Is creativity a talent only certain people have? Is it a process to be learned? Did you ever wonder about how to be creative?
People often speak of being visited by the Muse. Or more likely, not being visited recently. The muse seems to be this mysterious, invisible force that comes on us at times and endows us with tremendous creative force. For a while. Until she decides to leave. The muses are almost always described as female.
I can’t deny that sometimes I seem to be filled with creative energy and sometimes I can’t come up with a single good idea. Is that because of muses? I don’t want to jinx myself, but I don’t think so. It is too easy to blame external things. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. I think creativity is part of that. It is unreasonable to expect to be on a creative high all the time. It would be nice, but we have to recharge sometimes, too. If it was constant, we would appreciate it less.
OK, so is creativity a talent a few have naturally and most of us don’t? It seems like that sometimes. Have you ever met someone, maybe an artist, maybe someone in your work life who seems to exude a flow of creativity? Someone who seems to get more done than anyone else?
I have. Several times. It can be humbling. It can make you want to change careers because you seem so inferior.
Talent is a real thing. Back in my life as a software developer I did some investigation into this and found evidence that there can be a 20 to 1 difference in productivity between developers. That seems to imply that some have a natural talent for doing the work. But, don’t let this slip by, they evaluated a 20 to 1 difference in productivity. That is not necessarily creativity. Creativity is much harder to measure.
Here is a truth of life that is important to remember: just because something is easier for someone than for you does not mean their work is better. So while there are differences in talent, that does not exclude anyone.
On the other hand, we can demonstrate that creativity is a process. We have to do it, not sit around waiting to be inspired. A couple of quotes from my article I reference above:
“Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.” – Chuck Close
“Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week.” – Joel Grimes
One thing we seldom talk about as an element of creativity is domain skill. That is, to be creative you first need to be good at what you are doing. Whether it is photography or writing or software development, you have to be skilled in your domain to be able to rise above the average.
So a good part of our process is to always be working to improve our skills. When “the muse is gone” and we do not feel inspired, at least be working on our craft. I have often seen in my own life that sometimes just focusing on a technical skill can lead to new thoughts and ideas for new work.
Am I creative?
Ah, the question that haunts most “creatives”. We often doubt ourselves. After all, what we think and do is obvious to us. So it must be obvious to everyone else. Right? Probably not.
Almost everyone is creative is some areas. But I have never met someone who has all their faculties who does not have the ability to create at some level.
But we set a very high standard for ourselves, don’t we? We expect massive, glowing creativity. World changing things. Really? Not many things change the world to any measurable extent. Our insecurity about our creativity is right up there with our imposter syndrome fears.
Try this experiment. Look at a lot of the published work by other artists is your field. There will be some that blow you away. That really impress you and make you feel inferior. But think about 2 things. First, remind yourself that you are only seeing their best of the best. You never see the 99% of the failures. Are you comparing your failures to their best?
Second think about what you consider the fails among that work. Will there be a significant part of it where you will say “Really? I throw away stuff like that.”? This should convince you that you can be just as creative as most of them.
Ebb and flow
Human nature is such that we don’t just go through life at an even level. There are peaks and valleys, ebb and flow. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. Don’t get disappointed when your creativity follows this pattern.
But one of my points above is, get to work. Do something. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for the muse to come back. Work. Maintain a discipline of doing things anyway. You may throw away most of what you do in this phase, but you can learn and improve your skills and it can be effective at getting you out of the valley more quickly.
One of the self help gurus I for some reason get stuff from recently said “Confidence is a byproduct of action”. I happen to agree with this. And I would add creativity is, too.
Little C or Big C
Notice that I have never defined what creativity is. This is intentional. Don’t most of us say “poor me, I’m not creative” without defining what we mean.
One conventional definition from Psychology research is that creativity is “the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and appropriate to some goal” (COMPONENTIAL THEORY OF CREATIVITY, Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School). The clause about goals is there because the motivation of the research was the corporate environment. Talking solely about art, I would remove that and concentrate on the novelty of a work product.
So, what is novelty and how novel does it have to be to be considered “creative”? Amabile and others say that almost everyone has some degree of creativity. It is expressed in different ways and with different impact.
She uses an example of what she terms little C creativity vs big C creativity. The dentist who came up with the idea of letting kids wear fun sunglasses during exams to protect their eyes from the bright lights is what she calls little C. It is creative but not hugely novel. At the other extreme Schawlow expressed the principles on which all lasers are based. He won a Nobel Prize for that. Definitely big C.
So maybe we ought to give ourselves a little more freedom. Creativity does not have to be Nobel Prize winning. A novel composition or idea in our images is genuinely creative if you have never seen it before.
Novelty for its own sake
So if creativity revolves around the concept of novelty, how novel and new does something have to be? I think many artists are too caught up in this and try to do novel things regardless of their artfulness. Just browse through most contemporary art galleries or The Hand Magazine.
The definition of creative above brings together novel and appropriate. Maybe doing something solely because no one else has ever done it is not good enough. Don’t forget that the idea is to make art while we are doing it.
So maybe we shouldn’t be expecting lightning flashes of brilliance in our daily work. Maybe we should work our craft and perfect our skills to make sure we are about as good as anyone else. Then “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs used to say. If we can be open and receptive to thinking in new ways, we can look for opportunities to apply novelty as an edge to differentiate our self from the pack. Then the novelty is actually a creative enhancement to our work, not just something novel.
I seldom try to create “message” images. When I came across this scene, though, it was too powerful to pass up. It connected several dots with me. I think I have made a creative image that can express a strong idea. Maybe more than one. What do you think?