What Does It Mean to Create?

Jay Michaelson
Dec 26, 2017 · 7 min read
Image: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/creativity.jpg

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In my previous post, I wrote about the history of what we think of as “creative thought,” and I provided my assessment of a historical shift in how society views creativity. In this post, we’ll explore some of the current thinking on creativity and what is considered “creative.”

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Why We Needed Creativity in 2017

This past year has provided a lot of good data on what I would call the current state of creative thought in America. At the end of 2016, many people were viewing the coming year with perhaps more uncertainty and doubt than normal, and one of the banner cries at the end of last year was to focus on producing something of intrinsic value in the world and creating a better space for you and your loved ones to inhabit. That led to posts like this one and gave rise to an increased interest in creating (and in a changing view toward what and how we consume content—what A.J. Juiliani and John Spencer call critical consumption) as retaliation against what many people feel is a mindlessly consumerist culture. As with so many things in late-2017 America, it seems like creativity, and creative thinking, became a way of rebelling against societal forces that people view as negative. Creation-as-counterculture is here, my friends!

Along with the rising tide of creativity that we’ve seen in the past several years, we’ve seen a decrease in the artificial boundaries that society places on what can be labeled creative thought. As I mentioned in the first part of the series, the requirement to be creative has at various times been a vital part of society and has at other times been relegated to the domain of a handful of creative types — artists, musicians, and writers. The rest of society was too busy focusing on work to be creative. As if creativity is somehow foreign to work or is a distraction from work. Once we entered the postindustrial age, we saw that the value of creativity and the integration it brings to modern work make it inseparable from so many peoples’ professional lives. Contrary to the title of Part 1, creativity is not dead, and it is needed more now than at any time in recent history.

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Breaking Down the Boundaries

The perception of creativity as a domain few can access is still with us today. We look at CEOs and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and others and see in them a creative force that seems to be far outside the normal creative abilities of the average person. We think they are somehow fundamentally different than us. That is simply not the case. We need to look at some of these artificial boundaries to our creative potential and see where we can begin to destroy them.

The first artificial boundary society puts on us is the idea that creativity is solely an innate talent that some are born with and others are not. As I wrote elsewhere, in the realm of educational psychology, we learn that the ability to create is the highest form of learning. While people are individually born with innately more or less creative mental frameworks, the ability to tap into and apply that creative energy, in whatever portion it is present in the individual’s personality, is a learned behavior and not a natural one. Put more simply, creativity is an essential part of being creative, but it is not the entire substance of the behavior.

The second boundary we need to break down is the idea that creative thought exists only in the artistic realm. This boundary has been disproven numerous times by entrepreneurs in every field of industry, yet it persists. There seems to still be a deeply held belief that the poet at his writing desk or the artist at her easel is accessing more creative thought than the business owner in their board meeting. While that may appear to be the case, it is not universally true. Nor (and this is the heart of the false belief) is the nature of the environment the cause of this lack of creative thought. Creativity is a function of the individual, not of the environment. Somewhere along the way, society seems to have lost the idea that creativity, the creative process, and creative thought are supposed to be inherently practical.

The third and final boundary to unlocking our potential as creative beings is our own inner boundary of fear and self-doubt. Too many people have decided, as three leading researchers at the Harvard Business Review discovered, that “most managers don’t define themselves as creative (and for what it’s worth, asking the more socially acceptable ‘Are you innovative?’ question delivers an equally anemic response).” This boundary, which feeds off our own inner negative voices, is the most important one to overcome. We are innately creative beings, and, as I’ve laid out, the creative process is actually a Venn diagram of three interconnected ideas:

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In each sphere above, we have a different aspect of creative process. The first sphere represents our mindset, the innate creative mental frameworks that each of us is born with. The second sphere represents the education and deep learning that we do to reach that highest order of learning: creating. The third and final sphere represents the actual act of creation. If each of these spheres come together, then our creative process should be complete, and we should see a new idea, product, or theory come about as a result.

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What It Does NOT Mean to “Create”

Having outlined my view of the creative process, I’d like to wrap up this post by mentioning a few fallacies our society has come to believe regarding creativity and creation. We live in an age where it seems that there truly is nothing new under the sun, and consequently, some of us have come to believe that actually creating a new idea or product is impossible, and that the most we can achieve is an improvement, a way of doing things better than before. This is not only false but also dangerous, because it can lead to that incurious mindset that I mentioned in Part 1. Creating is not iterative. A truly creative action is one that doesn’t just incrementally improve something: It devises a totally new thing. Just like the modern world has come to overuse the word “innovate” when really what is meant is more along the lines of “make a tiny tweak so we can say we did something great without risking actual change,” so has the world begun to think of creating as a watered-down, safe action that might one day result in improvement. Creation is supposed to be revolutionary. Creation is supposed to be risky and nerve-wracking. In our careful, risk-averse society, we have taken much of what it means to truly create and rendered it neutral and unaffecting. This is the dangerous, incurious, unquestioning mindset that we have to overcome if we are to truly unlock our own, and others’, creative potential.

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Hiding behind safe walls of iterative change is not being creative. Relegating creativity to the few—the dreamers, poets, and musicians of the world—is a disservice to the thousands of truly creative people who feel trapped in jobs that refuse to allow them to use their creative talents where they are. A fear of creativity, both at work and in our own minds, has kept many of us from pursuing our true creative potential. Don’t settle for what society tells you creativity should be. Don’t assume that because you aren’t a musician, a poet, or a writer, that you don’t have tremendous creativity waiting to be harnessed to something truly meaningful.

In the final part of this series, I’ll teach you some ways to dig deep within yourself and unlock the creativity that resides in each of us, and using the three-part creative Venn diagram I showed you above, you’ll be ready to let the world see what you can do!

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