All Creativity is Problem Solving

and why that matters.

Joshua C. Carroll
Dec 20, 2019 · 12 min read

Imagine, if you will, two hypothetical people. Let’s call them Charlie and Pat. Both are in their mid-20s, fresh out of college, and both work for an organization that values clear communication, personal responsibility, and hard work. Charlie self-identifies as a “creative,” while Pat self-identifies as a “problem solver.” Assume that those descriptors are 100% accurate. Based only on that information…

  • Whom do you think will leaders trust with a large, important project?

Now, let’s make this more personal.

Imagine that you have applied for two different positions, and after completing a pair of assessment tests, you receive rejection letters for each. One says “This job requires better problem-solving skills than you were able to demonstrate,” and the other says “This job requires more creativity than you were able to demonstrate.” Both encourage you to work hard, find ways to grow, and apply again in the future.

  • Which opportunity would you be more likely to pursue again?
I don’t know about you, but I’m going with Pat.

Maybe you love being identified by your creativity. A lot of us (myself included) have fully embraced our roles as “creatives” in our social and professional circles and have surrounded ourselves with people who value us for our creativity. For us, I think there is a lot to be learned from problem solvers without giving up our identities. But many people find that being identified by their creative or artistic leanings actually results in unfair stereotyping and assumptions, and for them, there is potentially some benefit to understanding that they are, at the core, problem solvers too.


The forming of a hypothesis

A few years ago, I worked for an ad agency that displayed this quote on a wall near my desk:

“Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.”
—Brian Aldiss

That quote has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Is it really true? I often wondered. For sure, people use creativity to solve all sorts of problems, but is creativity always linked to solving problems? Maybe this is a fair statement, I thought, when applied to copywriting, computer programming, or graphic design, but does this truism hold up in other realms? What about the arts? What problems, I wondered, are painters and musicians solving when they create?

I had always viewed these two modes of thinking as separate and dissimilar. Problem solving was the sort of skill I employed when playing a puzzle game or trying to figure out the best way to drive traffic to a client’s website. It felt decidedly “left-brained.” Creativity, on the other hand, was the sort of thinking I applied to songwriting, logo design, and fiction writing. It was obviously “right-brained.”

The longer I have pondered this question, however, the more I have become convinced that Aldiss was correct. The problem that is being solved may be more or less obvious in a given application (a scientist needs to design an experiment that will verify a hypothesis while a composer needs to make an emotional connection with a listener), but the brain engages in similar mental processes whether the desired outcome is a work of art or a solution to a clearly defined problem: information is pulled from what is known, remembered, and observed in the moment; it is examined, shuffled, stripped to its essence, and combined with other information in new and novel ways; potential outcomes are imagined, considered, and evaluated; the most viable outcomes are tried and tested. The process is the same in either case; only the semantics, perspectives, and end goals differ.

What if it’s true?

This connection between creativity and problem solving is incredibly exciting to me, and here’s why. If all creativity is problem solving, then:

  • It should be just as possible to become more creative by practicing a set of techniques and improving a set of skills as it is to become better at problem solving.

Digging into the science

Since I am not an expert on the brain and how it works, I took my hypothesis to somebody who is: Dr. Gregory Repasky, a professor of cognitive psychology at Texas Christian University who currently teaches courses covering creativity.

Dr. Gregory Repasky, one of the coolest academics I’ve ever met
Dr. Gregory Repasky, one of the coolest academics I’ve ever met
Dr. Gregory Repasky, one of the coolest academics I’ve ever met

One of the first things Dr. Repasky pointed out to me is that the commonly accepted idea that people are either “right-brained” or “left-brained” is a myth.

“Both sides of the brain are very involved in the creative process,” he said, pointing out that people who have had their corpus callosum (the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the two hemispheres) severed have difficulty forming and expressing creative ideas.

“What we observe,” he continued, “is that the best creative thinkers excel at switching between what we call the Executive Control Network”—or ECN, which describes the set of brain regions responsible for focused, intentional thought—“and the Default Mode Network”—or DMN, which describes the set of brain regions responsible for the sorts of unfocused thoughts that happen when we aren’t concentrating on anything in particular.

This isn’t to say that the DMN does not facilitate important work. It’s that it is associated with metal processes such as mind wandering, pattern recognition, and intuition, while the ECN, which includes our language center, is associated with processes we think of as more rational, intentional thought. DMN processes also tend to be much faster than ECN processes because they do not translate into language.

Interestingly, the more of an expert at an activity you become, the more that activity will be relegated to processes handled by your DMN. As an example, beginning drivers tend to operate a vehicle primarily out of ECN-associated processes—concentrating intensely, telling themselves which pedal is the brake and which is the gas, etc.—often overcorrecting and hesitating as a result. Expert drivers, on the other hand, rarely think about what they are doing. For the experienced, driving becomes intuitive, and as a result, a much smoother experience. Likewise, chess grandmasters quickly recognize patterns on the board, and pulling from the thousands of games they have played and observed before, they are able to quickly and accurately select the best next move without having to think too hard about potential outcomes.

This increased reliance on DMN processes also explains why artists and other experts who have practiced their crafts for years often have difficulty explaining how they do what they do to beginners and outsiders. After years of repetition, many of the fundamental skills that they rely on have migrated to the realm of intuition, effectively taking language out of the creative equation.

But, of course, while the DMN may be better at intuiting, recognizing patterns, and making novel connections between seemingly unrelated data, for a creative idea to go anywhere, the ECN must also engage. The brain has to take notice of the idea, analyze it, and imagine outcomes, so that the creator can communicate or otherwise act on it.

In other words, creative thinkers must alternate between laser focus and broader, unfocused thinking. In one moment, all of the creator’s attention is consumed by the task or train of thought at hand. In the next, the creator zooms out, allowing his mind to wander and make connections with what he knows or observes about potentially unrelated topics, recognizing the potentially meaningful or helpful, and then focusing on those connections.

Yeah, it’s kind of like that

My favorite example of this in action is the original “Eureka” story. Legend has it that Archimedes had been racking his brain trying to figure out how to calculate the density of the king’s new crown in order to determine if it was, as advertised, made of solid gold. He could weigh it easily enough, but calculating the volume of such a complex object seemed impossible. Then, while performing the mundane, routine-driven task of stepping into a bath, his mind began to wander (a process tied to increases in DMN activity) and new mental connections were made. Archimedes noticed that the water level rose as his body took up more space. He latched onto this observation (engaging his ECN), deduced that his body displaced water in proportion to its volume, and reasoned that by lowering any solid object into water and measuring the displacement, he could simply and easily calculate its volume, regardless of the complexity of its form. Excited by the discovery of such an elegant solution to his problem, he reportedly shouted “Eureka!” which means “I’ve found it!”

But that story is, of course, about problem solving. Isn’t it? And we had been talking about how the brain approaches creativity.

I pointed out to Dr. Repasky that this same process of switching between the ECN and DMN, making novel connections and then selecting the most interesting to pursue (or, as I have labeled it elsewhere, Ideation and Filtering) seems to be required for both problem solving and creative thinking. “Is there a difference between them?” I asked.

Here’s how he responded:

“When we think of problem solving in a traditional sense, we assume that the problem is already known. But creative people often discover solutions first and apply them to problems they may or may not have previously been trying to solve later.”

Dr. Repasky calls this idea “problem finding,” and I love it because it gives a name to something I have experienced so many times.

Problem Finding

When this happens to me, it isn’t so much that there is a problem I am actively trying to solve as it is that there is a spark of inspiration that says “hey, there’s something here, pay attention.” It’s a hint that whatever I’ve just noticed, connected, or imagined might, if pursued, lead to the creation of something meaningful or helpful or delicious or appealing or profitable.

It’s that moment when the lines of a building intersect in a striking way, inspiring a photographer to capture the beauty of the geometry with her camera. It’s the catchy phrase that rings with deeper truth, on which a writer constructs a short story or poem. It’s Paul McCartney waking up from a dream with the melody for “Yesterday” playing, fully realized, in his mind.

But it happens in less artistic realms too. Around Creative Market (at the suggestion of Lincoln Mongillo, our Director of Product), I tend to talk about looking for customer “opportunities” rather than “problems,” since this language better embraces serendipitous discovery. But in the end, any customer opportunity is really just a solution to a problem the customer may or may not recognize yet.

For example, I was perfectly happy with my old wired headphones until I tried AirPods for the first time. AirPods were an opportunity to try something new and better. Now, whenever I switch back to my old headphones, I recognize all the little problems my AirPods have solved for me.

Is Trevor tapping his head or pausing his music?

Another classic example of practical “problem finding” is the story of how the microwave oven “was invented utterly by accident…when a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer was testing a military-grade magnetron and suddenly realized his snack had melted.” (Read the full article here.) Spencer was in no way attempting to accelerate cook times. Rather, when presented with a type of radiation that happened to heat food, he saw an opportunity to apply his creativity and solve a problem most people didn’t know they had.


Back to the big question

As inspiring as “problem finding” is, we still had not answered the question at the heart of my hypothesis. So I asked Dr. Repasky directly, “Even if the problem is discovered later rather than known up front, aren’t our brains doing basically the same thing in either case? And if so, isn’t all creative thinking really just problem solving?”

He answered, perhaps reluctantly:

“Yes. In the way that we describe them in this field, you could describe creativity as a subset of problem solving.”

And then I did a happy dance.

In fairness, he did go on to point out one other difference: creativity is concerned with and measured by its originality, whereas problem solving is only concerned with and measured by its effectiveness. There is even a difference, Dr. Repasky told me, between “big C” Creativity and “little c” creativity. In the former, the concept or creation must be “group changing,” meaning that it is new, novel, and impactful to the society in which it is introduced (i.e., the wheel, the Internet, Impressionism), but for the latter, it need only be new or novel to the thinker.

This is a valuable distinction, but as C.S. Lewis once wrote:

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

So perhaps a fair definition of creativity is a subset of problem solving, marked by novelty and originality, in which the outcome may be presented as an opportunity even if a problem has not been previously identified.

What this means for us

This has a variety of implications for creators and problem solvers (that’s all of us, by the way).

You can become more creative

“People often think of creativity as a personality trait, something you’re born with,” Dr. Repasky told me. But as we have seen, that assumption isn’t true. Like problem solving, creative thinking is actually a skillset, a mental process of focusing and unfocusing, engaging both the ECN and the DMN, ideating and filtering.

Furthermore, it gives us a lens through which to view the strange stories of some of the world’s most successful creators and problem solvers. Take the stories of Salvador Dali, Thomas Edison, and other great thinkers, for example, who have been famously reported to have adopted interrupted power nap routines designed not only for rapid rejuvenation but also to awaken them in time to take note of whatever unexpected connections their uninhibited minds had made while in an unfocused dream state.

You can subvert anti-creative bias

There is a fair amount of social bias against people who are presented as “creatives,” especially in the professional realm. They are often stereotyped as unreliable, late, flaky, etc. Problem solvers, on the other hand, are seen as helpful, responsible, and necessary to the success of any organization. In fact, I would argue that the words we use to label ourselves subtly but meaningfully sway us to act the part of the stereotypes society has embraced for those terms, even when we don’t want to.

But why should you allow yourself to accept your limits or to be discriminated against or mistrusted by others? Change your vocabulary, and change the perceptions you and others have about you. You can not only have a growth mindset regarding your creative thinking chops, but you can also, in good conscience, use the more broadly accepted terminology of “problem solving” to present yourself and explain what you do to others.

Your skill in one area translates to another

If you are a natural problem solver—if you find yourself digging for the underlying “why” and refusing to settle for surface explanations, exploring different perspectives and points of view, questioning assumptions, and experimenting and analyzing outcomes—I have good news for you. You can apply those very skills to become a great font designer, sculptor, or novelist. If this is you, I would encourage you to embrace your unfocused DMN processes, pay attention to the crazy ideas that come to you in the shower, while taking a walk, or when daydreaming, and dig into opportunities even when they don’t seem to correlate directly to a known problem.

Conversely, if you see yourself as a “creative,” know that you can apply that creativity to solve problems that may have seemed outside of your wheelhouse. Your imagination is a powerhouse tool when applied to the scientific process. Consider the following quote from Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman:

The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.” But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from? Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations — to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess.


This post is part of the Decoding Creativity series from Creative Market. Follow me on Medium or subscribe to the Creative Market blog, and join the discussion by commenting with your questions and thoughts.

Building Creative Market

Lessons from Creative Market's design, development, growth, community, and leadership teams. (creativemarket.com)

Thanks to Sarah Alexander and Gtrepasky

Joshua C. Carroll

Written by

Creativity addict. Author. Dad/foster dad. Founder of @DadsWhoRead. Employed at @creativemarket. http://JoshuaCCarroll.com

Building Creative Market

Lessons from Creative Market's design, development, growth, community, and leadership teams. (creativemarket.com)

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