When you think of the word ‘Creativity’, what does it mean to you? Does it conjure up an image of a guru in tie-dye cheesecloth meditating on a mountain top waiting for inspiration? A drug-crazed musician pouring the twisted contents of their soul into a microphone? A one-eared starving artist dying tragically in penniless squalor? If you answered yes to any or all of these, that’s understandable. These are the stereotypes of creative people our society loves to perpetuate. And there is no doubt that some incredibly creative individuals fit these stereotypes to a tee.
But there is a whole world of creativity around us. In fact, and I know it sounds like a cliché from some group bonding retreat, we are all creative. Creativity is what differentiates us as a species. No other animal on the planet comes close to our capacity for creativity and innovation.
So if creativity is common to all of us, what exactly is it?
I did my degree in Creative Arts, and have worked in the Creative Industries for over 30 years; as a musician, composer, writer, performer, director, copywriter, editor, music producer, recording engineer and creative director – sometimes taking on all those roles simultaneously. So I have a very good, practical understanding of the creative process. In fact, if there was such a thing as a Certified Practicing Creative, I’m pretty sure I would fit the bill.
The one thing I have never heard in all that time is an adequate, concise definition of creativity. Every attempt to define it sounds so nebulous and esoteric it is no wonder the word elicits scoffs and eye-rolls from the more ‘practically-minded’ among us.
So I have taken it upon myself to redefine it.
To me, Creativity (n) is:
The practical process of solving specific, immediate problems in a surprising way.
While a composer may have a vague idea of what she wishes a piece of music to sound like, the immediate, specific problem she is solving when she is composing is ‘What note comes next?’ or, ‘what chord comes next?’. In order for her composition to be creative, the decision she makes in each case needs to be different to solutions offered by other composers before her – it has to be original, something that hasn’t been heard before – her solution has to be surprising. The more surprising it is, the more memorable it is, the more ‘creative’ it is.
A visual artist is constantly solving the recurring problem of ‘What colour/shape/form/brush/medium comes next?’ The more surprising the choices, the greater the creative leap.
We already know creativity can be used to address a whole range of economic, environmental and social issues. Companies like Apple, Uber and Airbnb have shown us how creativity drives economic growth. The City of Kwinana’s ‘drain sock’ is a great example of how creativity can solve specific, immediate environmental issues. But it’s not how we’re taught to think in schools. We’re taught to get things right, not to discover alternate possibilities. So while ‘innovation’ is the buzzword of our time, it seems we are still not adequately valuing or fostering the development of the creative skills that enable innovation in our society.
The same creative skills you develop honing your craft in any creative arts discipline are the very same skills you need in order to innovate and add value in business, especially in this age of disruption. I trained as a musician, but as a creative strategist, I’ve been able to transfer those creative skills to help businesses across a whole range of industry sectors.
So if we want to be an innovative nation, the obvious solution is to actually train people in creativity. And the best way to develop creative skills is through the study of creative arts.
Realigning our education system, and widening our focus from STEM to embrace the creative arts would rapidly expand the creative skill base of our society. The end game is not to train more future professional musicians or dancers any more than encouraging kids to get involved in sport aims to create more elite athletes. The idea is to turn out more well-rounded humans who have the capacity to think differently, who are comfortable venturing into the unknown, exploring alternate ideas, who will challenge the status quo, and who are not afraid to colour outside the lines.
Perhaps by redefining creativity, we may be able to reclaim it as the core of who we are as a species, give it the value it deserves. And we may pleasantly surprise ourselves by discovering solutions to the all the specific, immediate problems we face in the world today.