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Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD
James C. Kaufman, PhD : Defining Creativity

Defining Creativity

Excerpted from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD

A few years ago, I was being interviewed by a journalist who asked me, "Engineers give us better machines. Doctors find cures. What does studying creativity do? Does it make better art? Is the goal . . . to destroy the artist — and perhaps art itself — through a process of reductive demystification?" Aside from being an interesting break from the usual questions (such as, "Are all creative people crazy?"), this discussion made me think carefully about why studying creativity is important.

I think that the study of creativity does give us better art, and far from destroying the artist, I think it can improve an artist's life — or a scientist's life, or a businessperson's life. Creativity affects a lot of different people. Studying creativity and learning more about it also helps make the case that creativity is important. This statement — "creativity is important" — is not, however, a given assumption. On one hand, it is hard to imagine a teacher or a boss saying that they didn't want a creative student or employee. People who value creativity may point to its role in inventions, in culture, in progress — in short, to most things that define our civilization. Yet, if creativity is so essential, why is it so absent from most educational or business assessments? If we want our students to be creative, why is creativity nowhere to be found on the SATs or GREs? With a few notable exceptions that I will discuss later, why do so few college admissions committees consider applicant creativity? If we want our employees to be creative, then why not toss in a measure of creativity in the personnel screening process to go with the ability, personality, interest, and integrity measures?

The answers to these questions are complicated. Many people have a gut reaction about studying and measuring creativity; one of my favorites is from Sherry Lansing, a one-time CEO of Paramount Pictures and a University of California Regent. "You can evaluate grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but not creativity," she told the Chronicle of Higher Education (E. Hoover, 2002). "How would Ulysses be graded on the SAT? How would Faulkner have been graded?"

The thought of grading Faulkner (or Mozart or Picasso) sounds absurd. The idea of "grading" Einstein or Bill Gates is a little absurd, too, yet we still have an awful lot of science and math questions on the SATs, GREs, AP tests, and so on that could theoretically provide a reasonable grade for them. Indeed, most of the things that scientists try to measure don't merit this type of reaction. Why? Some of the reasons lie in the nature of creativity itself. Many of the most common discussions of creativity are spiritual, psychoanalytic, or business-oriented. These approaches may yield useful information, but they're not particularly science friendly.

Many of the earliest ideas about creativity were mystical and relied on divine inspiration (see a review of these ideas in Sternberg & Lubart, 1999). It's hard to claim that something is scientific or that it can be measured when the first people to talk about it were also talking about muses and demons. It's a little hard to take people's thoughts on the creative process seriously when they also may have believed that volcanic eruptions were caused by a trapped immortal sneezing fire (okay, I made that one up, but you get my gist).

Yet, creativity researchers often like using these mystical kinds of words in their article titles. I'm guilty of doing exactly this; I've used words such as genius, lunatics, and madness in my article titles, and I named one effect after Sylvia Plath (indeed, to the irate members of the Sylvia Plath Forum, I remain almost sorry). Why am I discussing my own use of these words, other than to illustrate my own hypocrisy? Because I know why I do it — it sounds cool. Creativity feels like a "grand" and "melodramatic" topic, and sometimes it's tempting to give in to the grandeur. But my guess is that agencies that fund grants are more impressed with titles such as, "Neural Interactions in Incremental and Episodic Memory" (a real NIMH grant title, in fact). And you know what? I would be, too. That grant sounds like the scientists know what they're doing.

However, the history of creativity research started with mysticism and continues on the mystical path to this day. A quick look on Amazon.com finds many bestsellers that focus on finding spiritual paths to creativity, gaining inspiration for discovering artistic confidence, reclaiming your creativity and dreams, unleashing creative forces within, and so on. These books may help some people, but they're not science by any stretch. There's nothing to back them up. Most fields within psychology don't have this problem; I don't see many books called Tapping Your Inner Measurement Expert or Finding Peace and Love with Your Hippocampus.

If you go beyond the creativity–mysticism work, what else is left? There's a lot on the role of creativity in Freudian theory and psychoanalysis. Again, there's nothing wrong with that — but we're not talking heavy-duty psychological science, either. I ended up studying more Freud in an undergraduate English class than I did in my entire graduate program in psychology. It's also a particularly negative way to look at creativity; much of the Freudian conceptions of creativity center around the idea that people are imaginative or create things as a way to sublimate their sexual desires. It's a little ironic that recent research indicates that creative people tend to have more sex than less creative people (Nettle & Clegg, 2006).

Another big area is creativity in the workplace. Much of the body of research and writing in this area is legitimate and insightful, and I will discuss it in detail. Some of the work in this area, however, is simply pop psychology. Being practical and applied is absolutely a good thing, but some of these approaches sacrifice any semblance of scientific validity and are light years away from empirical evidence. Most of the books on business creativity that you may find remaindered at Barnes & Noble or Borders are not necessarily foolproof. If learning to be a creative worker or leader was as easy as reading a book and realizing, "Hey, I just need to look at things differently sometimes," then everyone would be creative and live happily ever after — and every company would be an innovation engine.

Perhaps the biggest reason why creativity can feel like an unwanted Windows upgrade is that many people don't know exactly what creativity is. Ask a classroom full of students to tell you their definitions of creativity, and you'll get a lot of responses like "thinking outside the box." Yes, without question, but what, exactly, does that mean? One of the first goals of this book is to clarify the many different meanings of creativity.

It's not surprising that most people don't have a strong grasp of what it means to study creativity. If you look at the people who do study creativity, they are scattered across many different areas. Some are cognitive psychologists, others are in education. Some are in business; some are starting to pop up in neuroscience. It's hard to get a consistent agreement about a topic across psychology; it is even more difficult to get such a disparate group of thinkers to come together across fields.

Some people think of being creative the way they do about using public transportation — it's great that other people do it, but they don't want to do it themselves. Or others may think of it in the same way as being a vegetarian — a perfectly noble endeavor, but not something they could handle doing. Or, perhaps, it's simply something completely alien. "I'm not creative," they say. And these same people may then miraculously balance the family budget with innovative money management strategies, or keep a small child entertained for hours with made-up songs, or build a fence designed to keep a high-strung beagle in the yard.

Indeed, when you think of a creative person, who do you conjure up? Maybe you think of Van Gogh cutting off his ear and then painting a masterpiece. Or Alexander Fleming leaving a Petri dish out by mistake and discovering penicillin. More recently, you might think of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs revolutionizing the way people communicate, work, and think. But other images of creativity may come closer to home: your daughter building a structure with her Legos, or your uncle spontaneously making up a pun. Or maybe you on occasion may tinker with a new recipe, play guitar, create computer games, make funny faces, or tinker with new gadgets.

What do you think of when you think of a creative product or activity? Many people, for example, have received the spam e-mails from foreign countries in which someone writes of a "desire of going into a business relationship with you." His father died and left him a fortune, or she is the manager of a small bank trying to perform a large financial transaction. There are hundreds of millions of dollars up for grabs, and they need your help to provide an account for the money and put up a few thousand bucks in up-front costs. It's nothing, really, compared to the money you will be making. As you have (hopefully) guessed, it's a scam. The plans get postponed, more officials need to be bribed, and so on, until they have bled you dry. But here's the creative part: The other day I got an e-mail from the Antifraud Commission of Nigeria. They are busy prosecuting the nasty spammers and fraudsters and are suing them to compensate the victims. Indeed, I stand to gain nearly $500,000 as a witness and plaintiff, if I can just pass along the court expenses and initial legal fees. . . .

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