People talk about creativity in all sorts of contexts—it’s used in reference to everything from ”scrap booking” to advertising, sculpture to physics, writing to teaching.We know the value of creativity. We know its fruit when we see it.
But we’re so loose with our application of the word that sometimes I wonder if we really know what it is.When we’re bombarded with caveats to be creative by everyone from Sandra Lee on “Semi-Homemade” to Tony Robbins, it would be wise to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Knowing exactly what creativity is is the first step to finding it and fostering it in our own lives.I think when many of us talk about creativity, we think of the creative idea as something elusive and removed from “the regular stuff of life,” so to speak.

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In other words, we associate creativity with an “otherness” that gives the impression that the creative idea isn’t grounded in anything in particular—like it’s floating around out there and we have to find it (or worse, invent it).
Fortunately, creativity is not the act of make something out of nothing. In fact, I particularly liked opera singer Dan Klein’s explanation of creative work: "Creativity is the ability or process in which someone identifies the rules or traditions of a set paradigm and then goes about interpreting, breaking, or bending them to bring about a new or previously unexplored connection." This comes as a great relief to me, because, unless you’re the Originator of the Big Bang, those moments of utterly noncontextual creation are pretty few and far between.
It’s great news: creativity doesn’t come from nothing. New creative ideas are grounded in ideas and knowledge you already have. (c) Elizabeth KingSimply understanding that creatively solving problems is making new connections between older ideas can kickstart your creative process and help you develop your creative capacities, no matter what you’re working on. It’s absolutely something you can cultivate.
For fun, practice drawing connections between two seemingly unrelated people or objects using the knowledge you already have. Or, consider comparing an object and a person, like your spouse and your coffeemaker. The point is simply to start you thinking about things carefully, so that you take the time to really assess what you know about each object or person. Creativity is often found in the overlooked details. You may also want to play with the effects changing a routine has on your thinking, like driving to the grocery store on a different route or eating something unusual. Alternately, there is scientific legitimacy to the Eureka phenomenon many people experience when doing things habitually--those activities that we do without thinking about them--like showering or mowing the lawn, so making an effort to preserve those moments may amplify your ability to subconsciously make new connections. (Thank you, Archimedes.) It’s the same attention to detail that we’d use to compare objects and people that we use to think creatively about resolving issues as large as education of girls, hunger, and homelessness. The benefits of developing your ability to draw connections and strengthen your creative mind are twofold. First, better creative thinkers experience enhanced problem-solving skills, which naturally promotes work productivity, life, and relationships. Second, seeing connectivity allows you to more adequately assess connections being presented to you. Your creative mind sharpens your analytical capacities—you’ll know when you’re being presented with inaccurate or incomplete information. Truly, creativity is the natural reciprocal of critical thinking.

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about 5 years ago

Elizabeth King

Thank you so much for taking the time to make the recommendation! I'll put it on the summer reading list.

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about 5 years ago

John S. Wilkins

You might like to read Maria Kronfeldner's recent book Darwinian Creativity and Memetics. I do not concur with her arguments, but the discussion is worthwhile.

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about 6 years ago

Azi V

Great content!

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about 6 years ago

Mark Dykeman

Excellent point about the power of connecting things.

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about 6 years ago

geogeller

igor stravinsky said in a documentary on balanchine "you know why my music sounds like mozart?, because i steal from mozart and that's ok because i love mozart" i was so moved by that statement i went twice to igor stravinsky's grave on cemetery island in Venice to thank him for freeing me - another quote that resonates with me that might echo by henri cartier-bresson also said in an documentary on robert capa "taking photographs is like making love" and i add you have to love the people and things you are photographing - i have issues with fundamentalists and fundamentals - to me a genius is somebody who is interested in what they are doing and i think if you are passionate about something and are compelled/driven - not only are you more likely to do something interesting but you are interested and a vacuum cleaner for everything in sight and so when coltraine talks about scales i think he is feeling the music up and down his spine (scales) and is out there beyond space and time - coltraine had the mind of an inventor he got inside/out of music and it was his lover & his language - food for imagination - education needs to re-invent itself and go to where the child is - child centered not standards centered - hmmm

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about 6 years ago

Ann Holman

Great post. Creativity comes from the freedom to fail, not obeying someone else’s orders! As Woody Allen once said “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

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about 6 years ago

molly campbell

I think of creativity this way: Creative people can say something that everybody knows in a way that nobody has ever said it. This is probably not particularly worldshaking, but as a blogger, I know that there are thousands of folks out there blogging about exactly what I am blogging about. So creativity for a writer is using the same recipe as everyone else, but making it unique somehow. My husband says creativity is figuring out how to fix the toilet with a screwdriver and some paper clips. Who knows? Thanks for the very thoughtful column! molly

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about 6 years ago

Wil Haslup

Yes...the untried connections between circumstances many are familiar with. Sometimes it's just about being courageous enough or willing enough to do the thing no one else tried, and do it until you can do it with some skill. That often puts you way out there compared to everyone else which makes it seem like it's elusive to others.

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about 6 years ago

Devin

I agree, but it reminds me of something very similar: Knowledge brokering. You look how other people are being innovative in very different fields and then apply it to the problems or situations that apply to you. Engineers who couldn't figure out how to get a test car running, so they called a medical doctor. Banks with longs queue lines would go to Disneyland and see how the ride lines worked. And the great thing is knowledge brokering is usually free. Once you knowledge broker, then its take creativity to make it work.

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about 6 years ago

Norm D.

Elizabeth, good post. It brings up too many things to put into one comment, really, but I wanted to mention that in addition to "knowledge and ideas you already have" creativity is grounded in problem solving. Not that every creative act ends up solving the original problem :-)

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about 6 years ago

admin

@norm One might even argue that creativity and problem solving are the same process that arrive at two different destinations! Thank you for your response! ~e

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about 6 years ago

Anna Obrien

I completely agree. I read a book several years ago on memetics . generally how subculture rises and spreads (http://www.amazon.com/Virus-Mind-New-Science-Meme/dp/0963600117) one of the topics surfaced in this book were that new ideas do not exist, but new combinations of ideas do. For example facebook when it arrived on the scene might have seen conceptually entirely new, but in fact it took common practices offline and facilitated them online. So now your rolodex, pictures, and ways to sign the high school year book were online. The internet and each of things existed separately before, but the combinations of such ideas was new.

This exists beyond technology and is manifested in nearly every new product, idea, or movement. I think in general products services are more complex nowadays do to the increased series of connections needed to be made to produce creative or original thought. And with this logic, knowledge must be diversified in order to established creative connections between two generally unconnected nodes. Take for example the rise of the infographic. Who would have thought data would ever be considered art? The reality to produce this creative work one must bridge to generally unconnected concepts such as statistics and general artistry.

I'm rambling, but really you ought to check memetic theory.

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