Creativity can feel like it is difficult to define. It seems rare and mysterious and even when we ourselves experience it, we often can’t explain how it happened. Because of this, we might be tempted to say that creativity is one of those things that we know it when we see it and that you either have it or you don’t. But in the last few decades, creativity has been the subject of sustained scientific research. Nick Skillicorn summarized some of this research in an article about creativity on the web site Idea to Value. He writes, “So in 2012, the Creativity Research Journal led by Dr Mark Runco set out the parameters for a standard definition of creativity. They determined that creativity in every case, no matter what was being assessed, needed to exhibit two criteria: originality and effectiveness.”
What does this mean? If an idea or work is original, it is different than what came before it. It is new in some way. It doesn’t have to change the world but it needs to bring something new to the context in which the idea or works is used. And if the idea or work is effective, it useful or valuable to the recipient in some way. The idea or work might provide new insights, provoke emotions, or enhance the feeling of joy or progress in the recipient. Work or ideas require both of these factors, originality and effectiveness, in order to be considered creative.
These last few decades of research have also helped to dispel some myths about creativity. For example, creativity is not just something you’re either born with or not. Everyone has the potential to be creative and, as Skillcorn has written, “no matter how creative you feel right now, you can actually improve your creativity if you are able to train your mindset.”
So how do we cultivate creativity in ourselves? In his Big Book of Creativity Games, Dr. Robert Epstein explains that the generativity theory and research demonstrates that new ideas come from combinations of old ideas and that creative behavior in individuals is “orderly and predictable” (p. 5). Generativity research suggests that there are four core skills and tendencies that creative people have developed. The good news is that anyone can develop these skills and tendencies.
- Creative people have learned to capture and preserve their new ideas without first evaluating or judging them. They recognize that ideas are fleeting and writing them down or recording them orally makes them available for future reference. Research has shown that this skill alone can boost creative output ten-fold (p. 6).
- Creative people challenge themselves to the point of failing at a task. This failure will cause old ideas and behaviors to compete with each other to try to be successful. And “when behaviors compete, new behaviors are born.” In other words, failure spurs creativity. But generativity research has also shown that failure can impede a person’s willingness to take risks, which stifles creativity. So feelings of failure and frustration need to be carefully managed (p. 7).
- Creative people broaden their knowledge base so that they have a larger repetoire of behaviors, ideas, knowledge, and so on, to draw from. For example, if you want to create games, you should play games of many different types. But you should also read novels and watch movies and listen to the news and study architecture and and and. All of this knowledge becomes fodder for your next game (p. 7).
- Creative people surround themselves with creative inspiration. By managing their physical and social environment to stimulate competing ideas (see 2. above), creative people accelerate and direct the creative process (p. 7). Certain companies have set up their environment to spark creativity in their employees. For example, Google has set its main headquarters up so that it resembles a children’s theme park rather than a typical office building. Many artists surround themselves with other artists to spark creativity. For example, the Bloomsbury group in England produced a large number of influential writers, painters, and influential thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Vanessa Bell, and John Maynard Keynes. Surrounding yourself by a creative physical and social environment can spark your creativity.
The first step to getting your creative juices flowing is to start carrying a notebook (or a piece of paper or a note on your phone) with you everywhere and writing down the ideas that you have. Even if an idea doesn’t seem valuable or valid to you, write it down. This list of ideas will be fodder for your creativity in this class and beyond.