Creativity is problem-solving

Allef Vinicius / Creative Commons

What are we talking about when we talk about “creativity”? It depends.

If you Google “creative” and then start typing each letter of the alphabet, you get quite a variety of autocomplete suggestions:

  • Creative art and wine studio
  • Creative boy names
  • Creative Cloud
  • Creative destruction
  • Creative director
  • Creative engineering
  • Creative finance
  • Creative girl names
  • Creative hair designs
  • Creative insults
  • Creative job titles
  • Creative kitchen
  • Creative license
  • Creative memories scrapbooking
  • Creative nails
  • Creative outlet
  • Creative photography
  • Creative questions
  • Creative resume
  • Creative solutions accounting
  • Creative teaching
  • Creative usernames
  • Creative vegetable gardener
  • Creative writing prompts
  • Creative xpressions salon
  • Creative Zen MP3 player

So when we talk about being “creative,” we could mean a lot of different things. Creative could mean coming up with new baby names, or building a better bridge. Creative could be employing accounting practices that save you taxes, or getting a stylish haircut. Creative could be explaining an economic theory or describing a nail salon.

Gardening or writing could be creative. Teaching or insulting could be creative. An idea or a brand could be creative.

With so many applications, it’s somewhat meaningless to just talk about being “creative.” What are you being creative for?

Applied creativity

Another way to think about creativity is it’s just another way of saying “problem-solving.”

In his guidebook on creativity, The Dance of the Possible, Scott Berkun outlines how we could think of creativity as fixing a problem, whether that problem is abstract or concrete:

“Problem-solving implies there is a specific target, a problem, to guide our thinking,” Berkun writes. “The chosen problem might be to paint an inspiring mural for the town square or simply fix a leaky kitchen faucet. It could also be to invent a new kind of faucet that never leaks. Any dream or situation can be described as a problem to be solved, and the more ambitiously you define the problem, the more ambitious the kind of thoughts are that you’re going to need to solve it.”

Try this way of thinking to any problem or challenge in your life right now. Let’s say, the problem of what to have for dinner. You can be more or less creative in your thinking. Simply pulling out a box of ramen is a less creative solution. Taking a road trip to a new part of town to try an ethnic cuisine you’ve never had before would be a more creative solution.

You could also define this problem more ambitiously, as Berkun states. You could define solving your hunger as a subset of solving the problem of feeding a growing population with an increasing appetite for protein which may have a catastrophic impact on global climate. If that’s how you define the problem, you may have to start thinking much more creatively.

Let’s take another example and say your problem is boredom. Again, your solution could be more or less creative. Your knee-jerk reaction could be to simply turn on Netflix, like you’ve done 1,000 times before. Not the most creative solution, but it could be effective. Or you could come up with a more creative boredom-banishing solution such as teaching yourself how to play the piano by watching YouTube tutorial videos and practicing on a keyboard you find on Craigslist.

You could also define this problem more broadly. What will we do with our expanding leisure time if robots and automation take over most of what we think of as human work? What will we do with our lives if we no longer have to work toward what we think of as traditional 40+ hour work-week careers? This larger problem will require more creative solutions than simply how to amuse yourself in a momentary lull.

Defining the problem

To circle back to the beginning, what are we talking about when we talk about “creativity”? Again, it depends.

What problems do you want to tackle?

Do you want to be an accountant who finds a new tax loophole? Do you want a resume that stands out from the batch when you’re applying for jobs? Do you want to find new methods of urban farming to eliminate food deserts?

Only you can answer what problems will get your skill, attention and creativity.

You have to define how you want to be creative.