The creativity battle

As an academic creativity researcher, it is always interesting to see how people in various industries consider the concept of creativity.

While creativity seems to be gaining popularity in a variety of fields, it seems that representatives for the more traditional creative industries work very hard to maintain an understanding of ‘creativity’ as a vague concept that can only be accessed by a certain type of people through some mysterious process.

Creativity is the key to success in any field

This is a serious problem, as it degrades something as important as creativity into an 'arty' concept reserved for people with turtlenecks and colorful scarves, It should be seen as a basic human skill and a fundamental human need, the key to success in any field and domain.

As creativity scholars we have to engage in this 'creativity battle' on a daily basis – fighting for a scientific and nuanced view on creativity to be acknowledged in society. The danger in the arts camp winning the creativity battle is that it will degrade creativity to a secondary discipline in schools, in engineering education, in law schools, in hospitals, and everywhere else where it is so deeply needed.

Creativity, creative processes and creative problem solving is a necessity for human invention, evolution and happiness, so we have to reclaim the concept from the 'creatives' before it loses all credibility.

"Well, I'm not creative"

Presenting oneself as a creativity researcher often provokes questions regarding poetry and music – often followed by the statement “well, I’m not creative”. A friend of mine, who is educated as a nanoscientist, recently linked to a popular article mocking creativity on his Facebook wall, accompanied by the comment ‘Ha! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!’ and a picture from Mad Men.

I found this highly alarming, as my friend is currently a highly successful lobbyist, and started his career as a prosperous nanoscientist. If one of the most creative people I know looks down on creativity, what has become of the current state of create? This caused me concern because it indicated that the scientific camp might be losing the creativity battle. 

The two opposing perspectives of the creativity battle

The creativity battle? There are basically two ways of understanding creativity, either as a mystical skill that a selected few are blessed with – or as a fundamental human skill that we all possess from birth.

The creativity battle is between these two perspectives – and which of the two views on creativity is the leading perspective in society. It seems that the mystical, not the scientific, view is winning ground, and this can have serious societal consequences.

Using the same knowledge in new ways - is creative.

Most people will consider Picasso creative, but would you say the same for Thomas Edison? In the scientific perspective he most definitely is – not because he played the piano (although he also did) but because he repeatedly created new and useful inventions.

What distinguished Edison from his contemporaries, who had the same knowledge and same background, is creativity: he used the same knowledge in new and useful ways.

Edison is just an example, evolutionary creativity researchers studying the effect of creativity in human evolution consensually see creativity as the driving force in human evolution.

Without creativity there would be no fire, no wheel, no food storage, no technology – you name it. More importantly, all of this happened without post-it’s, creative breakdowns, smoking pot or wearing coloured hats.

However, in the 21st century, creativity is increasingly seen as something unscientific and superfluous, practiced by jugglers in the park and creativity consultants with a background as painters or dancers.

The danger with the mystical view of creativity

So why is this a problem? The danger with the mystical view on creativity is that it divides the waters; either you belong in 'the creative class', and have the license to be creative, or you have to be uncreative for the rest of your life.

This stands in strong opposition to the well-founded scientific view; creativity is a basic human need, and the key to success in any field – and everyone should appreciate and maintain their own creativity. If creativity is seen as ‘just for fun’, why should we focus on creativity in schools, universities and companies?

Are we unlearning creativity?

In modern educational systems we are to a large extent unlearning creativity, as famously described by Sir Ken Robinson in his two popular TED talks. In one popularly cited study of 1600 pupils, the number of ‘highly creative’ went from 98% at age five to 12% at age fifteen. So there should be no wonder that there is currently an explosion in the number of ‘creative’ university programs, attracting an increasing number of students seeking to reclaim their creativity.

One might wonder whether all these students should be musicians, painters or interior designers .Could it be that they just want to nurture their creativity, and believe that the only place they can do so is in the arts? Perhaps no one ever told them that creativity is as important in mathematics as it is in industrial design. 

Are we purposefully keeping creativity a mystery?

What could be the reason for the art camp seemingly winning ground in the creativity battle? Could it be that artists, expensive consultants or authors of 'find your inner creative’ self-help books have an interest in keeping creativity as something mystical?

That it is in their interest to mystify creativity as something that is ungraspable and reserved for the few. And if you first are 'creative', you can use this as an excuse for any type of Donald Draper behaviour. Alternatively, while creativity researchers are well aware of the importance of creativity, we might simply be preaching to the choir in only producing scientific articles for academic journals.

The scientific tradition for creativity research goes back to the 1950s, and many of the current creativity myths have been disproven. Most of the clichés about creativity repeated in popular texts about creativity have either very limited empirical backing or have been repeatedly disproven. Good examples of such creativity myths are e.g. left/right brain differences, influence of colours, unstructured processes, sole creative geniuses, and eureka moments.

How do we win the creativity battle?

Scholarly creativity researchers have to engage in the creativity battle, by more actively ensuring that our research findings get beyond the limitations of our academic journals. We have to regain respect for creativity as an absolute necessity in any domain: future experts in any domain have to be creative, if we are to move in any direction.

With all the enormous challenges we face in the future, real creativity is as important in the future as it has been for our survival in the past.