The Misconception of Creativity

As a designer I have often been met with: “Figure it out, be creative!” or: “you are the creative one, you must have a great idea”. There seems to be this conception that creativity only applies to a certain number of people and is only tied to very specific professions. I don’t buy that. For me creativity is something that exists in all of us and something that exists everywhere. Let me try to explain.

What is creativity?

Let me start of by saying that it is certainly not an easy thing to define. You’ll probably find a lot of different definitions. This is just my humble take. It is the general idea (or at least something I have been met with) that some people are creative and others are not. I don’t believe this to be true. Nor the concept that it is some kind of magical trait and some kind of wonder. If you do a quick Google image search you’ll be met by lightbulbs, brains and colourful imagery. The association with something that is colourful and exciting strikes me as a misinterpretation. Colour does not necessarily have anything to do with it. Many seem to have an old-fashioned way of looking at it. It is this connection to the artistry that still lingers. Creativity can be anything, can happen everywhere, be practiced by anyone and be derived by both sadness as well as happiness.

The truth of the matter is that it is far more nuanced than most people make it out to be. Creativity should not be tied to specific crafts — it’s merely a way of thinking. It’s certainly not only painters, designers, musicians or artists in general that exclusively possess the ability to be creative. It’s far more ubiquitous and something that is not reserved for the few. It’s about using our imagination or original ideas to create something new. And that new creation can be anything.

Levels of creativity

Stereotypically, but not completely wrong, creativity is linked with revolutionary ideas. But creativity can occur at all levels. It can therefore lead to different levels of change. Some outcomes or ideas are more prominent than others. But creativity has nonetheless been part of the process. Whether it is improving a tiny part of a process, creating a work of art, composing a piece of music or coming up with new ground-breaking technology which will change the way we live or help us reach another galaxy. All creative. So one person is simply not necessarily more creative than another due to profession. A plumber, a lawyer or a scientist can be as creative or even more creative than the philosopher or the artist.

Even the most simple tasks we perform require some level of creativity. It takes creativity for the brain to coordinate how to place a mug on the table. Or when your eyes focus on a specific object and blurring others. How does your brain do that? Well, that is actually our brains solving very simple problems. But it is actually a very complex task and one that requires a lot of creativity, as it must adjust to so many variables. We just don’t realize it. At this level it’s an unconscious ability.

In essence, it’s basically just how our brain works:

“Pooling from this wealth of knowledge we store in our brains and making connections between different ideas, we have to solve a new problem, or create, write a new novel— that’s what science looks at when we study ‘creativity.’ Just to drive home the point, this is very much a function of the brain. There’s no need to invoke all that folklore into this. It’s our brains doing what they do.”

– Michael Grybko, neuroscience research scientist and engineer.

Everyday our brain solves millions of micro problems which require creativity to do. But what about the more apparent or complex ones? Solving the bigger problems creatively. In order for us to come up with the more revolutionary ideas we have to be able to unlock the higher levels of creativity. Where our creativity becomes the means to innovation. It involves the destruction of something existing and it is through the creative process that we come up with something new. So how do we do that?

Unlocking creativity

If our brains are already wired to think creatively then the interesting thing becomes how to unlock the specific brain activity that provokes the higher levels of our creative and problem-solving abilities. Finding the way our brains best come up with new and novel ideas and solutions to the problems we face.

Some may have more experience in thinking creatively — hence being creative. Which might be where the notion of only a certain group of people being able to be creative stems from. But as explained everybody has creativity in them. For some it might come more naturally, but everybody can certainly learn to reach higher levels of creativity.

Knowledge & experience is key

The level of creativity is closely linked with the amount of experience within a certain area and the accumulated information one has in general. Basically, it’s the total amount of information that adds up to what one can possibly imagine. And the more experience one has within a specific domain the better the chances are of coming up with something novel within the very same domain.

The higher degree of domain knowledge a person has the more likely they are to be creative within their area of expertise. As creativity is based on something already existing, the more information one has about a certain area the more variables he/she will have to observe and combine in order to create. Expertise and experience is key to unlocking higher levels of creativity. So the good old saying; “practice makes perfect” obviously also applies here.

The social dimension and contemplation

Another factor is collaboration and the so-called social dimension. As individuals we naturally identify ourselves with each other. We inspire each other and provide new perspectives. Collaboration is obviously important. No arguing that. But the persons we choose to collaborate with or seek inspiration from also have a role to play.

If you divide the social ties a person has into two groups, you can talk about relations with strong ties and relations with weak ties, both professionally as well as socially. Typically we prefer to associate ourselves with the persons we have strong ties to — the person we know well and have a lot in common with. But in the context of creativity these ties are often not the most effective in terms of strengthening the ability to be creative. People that are different from us can bring new light to our ideas and provide unique knowledge and perspectives different from our own. Our strong relations can of course provide more professional knowledge or confirmation to our ideas, but in order to reach the highest levels of creativity, the weaker relations cannot be ignored. Weaker ties strengthen creativity by exposing us to a broader variety of non-overlapping knowledge instead of being exposed to the same information over and over again by our peers.

Both types of relations are beneficial in different ways, but the important thing to stress is to not limit ourselves by only seeking inspiration in the likeminded.

However, unlocking creativity is not exclusively a social matter. Creativity sometimes requires contemplation. And for some people contemplation is something that goes hand in hand with being and working alone. The need for individual contemplation is, however, very individual and can differ a lot from person to person. So there is no one formula for structuring the best process. It depends on the team and it’s about finding the balance that works best individually as well as collectively — being open and flexible.

Unconscious cognitive thinking

Finally, one of the most important ingredients in unlocking higher levels of creativity is what is called unconscious cognitive thinking. This type of thinking happens when you are detached from your conventional and structural state of mind. A break from your usual surroundings and the mundane if you will. This state of mind usually happens in two ways: 1) when traveling or exploring something new, or 2) when doing nothing of significant importance.

When travelling you do not only have time to think and gain perspective (which is important), but you are also in a physical space where all inputs are new. Nothing is normal. You are out of your comfort zone and your brain is constantly stimulated by new impulses. This will trigger your brain to think in new ways and look at your normal surroundings in a new light. Being in new places or in new surroundings more often will challenge our point of view.

The other type of unconscious cognitive thinking happens when we do something that’s not particularly important to us or when we basically do nothing. It could be commuting to work, taking a shower or doing the dishes. Something routine. Something that we do every day. These situations let our minds wander and our brains will sort of connect the dots without us being conscious of it. Doing these unimportant tasks is something we all do, but in order to let these moments be creative we have to be able to let go completely. Stop chasing what we seek. Forgetting it for a moment. Be bored. Let our mind do what it does.

The idea of breaking our daily routines by being in new places or doing “nothing” can be a very effective asset in the creative process. It is in these situations that we often get the eureka moments, the epiphanies and the really great ideas. Then we are physically or mentally taken away from the problem we want to solve. Especially the ones that are of more revolutionary character. Accepting these cognitive getaways as an integral part of the usually hectic and fast-paced problem-solving process is truly important when trying to support and enhance creativity.

Creativity in organisations

The ability to generate novel ideas and think creatively about problems have long been considered an important skill. Naturally a lot of organisations or businesses are trying to push for more creativity within the organisation.

Today a lot of businesses are trying to increase creativity by setting up innovation labs or divisions. While it is certainly a step in the right direction, that alone won’t cut it. Don’t get me wrong — it truly is a good thing, but my experience just proves (to me at least) that there is still a long way to go. As a design consultant I have been working within these newly established divisions many times and experienced a lack of direction, a disconnection between departments. In some cases a disconnection so extreme that it almost becomes an internal battlefield — what is also popularly called an innovation theatre with the drama being their own internal struggles. More often than not guilty in forcing the creativity and innovation by expecting and pushing for immediate results. The old culture seems to end up contaminating the new division. It’s very sad to experience (obviously, this does not apply to all).

Although the disconnection between departments and the internal disputes and disagreements is not something new in organisations, the division only makes the line between old and the new more obvious. As design consultants we try to help and teach what we have experienced works best in terms of unlocking creativity. And one thing that is certain is that learning to be better at these traits does not happen overnight and it requires more than open space offices, colourful furniture and abundance of post-it’s. It’s a total change of mindset and something that sometimes will require outside help and mentorship from someone who has done it before. Someone who can spark new light and provide a different perspective, as described earlier.

In order to change an organisation and to push for a more creative and innovative environment, one must totally trust and support the process and allocate the time and the resources required for it to succeed. And most importantly, it has to come from and go all the way to the very top. Acknowledging that creativity may not necessarily solve all the problems we might have today, but that it will certainly be essential for the company going forward.

Support it & let it happen

Creativity is within all of us, hence within all organisations. It’s not about whether you have it or not — being creative or not. It’s about learning how to unlock it, nurture it, develop it. But in order to unlock it at the higher levels, we as individuals as well as organisations really have to believe in it, and appreciate its reserved nature. It takes mentorship and only comes with experience — learning what works collectively as well as individually. And it shouldn’t be forced. It lies in the interaction between creating alone and together, being home and away, doing and not doing. Accepting to let it happen, when and how it happens.

Note: A funny fact about this article. It wasn’t written when I planned to write it — it just happened when my mind was ready for it and when I did not expect it.

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