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A brief history of creativity

· Creativity,creative thinking,history creativity,creative
Do you wish you had some more creativity and innovation in your life or business?

I did, so enrolled on the Coursera course Managing Innovation and Design Thinking Specialisation, the first module of which was ‘Boosting Creativity for Innovation’, to find out more about it.

So, what is creativity?

Something that is creative is original, but also useful. Useful can be defined as being recognised as practical by a sizeable group.

Why is creativity important?

Before we begin, a quick point on this.

IBM recently did a study amongst 1,500 CEOs, which determined that creativity is the top quality required in a leader in today’s environment, Boston Consulting Group have come to similar conclusions. This is an interesting read called Is Creativity the Number One Skill For The 21st Century? I argue it is, particularly given how quickly the world is evolving, everyone needs to be able to better harness their inate creativity to navigate through their life and business. It is a human’s highest cognitive function after all, it's everyone's superpower.

In short…

everyone is creative, you can become more creative and it’s an incedibly useful tool you and I have, which can help you navigate through challenges more effectively and increase the chances of doing more of the things you enjoy.

That’s pretty magical to know right? The research is still very fresh on all this, courses in creativity have only really started, so it will be interesting to see what more is learned in the years to come about how creativity works and how to harness it even better.

Current research on creativity...

...suggests that creativity can be developed and refined, albeit with effort and practice. This contrasts to the general thinking in the scientific world pre-1994 (1994 only!) that you were basically born creative or not, which seems a little crazy now, doesn’t it?

I am certain everyone is creative in their own way. As it is a human’s highest cognitive function, it has allowed us to evolve as a species. If you doubt your own creativity, fear not, you just haven’t quite figured out how to harness it — yet. When you do, it will be magical, just you see.

Creativity remains one of the least understood topics in social sciences today and something so many people still don’t associate with themselves. Do you consider yourself creative?

On pop quizzes during the course, 23% of people said they weren’t creative, with 14% thinking creativity could not be taught. Given it’s a course on creativity and innovation, I would say those figures are even higher in the general population, so some more must be done to change that.

Now, let's quickly run through some of the history of creativity to see how thinking on it has evolved of the last few hundred years, you'll find it surprising I'm sure.

Pre-14th Century thinking on creativity

Until the Renaissance in the 1,300s, human expression (creativity in a sense) was thought to be ‘divine’ — so attributable to God, rather than the person performing it. The Greek philosopher Plato coined the term ‘divine madness’, as he was of the view that we were not responsible for our creations, the human body was basically used as a vessel for Gods and muses to express themselves. Most pre-rennaisance works of art were not signed, as the creators felt it wasn’t really theirs, they just channeled something from a higher power.

Even famous creatives like Van Gogh and Rudyard Kipling often felt an external presence helped them with their work. Kipling felt the presence of ‘a beast’ that helped him write the Jungle Book. He even became scared of the beast leaving him so didn’t move around too much, for fear of losing the inspiration. Van Gogh felt something took control of his hand when he was painting.

14th Century

It wasn’t until the 14th Century that the first reference to ‘create’ was made in a book called ‘The Parson’s Table’, even then it was still considered somewhat divine and not fully attached to a person. Around this time Michaelangelo and Da Vinci started crediting themselves on their work too by signing it, like a stake in the ground saying “this is an expression of my creativity! Signed!”.

17th Century

Swiftly moving along to the late 17th Century, the opinion was that creativity wasn’t as much a divine thing as thought before, but that someone could be creative, but not everyone. Creatives were extraordinary or genius. The view was that just some people were creative, but most were not.

Early 20th Century

Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian neurologist, delved into this again in the 1920s. He felt creativity resulted from the tension between the ego and the super ego. Which was good, as made it more obvious that everyone was creative as everyone had an ego and a super ego, right? However, in illustrating the point, he made examples of people like Da Vinci and Einstein, who were considered geniuses, so many couldn’t relate to it and still deemed being creativity not possible for them.

According to Freud’s model of the psyche, the id is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories, the super-ego operates as a moral conscience, and the ego is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.

1950s thinking on creativity

We’re getting there now!

This all helped to evolve the conversation to figuring out the following questions…

If creativity is born from the ordinary, how do we get to produce extraordinary output?


What do differences between that which is more creative and that which is less creative signify, and how do we judge them?

It was only as of the 1950s, just 70 years ago, that scientists started to take a systematic approach to trying to actually understand creativity and proper efforts to come up with tests to measure creativity started to happen, to tease out these questions.

More recent thinking on creativity

Until 1994, out of all psychology research from 1975–1994, only 0.4% of it focused on creativity — despite it being a human’s highest cognitive function, as mentioned before. But, it was a start and at least some motivation was there to understand it.

Measuring creativity is very difficult. It’s hard for anyone to understand what is going on in your brain while you are being creative and the consensus is still that we are only touching the surface on our understanding of it. As a result, multiple measures are used, to try and see a convergence on the results. To try and get some sort of handle on it.

Referring to the below image, as an example. Picture the below scene in the context of the room being dark and scientists stating what they think they are touching on the object (elephant) in the room. Noone is quite sure of the whole picture, which is the same with creativity, so that is why convergence across different measures is sought. Some think it's a fan, some think it's body is a wall, some think it's tusk is a spear etc.

Image courtesy of Coursera course Boosting Creativity for Innovation

Some current measures that are used to try and get a handle on your level of creativity are below. These are a couple of the little ways of extracting a sense of how creative you may be. And remember, creativity is something that can be improved, you aren’t just born with a certain level and that is it.

Like a muscle, the more you exercise those creative muscles of yours, the better they get.

Insightful creativity

See the image below. Using the various objects provided on the table, can you affix the candle to the wall to ensure no wax drips on the floor or table from the candle? Test yourself to see can you come up with a solution. This is a good test to see what your out of the box thinking (hint hint) is like, can you come up with a creative solution to a problem. Answer at the end of the blog, read on...

Image courtesy of Coursera course Boosting Creativity for Innovation

Convergent / divergent creativity

Convergent thinking generally means the ability to give the “correct” answer to standard questions that do not require significant creativity. For instance in most tasks in school and on standardized multiple-choice tests for intelligence, there is a clear right or wrong answer. It’s the opposite of divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. I prefer divergent thinking.

Let's do a little test on this.

Pause. List out uses for a single brick. Go on, try get 5 in 60 seconds. There is no wrong answer.

Hard isn’t it? Anything other than door stopper, something to smash a window with or paper weight come to mind?
Try for a further 5 minutes, I bet you come up with some more, you can do it.

Maybe things like as a weapon, to pencil holder, bird feeder popped to mind now.

For me, this just goes to show, that if you think a little harder on things, you may come up with more creative and better solutions for things that happen in your life and business, the impact of which could be very profound. It may be worth thinking a little deeper about problems you are experiencing and write down all possible solutions, rather than just thinking the first couple that come into your head are all you can come up with.

Creative productivity

On the brick question. Some may struggle to go beyond the thought of it being used in a wall or to smash a window, but more divergent thinking (explained below) may lead to suggestions for it to be used to hold up some furniture, prop a car, as a paper holder, a pot for growing seeds, a book stopper etc. The more ideas you can come up with, the more creatively productive you are deemed, in that example.

Breakthrough creativity

This is being able to come up with truly transformative ideas, like Elon Musk’s Boring Company or Apple’s iPhone, things that change an industry. This can take some really deep thinking.

Running through various tests and scenarios with someone on these things (insightful creativity, convergent / divergent creativity, creative productivity and breakthrough creativity), can help get a sense of someone’s current level of creativity by converging the results.

Keep in mind that these tests were developed c50 years ago, so much about it remains to be discovered! They are also only capturing someone's creativity at a point in time, it can get better.

Functional Fixedness...

Was also discussed a lot on the course. This is a cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used - it is almost like the opposite of creativity. It occurs when a person is not able to see innovative / new ways of using an item or concept. In short, it’s making something a tiny bit better or not in a unique way, like a washing powder company making the powder clean 10% better or using a brick in a wall — it’s not exactly ground breaking. Functional Fixedness effects everyone in different ways and there are exercises that can be done to break out of it, it is the enemy of breakthrough creativity.

Another little creative test for you

Straight from the Coursera course. Try thinking of new uses for a newspaper, a used plastic bag, or a mug, for instance, and play around with your ideas. The more time you spend on this type of exercise, the more aware you will become of instances where you fall victim to functional fixedness, and the more you will notice changes in the way you view objects, from coming up with uses that involve the whole object, to uses involving only parts of it, or even completely modified versions of it, as we saw with the brick example.

I know from setting up a business, that over time, I think about things and objects differently, in a good way, as often you need to come up with creative solutions to problems. It’s almost like a mindset shift, where you see things and resources around you have multiple useful purposes.

Another thought I found interesting was that the same creative output can be regarded as more or less creative over time, which suggests no one idea is deemed as ‘creative’ forever. It is most creative at the time of its appearance, which leads to more creativity happening over time. Almost like the waning of the feeling of something being considered truly innovative or creative, leads to bursts of new energy towards making it even better or innovative, think how computers and phones have evolved in this light. People get used to it, then want to change or improve it.

So that’s some of the tests and ways to measure creativity.

Coming back to current thinking on creativity. Some thoughts.

As discussed, the cognitive approach (study of the mind) to creativity emerged in the 1990s, where researchers are trying to understand the processes and mental representations underlying creative thought. I already mentioned 'something that is creative is original, but also useful. Useful can be defined as being recognised as practical by a sizeable group'. Consider this is light of the following...

creative thinking is a combination of ordinary thought processes that produces the creative output

Hurrah, everyone has ordinary thoughts! You are creative. Yes you!

The course also touches on things like..

    Your environment and social system can impact your level of creativity

    e.g. feeling tired, being in a job you dislike, being in a noisy room, not being surrounded by positive / energetic people, feeling sad are just some things that may stifle your creativity. Your social environment can enhance or stifle your creativity. e.g. moving abroad and being more exposed to a new culture will increase your creativity, which make it clear it is not all about you and your mind, you are influenced by things around you too. It’s very important to create an environment around you that helps you better harness your creativity, it is generally unique to you and I’ll discuss this more in future blogs.

    Some people are more predisposed to being creative and some common traits among more creative people have been found.

    • having some more self-confidence
    • a higher level of energy than normal and risk taking
    • a higher level of intrinsic motivation — due to the level of enjoyment they attach to being creative. They do it for fun, rather than money
    However, doing creative things also makes you more creative. Very useful to know!
    So, if you’re not naturally predisposed to it, getting into a routine of doing it will help you be more creative. I’d put myself in this category, being from an accounting background I wouldn’t have said I was particularly creative, however in setting up creative businesses like M.Y.O and learning lots of arts & crafts, I can defintely say I feel a lot more creative from making through crafts like lino printing and pottery, but also in creatively navigating the challenges any start up business or new product / service launch brings. I also see it in the M.Y.O studio every day, half the class would say they are not creative, then 1 hour later they are making something totally unique and fantastic!
    The finale

    Aha, you made it to the end. What do you think about creativity now?


    Want the answer on the question about the candle posed above? See below. Use the thumb tacks to stick the box into the wall, then put the candle in it. Voila. Did you think of that? Don’t worry if you didn’t, those creative muscles just need a bit more of a work out, typically 2 out of 3 people don’t get it.

    Image courtesy of Coursera course Boosting Creativity for Innovation

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, any questions at all, just let me know, happy to help as I navigate this journey through creativity and creative thinking myself.



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