Creativity Explained. (And why it will be mission critical in 2021.)

Brian Kelly
Jan 6 · 5 min read
Cy Twombly “Untitled” 1970

As a professional who’s always had the word “creative” as part of my title, it would be in my interest to keep the subject of creativity veiled in mystery, claiming as many do, that it can’t be defined or learned. You either have it or you don’t.

But that would be self-serving. It would also be untrue.

Creativity does have a definition. A clinical one:

Creativity is finding new associations between known things.

In other words, creativity is about connecting existing things in new ways.

It’s the optimistic correlation to Solomon’s rueful conclusion in the book of Ecclesiastes: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

There are only new ways of putting known things together.

James Burke

Which is precisely the theme of a splendid series produced by the BBC four decades ago called “Connections.” It features the delightful James Burke walking the viewer through the unexpected and often accidental moments in history that produced new ideas in art, technology and commerce.

In fact, according to Nancy Andreasen, director of the Mental Health Clinic Research Center at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, creativity is not directly related to intelligence. Rather, it is the “capacity to see new things, new relationships, create novel things.” A capacity, she notes in her book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius that spreads across the arts and sciences.

When you see creativity this way, you appreciate its relevance as we squint into the year ahead, searching for clarity amidst the disruption of a global pandemic that’s accelerating change already underway.

This flux is unsettling for business folk because we hate uncertainty. How do you plan, forecast and strategize when you don’t know where you’re going or what’s coming?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” A. Einstein

Creativity has always been the competitive advantage. And in 2021, it will be mission critical.

It will be creative people who lead the way forward in a Covid world because they’re the people who innovate by making new connections.

People who think different. (Thank you, Apple.)

Linear vs Nonlinear

There are two ways of thinking; linear and nonlinear.

The majority of people are linear thinkers. Which explains why business is systematic and process-driven. Linear thinkers seek to domesticate the world using systematic thought and proven formulae so the outcomes are predictable. Something they can control.

The only problem with this sensible approach is that life is anything but predictable.

More than two centuries before the internet and something called digital transformation, a philosopher named Heraclitus bluntly declared “the only constant is change.”

Which makes the practice of Change Management either an infinitely-sustainable business or an oxymoron.

Spoiler alert:

Change will not sit politely in powerpoint slides about its management.

Change cannot be managed. But it can be embraced. Unfortunately, the biggest impediment to embracing change is linear thinking, because it cultivates something called functional fixedness — a type of mental rigidity that blinds one from seeing anything differently than how it’s always been. Which is a huge liability since what we are facing is new. So logic would follow that we will need new ideas to face the challenge.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein.

In other words, we need creative thinking: new associations between what we know.

Which means we need non-linear thinkers. You know, those people at the conference table who are incapable of staying on the agenda, veering off on bunny trails of thought that frustrate the suits trying to run the meeting?

Yes, them.

Change calls nonlinear thinkers out to play.

Creativity as a Gift

This tension between linear and nonlinear thinking permeates every corner of business. Especially where creativity is part of the value proposition, such as ad agencies, music labels and movie studios.

In his 1983 book The Gift, Lewis Hyde explored “the value of creativity and its importance in a culture governed by money and overrun with commodities.” He imagined something called The Gift Economy, where creativity is free to flow and circulate instead of being a corporate possession where it ceases to be a gift. Although such Libertarian thought was anathema to Friedman Economics, Hyde’s writing foreshadowed Chris Anderson’s Freeconomics by 25 years.

Art and Commerce

There’s one good reason ideas should flow freely: cross-pollination.

Your best odds at making new associations between known things is to have more perspectives in play. This is why diversity and inclusion are major initiatives. The more perspectives the better, because more connections can happen.

In fact, according to Joshua Wolf Shenk, the archetype of the lone genius is a myth.

Two heads are better than one.

Now that we see creativity as finding new connections between existing things — and that it is most productive when allowed to flow freely and not be controlled — it makes sense that connections are more likely to happen when more people are contributing. This helps us appreciate the symbiosis between creative partners like Marie and Pierre Curie, the Wright Brothers, Steichen and O’Keefe, Watson and Crick, McCartney and Lennon, Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Myhrvold, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Creativity as a Tangible Asset

Understanding this tensity between linear and nonlinear thinking is important because a healthy business accommodates both. The healthiest are intentional about it.

To be clear, I am not championing offsites with walls covered in Post-It Notes. I am advocating an intentional embrace and bottom-line value for creative people in your workforce. I would even say it’s essential, given that we are living in something called “The Innovation Economy.”

Here is one example of how nonlinear thinking leads to innovation:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare

Two genomic researchers confronted with the reality that we have more data than storage capacity, marveled at the efficiency of the human genome to house data. As a wild experiment, they encoded Shakespeare’s Sonnets onto a single strand of synthetic DNA. To their delight, the content was stored and downloaded without compromise. They had stumbled upon the future of data storage!

DNA wasn’t new. Data wasn’t new. But using DNA to store data was a new connection… a new idea!

2021: the Year of Creative Breakthrough

As we go into the new year, there are a lot of uncertainties facing every business. And it will require creativity to meet these challenges and emerging opportunities. There will surely be innovations and reinventions. And there will certainly be many casualties.

Because change creates and change destroys. It’s a phenomenon known as “creative destruction.” For a new thing to grow, something has to die.

A sobering thought. But also an exciting one.

Here’s to a year of creativity!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Or any subject, for that matter. I would especially like to hear if you’re looking for creative thinking on your business. Go ahead and email me at brian@bemeaningful.co

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