Exploring the Art of Creativity


Stephen King described creativity as being the ability to look at the same things as anyone else but see them differently. Without creativity, Albert Einstein couldn’t have devised his thought experiments of chasing after a beam of light. The irony of creativity is the Einstellung effect, which refers to our predisposition to use previous experience when solving new problems instead of thinking of novel or better approaches. Innovation is what happens when creative ideas are put into practice, such as Da Vinci’s flying machines drawings.

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One way to define creativity is to look at the same things as anyone else but see them differently. Or, as Stephen King remarked in his book On Writing: 

Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. 

Similarly, Adam Grant wrote in Originals:

I once heard creativity described as being the ability to grasp the essence of one thing and the essence of some very different thing and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.

One of the most beautiful stories about creativity I have ever read is a children’s book, What Do you Do with an Idea? 

One day, a child discovers he has an idea. He wonders how this idea came to life, but he is afraid to tell others about it as they might mock him. Nevertheless, the child decides to nurture the idea. 

Then, something magical happens. The idea flies fearlessly into the world, and the child realizes what can you do with an idea: you can change the world.

When our ideas fly into the world, others can step, reinterpret, and build on our creativity. Creativity feeds on creativity. As writer Ursula K. Le Guin remarked:

It is the nature of the idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better from being stepped on.

Sometimes creativity is about adding a new twist on an old theme, reinterpreting well-known ideas with novel formulas. Or, as historian Will Durant said, “nothing is new except arrangement”, which is, of course, an iteration of the famous “nothing is new under the sun”. 

The irony of creativity is the Einstellung effect. This effect refers to our predisposition to use previous experience when solving new problems instead of thinking of novel or better approaches.

The better we become at something, the less inclined we are to appreciate variations to that something. Over-familiariazation with a creative way of doing things can lead to a dead end.

Other times, creativity is about having such an original insight that it threatens to demolish the status quo. For example, the cubism movement.

Creativity and Innovation

Creativity and innovation are sometimes used interchangeably (e.g. “an innovative and creative invention”), but their meanings differ. Innovation is what happens when creative ideas are put into practice. It’s the difference of centuries between Da Vinci’s flying machines drawings and today’s helicopters.

Is creativity mandatory for innovation? Not necessarily.  

In the 1840s, physician Ignaz Semmelweis, a pioneer of antiseptic measures, worked in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital. Semmelweis was deeply troubled by the high death rates from puerperal fever in his patients. During the dissection of a cadaver, a colleague of Semmelweis was accidentally poked with a scalpel and died as a result. The colleague’s autopsy showed a similar pathology to the mothers dying in the maternity wards from puerperal fever. 

Semmelweis had a breakthrough. Many of the obstetric staff usually studied cadavers before going to their maternity rounds without washing hands. Semmelweis proposed a regime of cleaning hands with chlorinated lime between autopsies and medical visits to patients. The effects were dramatic: the mortality rate in his clinic dropped by 90%. 

Quite clearly, Semmelweis, “the saviour of mothers”, innovated hospital protocols, but this innovation was not due to creativity but observation and connection between cadaveric contamination and puerperal fever. 

Nevertheless, creativity is an essential part of innovation. Without creativity, Albert Einstein couldn’t have devised his thought experiments of imagining himself chasing after a beam of light. These experiments proved crucial to the theory of relativity.

Without creativity, chemist August Kekulé couldn’t have envisioned the structure of benzene as a snake biting its tail.   

When does creativity happen

We might require certain conditions to be creative (money, time, a childminder, a room of one’s own à la Virginia Woolf, food delivery). Having financial conditions met gives more creative freedom to experiment as we are not pressured to sell ill-conceived art or launch poorly tested businesses.

On the other hand, creativity can flourish when constrained. Hence the saying “constraints breed creativity“. Born into slavery, inventor and entrepreneur Sarah E. Goode invented the folding bed as many of her furniture shop customers lived in small apartments and didn’t have much space for large pieces of furniture.  

Another way to employ creativity is by using metaphorical thinking. Creativity requires addressing a problem from a different angle. For example, an approach could be thinking in metaphors because it is almost like we see the world afresh, anew through metaphors. 

To enable metaphorical thinking, we can ask ourselves: can we express our thoughts, ideas, theories, concerns, or problems as metaphors? This activity works because metaphors enable us to understand or explain unfamiliar or complex issues using familiar terms. Charles Darwin used the branching tree as a metaphor for evolution.

Niels Bohr, the father of the quantum theory, wrote: 

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images. 

Brainstorming is a technique to unleash creativity by having a meeting where participants propose ideas. The scope of a brainstorming meeting is to get as many ideas as possible.

Any idea, no matter how far-fetched, can be expressed as participants refrain from expressing criticism.

What a beautiful metaphor brainstorming represents! Brain + storming (the sudden forceful attack and capture of a building or other place by troops, e.g. the storming of the Bastille).

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, according to him, “chicks sent me high”), coined the mental state of being in the zone as flow, best described perhaps by one of the participants Csikszentmihalyi interviewed for his research:

My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of anything else. I am totally involved in what I am doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear anything. The world seems to be cut off from me. I am less aware of myself and my problems.

We feel a perfect match between skill and challenge, a loss of consciousness, and we experience timelessness in the flow state. 

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We achieve flow when high skill level matches high difficulty.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is fascinating because “when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” That means, by experiencing creativity as a flow activity, we can access the missing links to experiencing fulfilment.

However, we don’t access novel insights only in the flow moments. The brain has two main types of networks, a highly attentive state network and a more relaxed resting-state network. In her book A mind for numbers, Barbara Oakley names the thinking processes related to the two main types of networks the focused mode and the diffuse mode (when we let our minds wander: going for walks, taking a shower, sleep, doing something that relaxes us). 

It appears we often switch between focused and diffuse modes in our daily activities as we can’t be consciously in both modes simultaneously. Epiphanies often happen in the diffuse mode, in the moments when we don’t consciously apply pressure on our thinking. 

Cal Newport writes in Deep Work:

I’m comfortably being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill. 

There is truth to Newport’s affirmation. I made my peace that I would never read all the books I wanted. I will never listen to all the podcasts or interviews I want. There is simply not enough time. Thus, I can comfortably wait in the queue for a long time without the urge to fill those minutes with something. It isn’t a surprise then that some of what I consider to be my best phrases came to me when I deliberately let my mind wander.

Creativity can be autotelic (with no purpose other than delighting ourselves). Creative and autotelic ideas are all around us, from children inventing a new activity or choosing their pizza toppings to adults creating a capsule wardrobe or a FIFA 22 team.

Creativity is also more art than science (how can we measure creativity objectively in each individual? should it be measured hourly, daily?), so we need plenty of time to experiment and fine-tune our experiences.

After all, we are never quite finished with becoming ourselves.

A well-known psychological creativity exercise is the Alternate Uses Task (AUT), also known as Guilford’s Divergent Thinking Test. This test looks like this: if we are given a random item, how many alternative uses can we find in two minutes? 

For example, a brick can be used to build walls, as a doorstop or as a weapon. These are everyday uses, and to score higher on this test, we need to come up with original answers. A brick can be used as a paperweight, garden ornament, literary bookend, nutcracker. Or to flatten a chicken, draw right angles, grind the brick to create sand, etc.

Now, if you want to continue with this exercise, how many alternative uses can you find for a ping pong ball? Or a paper cup? 

Previously published here.

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