What is Creativity?

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. 

- Albert Einstein

Understanding creativity is the first step to deciding what it means for you personally, and finding out how you can allow it to grow

Creativity - how is it defined?

The use of the imagination and intuition to generate original ideas which bring about something new and valuable. 

It is wild and complex, energy generating, and expressed diversely across culture. Creativity may result in something tangible (like developing a brochure or cooking a meal), or something intangible (such as an idea or a joke). Creativity comes about through a dynamic relationship between a person (or people), their creative process, their ‘product’ and their place.

The meaning we have given to creativity has changed throughout history. Before the Enlightenment the word was only really used to describe the act of creation of the Christian God. After that period, appreciation for human creativity began to emerge as an achievement within the Arts and was celebrated in its own right.

Since then, the term has continued to broaden beyond the Arts and find resonance in other domains and disciplines. Innovation in business and industry is understood as the implementation of creative ideas, and creativity is now prized (as well as reconceptualised) by processes of scientific discovery and development. It has even been a targeted focus for spiritual and self-development in Western contexts. 

As the benefits of creativity have become increasingly recognised and valued over the last century, it has become a focus for research. The evolution of human creativity is an ongoing fascination. And it is no longer seen as being primarily related to intelligence or skill, but more in terms of personality and creative drive

Openness to experience, risk taking, self confidence, autonomy and exploratory behaviour have been identified as some of the predominant characteristics of a creative person. The idea of divergent thinking - that is, finding multiple ways to solve a problem, is similar to concepts of flexible thinking or fluid intelligence. The use of intuition, making conscious and unconscious associations, has been described as an important part of the creative process.

Here, we will focus mainly on the processes of creativity, to allow you to mull over how creativity actually works, before we go on to think about what this could mean for you. One of the very first models of creativity was presented by George Wallas in 1929 and is still widely drawn on, elaborated, and reinforced by neuropsychological research. It follows a pattern with four stages which we think reflects – for example, how you might sow a garden.

  • The first stage is preparation: focussing on a problem or task and exploring its dimensions. Developing a vision for something different – Assessing the landscape and doing the groundwork/preparing the soil. Looking back over your store of seeds of inspiration and where they might find a place to be nurtured in the soil around you.
  • The second is incubation: the task or problem may be internalised, put on the back burner: it may look as though nothing is happening at this stage. But it’s where intuition and your sub-conscious are predominant: this stage is like planting your seeds, covering with soil, trusting the process and hopefully waiting.
  • The third is illumination, or insight: in which creative processing becomes conscious and ideas may spring to mind and develop. Your seedling breaks out of the soil and is exposed to light and energy to help it grow: this is where sensitive, dynamic intervention and play is needed (Meditation practice aides incubation and illumination in creativity). 

    Play is the highest form of research

    - Albert Einstein

  • The fourth stage is verification: when ideas are then consciously worked with, elaborated on and communicated. Allowing your seedling to become what it is and finding ways to present it in the context of your ‘garden’.

Though this is a good way of understanding creativity, it doesn’t quite do justice to the importance of your environment and social context: creativity is no longer seen as a journey for the lone genius. And as Guy Claxton says: it is the flexibility of movement across and between these stages – that he called the creative ‘glidespace’, that is crucial to navigating the four stages. This includes how easily you can move from an internal to external focus of attention; from individual to shared working, and between analytical and more intuitive states of mind. 

Can creativity be cruel?

The term ‘negative creativity’ has usually been associated with criminal behaviour. But it can also refer to our every day experiences, such as manipulation, and finding ways to cheat others. Children often demonstrate their creativity in learning to lie quite early on! Creativity can of course be used for all sorts of sinister or self interested means by individuals, groups and corporations seeking to manipulate people or resources for their own purposes. 

Am I creative?
It is common to believe that you are not creative at all, unless you have a traditionally recognisable ‘gift’ for a classical art form. Unfortunately it is often school that gives us this idea, and we can go through life without understanding just how creative we can be. But creativity is expressed whenever there is a free choice to be made; and the individual makes her unique mark. How a person walks, talks, dresses, cooks, or organises her screen’s desktop are all creative expressions. So it is safe to say that if you make free choices in your day to day life - no matter how small, then you are creative. Whether or not you feel free to recognise, value and engage freely with these choices depends on your ownership and enjoyment of your own creativity. 

Barriers to Creativity

We can all experience ‘creative block’, (even if just when choosing what to wear in the morning). Here are some of the main ones we can do something about.

•    In order to harness your creative potential, you must first recognise and value it. It is all too common that creativity was not validated or encouraged throughout childhood. Most of us hold beliefs (and myths) about creativity – like who has it and who doesn’t; and whether this can ever change. It might be important to re-examine some of these beliefs in order to recognise the innate creative potential we all have. Negative beliefs about ourselves can be a major barrier to creativity, especially when they make us reluctant to share our creations, and become part of a wider and more complex creative community. 

•    When we are attempting to get creative, flexible movement across the creative ‘glidespace’ is an overarching necessity. Too much energy spent in one mode or at one stage of creativity can inhibit the whole process and we can get stuck down rabbit holes of detail. Alternatively - we can spend so much time wrestling with the big picture and anticipating a perfect outcome, that we get stuck procrastinating and never start. 

•    Possibly above all else, even when you consider yourself to be highly creative - creativity always takes guts. It means risk-taking; experimenting intuitively with something valuable to you that you don’t know the outcome to in advance. Or, as Erich Fromm put it: ‘the courage to let go of certainties’. This is where it might be helpful to think about your Orientation to Learning if you are someone who tends to prefer to stick to what is more rigid and predictable. 
•    There are practical and biological barriers, too. Not enough time, space and resource to spend being creative is a well recognised problem, as can be having too much (if it means we don’t deviate from predictable spoon-fed routines). Getting good REM sleep and daydreaming is known to promote creativity, as are positive emotions. The organic chemical dopamine, which reduces inhibition and increases goal directed behaviour, promotes the drive to generate ideas. Not enough of any of these could be a deterrent to creativity, and stress and low mood are added obstructions.

Becoming more creative

Regardless of where you think you are on the ‘creative ability’ confidence spectrum, or what barriers you might face, there are many ways to go about improving it. And it is important for us all – we are all creative, and blocked creative energy can lead to self-destructive energy, as well as missed potential and fulfilment. We have compiled various strategies that we hope you may find helpful in this endeavour as you continue through your learning journey. We call them Pathways


Your Learning Journal 

Something highly recommended when approaching this is keeping a journal. Whether a paper journal, a scrapbook or a virtual space to record your thoughts and experiences; this provides a crucial reflective tool for you to clarify thoughts through creative expression, prompt and remind yourself of important learning, and track your progress as you look back on it. 

This will be a space for recording your responses to questions or Pathways you encounter here, but it may also include your own creative ad-libbing and anything that is helpful to you.

You’ll notice pointers along the way to encourage and remind on the use of your journal; but this will of course, take whatever form you like. 


Go Deeper

Next Step

Why Could Creativity Be Good For You?