significant number of creative individuals who experienced trauma in their formative years, there is an equal, if not greater, number who did not (at least they aren’t tell us about it). Furthermore, there’s an equal, if not greater, number of individuals who experienced trauma who are not outwardly creative.

The cognitive theory, on the other hand, states that we continue working on problems in the background, even when we are asleep, the idea being that, when we are consciously focused on a problem, we tend to think linearly about it, but when we allow our subconscious or unconscious to work on it, our minds can create new associations that we would otherwise reject.

The Field, The Domain, and The Unconscious

Regardless of which theory you ascribe to the incubation, “it is obvious that incubation cannot work for a person who has not mastered a domain or been involved in a field.”

Like they say, “You gotta know the rules before you can break them!” According to Csikszentmihalyi:

Creative thoughts evolve in this gap filled with tension — holding on to what is known and accepted while tending toward a still ill-defined truth that is barely glimpsed on the other side of the chasm.

3. Insight: The “Aha!” Experience

After preparation and incubation is the flash of insight.

Wait for it…





































Eureka!

According to Csikszentmihalyi:

The insight presumably occurs when a subconscious connection between ideas fits so well that it is forced to pop out into awareness like a cork held underwater breaking out into the air after it is released.

🎉

4. Evaluation

But was our insight any good?

The next stage of the creative process is evaluation. We need to vett and validate our breakthrough.

According to Richard W. Hamming:

There is often a lot of further work to be done on the idea, the logical cleaning up, the organizing so others can see it, the public presentation to others, which may require new ways of looking at the problem and our solution, not just your idiosyncratic way which gave you the first solution. This revision of the solution often brings clarity to you in the long run!

5. Elaboration: The 99 Percent Perspiration

So you had a “Eureka!” moment? All tests passed? Now what?

You’re probably familiar with this quote by Thomas Edison:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

It’s not enough to be inspired. Recall that a fundamental requirement of creativity is to produce value by changing a symbolic domain. That symbolic domain isn’t going to change itself! Now, after all that, it’s time to bring the idea to life.

Do the work.

As Csikszentmihalyi reminds us:

One thing about creative work is that it’s never done.

How To Improve Your Creativity?

Now that we know the definition of creativity, the traits a person creative, and the stages of the creative process, the real question is: how do we become, or improve our ability to be, creative?

We’ll look at that problem the next article in this series. Stay tuned!

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