On Creativity: Response to a popular article, Part 1

Last week a fellow crafter shared a Huffington Post article, “18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently“, that was received very well by the internets. And I can see why – the article aims to accomplish good things: to provide a greater understanding of creativity by isolating traits common to “creatives”; and to present a solid argument by backing up its claims with research citations.

Despite its good intent, the article distorts a few key concepts that I think are essential to a productive discussion of creativity. It assumes that a) creativity is an inherent personality trait – you either have it, or you don’t; b) creative people do things better than non-creative people. In addition, the article makes a number of exclusionary assertions that only serve to make our understanding of creativity more ambiguous.

I think there’s a lot to say on the subject, so I will keep coming back to this article and the topic of Creativity in the future. Today, I’ll look at a quote that is a good example of the article’s misinterpretation of creativity:

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“… creative personality types are difficult to pin down, largely because they’re complex, paradoxical and tend to avoid habit or routine.”

 

I take particular issue with the bolded parts of the quote above. First of all, labeling anybody as “creative personality types” implies that there are people outside of this group who lack the trait of “creativity”. This classification is polarizing and therefore harmful. Specifically, when we assign a binary approach to a classification – saying that something either is or it isn’t – we artificially force our value judgements to fit into the binary model.

For example, if we had to classify all objects as either dark or not dark. To achieve this, we would first need to reject the subtleties of color and tone, de-saturating our perception. Then we would need to decide on an arbitrary threshold – when is something dark enough to be considered dark? Let’s say we agree on Dark Grey. So we start looking around the room, comparing objects to Dark Grey and classifying. The carpet – lighter than Dark Grey – “is not dark”. The brown book shelf – darker than Dark Grey – “is dark”. The Red Delicious apple – darker than Dark Grey – “is dark”.

Bam! We suddenly lost the ability to distinguish between the apple and the bookshelf, because they are both dark. Moreover, we just chose to pretend that the carpet is completely void of darkness (although it isn’t, just compare it to the white tablecloth). By accepting that we must choose between one or the other, we have willfully thrown out important information about each object.

Similarly, when we let people be classified into “creative” and “non creative” types, we automatically restrict our perception of the world. We end up dismissing instances of creativity in daily life, as well as in professions and activities that are typically viewed as more mechanical. By devaluing the practice of creativity by “non creatives”, we diminish the perceived worth of creativity overall. This in turn serves to marginalize those activities and professions that do have a heavy creative focus.

Furthermore, being divided into two groups based on “possessing creativity” vs “lacking creativity” has created unhealthy competition in our culture. No one wants to feel inherently less worthy than others. So the “non creatives” may defensively try to devalue creativity and call it useless, while the “creatives” may defensively revere creativity and look down on the “non creatives”. As a result, creativity becomes more stigmatized. And we all loose.

Instead, I would like to argue that creativity is a complex skill.

We all learn it, and we all use it to some extent on a daily basis. I bet it comes so naturally to you by now that you no longer notice it (unless you are trying to employ it consciously toward a sizable project). For example, I used it this morning when deciding what to pack for lunch. I used it yesterday when telling my friend about my week in a way she would find interesting. I’m using it now as I’m composing this essay.

Well, that’s nice, you may be thinking. So all of us exhibit creativity. Great. But how come we look at Person A, and everybody agrees that they’re creative, but we look at Person B, and everyone’s like – naaah, not really? Why are we able to do that?

In the example above, what we are actually evaluating is to what extent Person A and Person B use creative application in their lifestyle. What really makes us distinguish Person A from B is that Person A is prolific – producing quality creative output consistently. I think this type of judgement is useful to make – should be made, even, when trying to understand the causes of success in others. However, it is imperative to understand that that‘s what we’re evaluating, because then we are finally able to move away from the sentiment of  “Oh, my friend is SOO creative, I’ll never be this creative!” to “I want to be more creative; what does my friend DO to be creative so prolifically?”

Which brings me to the second issue I have with this quote – the statement that “creative” people tend to avoid habit or routine.

This assertion is incredibly counterproductive. If you’ve ever learned to do anything well, you know that improvement and success stem directly from practice, aka regular repetition. Any person I know that has achieved a successfully creative life style has worked their butt off to construct an environment that sustains their creativity. Often, this includes a routine that helps them to harness their creative energies and to consistently channel them into their endeavor of choice.

Perhaps the concept of needing a routine to create is counterintuitive, but upon observation, it makes sense. To create well, to produce quality work, you need to develop good ideas and then have the technical skill to execute them on par with your vision. A good method to train your mind to gather ideas is to brainstorm your goal often and extensively, sort of letting your vision ripen under the surface of consciousness. A good way to gain sufficient technical skill is to practice the execution of your craft, a lot. Therefore, you basically need to create regularly, regardless of your current mood or level of inspiration.

So in my experience, setting up my creative process as a habit helped me learn to become more creative. Let’s take my writing efforts as an example. I started writing daily about a month ago. During this time, I noticed that my creative process has improved in several ways:

  • I am able to trigger mindful concentration by sitting at a table, and opening the laptop to an empty file; I no longer am tempted to check social media websites for half an hour before starting to type;
  • My mind never fully switches away from my vision; when I come back to the draft, I have a clear memory of where I took the vision yesterday, and can see new directions in which I could take it today (options that were not apparent to me just a day ago);
  • On days when I feel too MEH to create anything worthwhile, I am still honing my technical skills; this helps me feel accomplished and maintain motivation, creating a self sustaining wave that I can ride towards my end goal.

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So. What do you guys think? Have you read that article? What did you think of it? How do you view creativity? Do you call bullshit on any of my interpretations? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Here are some flowers. Thanks for reading 🙂

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2 Responses to On Creativity: Response to a popular article, Part 1

  1. Anya says:

    Excellent entry. The Huff Post article makes me roll my eyes and feel frustrated at its ridiculousness. You have eloquently explained precisely why the article is so counterproductive and irritating. It makes “creative” people sound like some kind of über-race.

    Also, I’m super impressed by your writing and the routine you are developing! I wanna too!

    Like

  2. Sarah says:

    I enjoyed reading this. : ) I have always been a big proponent that “being smart” is only in small part related to intrinsic ability and is much more determined by working hard – i.e. that it is not a state of being/intrinsic personality trait but instead is a conscious action or skill. I never thought about creativity being the same way, but I think you are right! There is quite a bit of fetishization of artists as being these eccentric geniuses with inborn talent, but most successful artists hone their skills as you say through really hard and regular work. Thanks for the insight. : )

    Like

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