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Understanding Creativity

When we use the term creativity, different images come to our mind. There are bright persons who express unusual thoughts, who are interesting and stimulating. Unless they also contribute something of permanent significance, these people must be called brilliant rather than creative.


Then there are people who experience the world in novel and original ways. These are individuals whose perceptions are fresh, whose judgments are insightful, who may make important discoveries. The author calls such people personally creative.

Finally, there are individuals who, change our culture in some important respect. They are the creative ones without qualifications.


Creativity, as mentioned before, consists of three main parts. The first of these is the domain, which consists of a set of symbolic rules and procedures.


The second component of creativity is the field, which includes all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain. They decide whether a new idea or product can be accepted. For example, in the visual arts, the field consists of art teachers, curators of museums, collectors of art, critics, and administrators of foundations and government agencies that deal with culture. These people decide what new works of art must be recognised, preserved, and remembered.


The third component is the individual, who using symbols of a given domain, comes up with a new idea or sees a new pattern. His or her thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain.


The level of creativity in a given place at a given time does not depend only on the amount of individual creativity. It depends just as much on how well suited the respective domains and fields are to the recognition and diffusion of novel ideas.



Each domain is made up of its own symbolic elements, its own rules, and generally has its own system of notation. In many ways, each domain describes an isolated little world in which a person can think and act with clarity and concentration. The existence of a domain is perhaps the best evidence of human creativity. Domains create order that is not programmed into our genes by biological evolution.


There are several ways in which domains can help or hinder creativity. Three major dimensions are particularly relevant: the clarity of structure, the centrality within the culture, and accessibility.


Different domains are structured in different ways. The symbolic system of mathematics is organized relatively tightly; the internal logic is strict; there is a high degree of clarity and lack of redundancy. Therefore, it is easy for a young person to assimilate the rules quickly and jump to the cutting edge of the domain in a few years. For the same reasons, when a novelty is proposed, it is immediately recognized and, if viable, accepted. By contrast, it takes decades for social scientists or philosophers to master their domains, and if they produce a new idea, it takes the field many years to assess whether it is an idea worth adding to the knowledge base. No wonder, economists win the Nobel prize several years after they develop a new model or theory.



A field is necessary to determine the worth of a new idea. No culture can assimilate all the novelty people produce without dissolving into chaos.


Fields can affect the rate of creativity in three ways. The first way is by being either reactive or proactive. A reactive field does not solicit or stimulate novelty.


The second way is the approach to screening new ideas. Some fields are conservative and allow only a few new items to enter the domain at any new given time. They reject most novelty and select only what they consider best. Others are more liberal in allowing new ideas into their domains.


Finally, fields can encourage novelty if they are well connected to the rest of the social system and are able to channel support into their own domain.


Domains and fields affect each other in various ways. Sometimes domains determine to a large extent what the field can or cannot do. This is probably more usual in the sciences, where the knowledge has several restrictions on what is possible. In the arts, on the other hand, it is often the field that takes precedence. The artistic establishment, without firm guidelines anchored in the past, evaluates new works of art.


Being in the right place at the right time is an important part of creativity. But to know that one is indeed staring at an opportunity needs a prepared mind. Many people never realise that they are surrounded by favourable circumstances and even fewer know what to do when the realization hits them.


The creative person

Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to different situations and to manage with whatever is needed to reach their goals. If nothing else, this distinguishes them from the rest of us. But there does not seem to be a particular set of traits that a person must have in order to be creative.


Creativity is facilitated by a genetic predisposition for a given domain.  A person whose nervous system is more sensitive to color and light will have an advantage in painting, while someone born with a perfect pitch will do well in music. And being better at their respective domains, they will become more deeply interested in sounds and colors, will learn more about them, and thus are in a position to innovate in music or art with greater ease.


Although most great scientists seem to have been attracted to numbers and experimentation early in life, how creative they eventually became, bears little relationship to how talented they were as children. However, a special sensory advantage may be responsible for developing an early interest in the domain, which is certainly an important ingredient of creativity.


A person also needs access to a domain. Luck does play a big role. Being born in an affluent family or being close to good schools, mentors, and coaches obviously is a great advantage. But, luck is not everything.  Many creative people have shown extraordinary pluck and determination to get access to a domain.


Access to a field is equally important. Some people are terribly knowledgeable but they find it so difficult to communicate with those who matter among their peers that they are ignored or shunned in the formative years of their careers.


Someone who is not known or appreciated by the relevant people has a very difficult time accomplishing something that will be seen as creative. Such a person may not have a chance to access the latest information, may not be given the opportunity to work, and if he or she does manage to accomplish something novel, that novelty is likely to be ignored or ridiculed. In the sciences, being at the right university is extremely important.


What makes creative people different from others is complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire but usually atrophy because we think that one extreme is “good,” whereas the other extreme is “bad.”


Most of us have a repressed shadow side that we refuse to acknowledge.  The very orderly person may long to be spontaneous, the submissive person wishes to be dominant. As long as we disown these shadows, we can never be satisfied. But we usually do this and keep on struggling against ourselves, trying to live up to an image that distorts our true being. A complex personality involves the ability to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires.


Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm.  But the energy of these people is internally generated and is due more to their focused minds than to the superiority of their genes.


Creative persons are not necessarily hyperactive. In fact, they often take rests and sleep a lot. But when they are working, their energy is under their own control. When necessary they can focus it like a laser beam. When it is not, they immediately start recharging their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work.


Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naïve at the same time. Low intelligence can undermine creativity. But being intellectually brilliant can also be detrimental to creativity. People with high IQs may get complacent. Secure in their mental superiority, they lose the curiosity essential to achieving anything new. If learning facts and understanding the existing rules of domains, comes too easily to a high-IQ person, there may be no incentive to question, doubt, and improve on existing knowledge.


Furthermore, people who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed upon solution. It involves the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; to switch from one perspective to another; and to pack unusual associations of ideas. Divergent thinking is not much use without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one – and the selectivity involves convergent thinking. Many creative individuals have only two or three good ideas in their entire career, but they are so good that they keep these people busy for a lifetime.


A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline. A playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals but they are also  dogged and perseverant as much hard work is necessary to bring a novel idea to completion and to surmount the obstacles a creative person inevitably encounters.


Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other. They break away from the present without losing touch with the past.


Such people also show shades of both extroversion and introversion. Usually each of us tends to be one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to express opposing traits at the same time.


These individuals are well aware of the scholars who have preceded them and their contributions. They also are aware of the role that luck has played in their own achievements. And they are usually so focused on future projects and current challenges that their past accomplishments, no matter how outstanding, are no longer very interesting to them. At the same time, creative individuals know that in comparison with others they have accomplished a great deal. So they display a sense of security and self-assurance.


Creative individuals are also able to manage the paradox between ambition and selflessness. They can be simultaneously ambitious and aggressive and willing to subordinate their own personal comfort and advancement to the success of the projects they are working on.


These are psychologically androgynous people who can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. Creative individuals often have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too. For example, creative girls often tend to be more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers. Similarly, women artists and scientists tend to be much more assertive, self-confident, and openly aggressive than typical women. At the same time, creative men display feminity through their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment.


It is impossible to be creative without having first internalized a domain or culture. And a person must believe in the importance of such a domain in order to learn its rules; hence he or she must be to a certain extent a traditionalist. So a person cannot be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic. Being only traditional leaves the domain unchanged. At the same time, recklessness and taking too many chances, may not really pay off.


Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it is well. Passion is needed to sustain interest in a difficult task. But without objectivity, the work may lack credibility and not find enough takers.


The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also a great deal of enjoyment. The suffering is easy to understand. Their greater sensitivity can cause slights and anxieties that are not usually felt by the rest of us. Perhaps the most important quality of creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. That is why these people forgo more lucrative career opportunities to remain focused on what they like to do.



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