A Living Definition of Creativity

Defining creativity

We define creativity, often, as as particular type of self-expressive work, a unique output.

Creativity, noun:
The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.¹

A phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.²

The ability to produce original and unusual ideas, or to make something new or imaginative.³

To be creative, then, is to have or use the quality of creativity: to come up with ideas, to be inventive, to form things new and valuable, to produce ideas.

These definitions can cause some trouble. We turn them into labels, and labels are powerful. We go around attaching those labels to certain interests, outputs, and people. We withhold the creative label from some interests and outputs, and from some people, too. Perhaps even from ourselves.

The labeling bias occurs when we are labeled, and others’ views and expectations of us are affected by that labeling (Fox & Stinnett, 1996). …those expectations start to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and our self-concept and even our behavior start to align with them.

How to define creative work

The “creative” types of work usually fall under a big Arts umbrella: music, drama, design, painting, sculpting, dancing, writing, etc. And in these categories, we differentiate between what we think of as truly creative, self-expressive work and what we dismiss as just… well… regular old, boring, not-very-special work.

For example, we generally see fictional writing as more creative than nonfiction.

If you take a “creative writing” class, you’ll be studying poetry, short stories, fiction, and—perhaps—a little bit of creative nonfiction. We invented a special label to distinguish special, “creative” nonfiction from the rest of that regular old, boring, not-very-special nonfiction.

Pay a little attention and you’ll see this differentiation in other areas.

We apply the creativity label quickly to some things, and very reluctantly—if at all—to others.

For example, portrait or nature photography gets a higher “creativity” rating that commercial photography. Painting is seen as more creative than designing a website.

How do you classify your work, your interests, your hobbies?
Do you think of some as creative and some as less creative, or not creative at all?
Does that effect how you value them?
Do you feel that more creative things are also more important?

Problems with defining creativity

Creativity is much more and much less than we think it is.

Creativity is not a particular type of work, or a distinct, special form of expression, or any specific output. Creativity is a process, a method of work, a way of seeing and doing.

The creative process can apply equally to things that fit into our “creative arts” categorization, and things that land far away from it.

When we limit our definition of creativity to a particular type of output, we devalue all other types of output.

Okay, why does that matter?

It matters because you—like all humans—are a creative being. If your understanding of creativity devalues some work, including perhaps the work that you do, you will feel dissatisfied.

You may follow half-baked urges to be more creative in an effort to get some satisfaction and feel valuable.

You may not realize that more creativity is not somewhere out there, in some other type of work or mode of expression.

Creativity is in you, always; if you have trouble connecting with it, that’s a problem that deserves attention.
You don’t solve the problem by going elsewhere.
You don’t become more creative by focusing on situations or outputs or external circumstances or labels.
The shift that needs to happen is internal.

Rethinking the definition of creativity

Some definitions of creativity to reject:

  • “Creativity is a special gift that only some people receive.”
  • “Creativity is mysterious, elusive, unpredictable.”
  • “Creativity requires intense pain and artistic suffering.”
  • “Real creativity is entirely original.”
  • “Creativity is making something brand new and special.”
  • “Creativity requires a specific kind of talent. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”

What creativity is not:

  • Creativity is not a trait that some people have and some other people do not have.
  • Creativity is not difficult or hard to understand.
  • Creativity is not the fruit of suffering.
    • Suffering may break you open, so you connect with your creative ability. But suffering is not the cause of it, and you can be creative without any sort of great personal sacrifice or suffering.
  • Creativity is not an expression of perfect originality.
  • Creativity has nothing to do with perfection at all.
  • Creativity is not special. Creativity is not a divine gift to a few carefully selected, worthy individuals.
  • Creativity is not output.

What creativity is

Creativity is an inherent human trait. It belongs to everyone. It is neither precious nor rare.

It is, in fact, universally common. It crosses every barrier of age, race, culture, ability, class, identity, etc.

Creativity is anyone making anything

It is the assembly-line worker putting the piece on the widget. It is the artist in the sunny loft studio putting the final brush of paint on the canvas. It is the lonely girl huddled on her bed, closing her eyes to see a new vision of herself. It is the sad boy walking alone in the rain, listening to the snatches of lyric and melody that fill his head.

It is the joyful exuberant awkward dance of your favorite toddler.

It is the dream-story-monologue my 7-year-old tells me in the morning. It is the illustrations of Riverdale characters that my 12-year-old makes. It is the Minecraft building, it is the water pump repair on the car, it is sautéed vegetables, it is your Instagram feed, it is drawing lines in the dirt.

Creativity is making something, tangible or intangible. Conscious or unconscious. Original or imitative. For real or only practicing. (All of it is for real, all of it is the real thing.)

Creativity is our collective work

Creativity is all of us creating the experiences we’re having right now, by directing our energy (attention) to a focal point (these words) and letting our senses filter the information available into a condensed package our brains can handle, in order to produce a particular set of sensations, emotions, and awareness that we call this moment.

You have done this millions of times before.

You will do it millions of times again.

Creativity is choosing what to see and not see, what to welcome and what to reject, what to release and what to hold close. Your choices create the experience that you have from moment to moment.

That’s how you create your own reality.

We all do.

(And if you can create your own entire reality, what can you not create?)

Creativity is connection and transformation

A line from a book merges with a melody from a song and morphs into a feeling, an image, a memory, a mood.

I can take that image in my head, and transform it into a character in book. Now more transformations, more connections: my character will do things, speak words, take action, make choices, have experiences.

Where do they all come from?

All the inputs of my life live in my brain; all of it merges and melts and becomes a new kind of raw material. I choose from this pool, this wealth: sometimes consciously, but more often it’s unconscious, a kind of receiving and filtering and noticing that I don’t quite understand.

Creativity is intuition over instinct

Intuition tells us to take a closer look, to explore, to discover. Instinct tells us to protect ourselves, to survive, to hide or run or fight.

Intuition tells us to be curious. Instinct tells us to be safe.

Intuition is rowing the canoe to the edge of the known world. Instinct is circling the island of the familiar, endlessly.

The power of defining creativity

Creativity is more important than we think it is.

Creativity is how we move forward, in a straight line, to what we envision. Lack of creativity keeps us circling, stagnating, digging deeper ruts. Think about the potential effect of creativity on your world and our wider shared reality.

Do you want the same experiences you’ve already have? Then cut yourself off from your own creativity, and doom yourself to a life on repeat.

Do you want the same reality you already know? Then limit your definition of creativity to a few special, artistic outputs, and raise your standards for creativity so high that you’ll never, ever get close.

Being creative is not special but it is powerful. It is not limited to a select few; you do not have to do anything to become creative.

Creativity is not rare but it is valuable. It’s built in. It’s a default feature. You do not have to qualify to be something that you already are. You do not have to get a degree or be a rebel. You can be exactly who you are right now and live a creative life.

We all can. We already have the capacity. We only need to quit being so scared of it.

Your life is a choose-your-own-adventure story. You get to write it as you live it.
The more comfortable you are with your own creativity, the more options you give yourself.
The more disconnected you are from your creative power, the fewer options you can see. To expand your life, to have adventures you choose and enjoy, embrace your creative power.

How to become more creative

You don’t need to be more creative (you are a creative being). You may need to define creativity for yourself. You may need to throw out your old definition of creative and come up with a new one.

You can start now.

You can make choices, build habits, and reduce distractions so that creativity gets more room in your life.

1. Contradict yourself

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Consistency is helpful when it comes to actions: be consistent at doing something—taking action in some particular area—and you’ll see results.

Consistency is how you write a book or train for a marathon or do pretty much anything worth doing.

You figure out the action needed, the smallest active component required to build the mammoth thing you want to achieve, and then you execute that action, over and over, as many times as it takes until the thing is built.

(At that point, people will gather around you in awe, whispering about Creative Magic and Overnight Success. Ignore them.)

Consistency is, however, often an unhelpful characteristic when it comes to mindsets, beliefs, perspectives.

These things establish our traditions, direct our routine behaviors, and mandate our behavior.

As we grow and learn, we need to let them evolve with us.

Consistency is virtuous when it helps you stick to a carefully chosen action that is valuable to you and relevant to your desires and goals.

Consistency is debilitating when it keeps you stuck in a predetermined rut that arbitrarily limits your options.

Sometimes the most courageous thing you can do is change.

Change is courageous because people, as a rule, don’t enjoy change. Particularly, they don’t enjoy unexpected change. Even more particularly, they don’t enjoy unexpected change initiated by someone else.

So, when you change—when you release consistency’s hold on your mind—you unleash an unholy triad of discomfort and people get cantankerous.

They’re uncomfortable, so they want to make you uncomfortable in the hope that you’ll stop doing the thing that’s making them uncomfortable.

It’s ridiculous, but it doesn’t have to control you.

To escape this cantankerous loop, use consistency to establish a new norm of inconsistency: contradict yourself regularly, change frequently, grow and evolve, explore and wonder, examine and question, say what you mean today and then, tomorrow, say the different thing you mean tomorrow. Be consistent in your self-contradiction and break open all those confining loops and misplaced loyalties.

Those others, the ones who want you to stay the same? They won’t like this, really, but they’ll accept it. They’ll label you with terms like unpredictable and flighty, as if those were negative qualities. Seriously, what’s so great about being predictable and sedate?

2. Practice foolish generosity

“Transforming into a being of sharing does not mean performing an occasional act of generosity. It mandates continual movement toward the Light and a change of form: to become a being in which every thought, every action, and every utterance comes from the Desire to Share.”

Michael Berg

Back in the baby years (our first decade of marriage, in which I had 4 babies in a five-year span and we subsequently found ourselves caring for a small herd of infant/toddler humans), we were living on what you might call a tight budget.

Super tight.

One hot summer day after church, we splurged on Taco Bell. We weren’t even out of the parking lot when Joe saw a homeless man. And just like that, Joe’s burrito was gone. Given away. We didn’t have money left to buy more.

I was mad.

I was mad that Joe would give at his own expense. I was mad that he would give away his own food for some person who “wasn’t even trying” (let’s leave aside my own terrible assumptions about homeless people for the moment).

I was angry, so angry, that he would thoughtlessly, foolishly share something he needed. It was just a burrito, right? We weren’t going to suffer, or even be inconvenienced, by missing a single meal. But when you feel like you never have enough, giving anything at all is scary.

Over the years, I have watched Joe give away so much: his stuff, his time, his resources, his tools, his time, his space, his money, his skills, his help, his time… And for many of those years, I have been angry about it. Wanting to defend and protect him. Wanting to stop him from giving when it’s inconvenient. Wanting to slow down his foolish generosity.

I have watched people take advantage of him. I have watched him get hurt. I have watched him choose to keep giving.

And here’s what happens:

I have seen people break down at his unassuming kindness. I have been witness to deep conversations, tears, camaraderie, crazy connections, openness, and heart-deep gratitude. I have seen people change the very course of their lives because of his foolish generosity. I have seen everything given come back to us in unexpected, delightful ways.

It took me a while, but slowly, I started joining in. When I let go of my desire to control the outcome, giving became fun.

Foolish generosity is an adventure.

It is a practice of ongoing faith: you give what you can, and maybe a little more, when you see a need that you want to fill. You let go of the results. Instead of evaluating who’s worthy and who isn’t, you trust that everyone deserves to be taken care of.

You trust the universe to do something with what you give.

You trust in a return.

You trust that you’ll receive foolish generosity when you need it. And you do.

It’s no coincidence that these instructions about not judging come right before the instructions about giving:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”

Luke 6:37-38

When we are hesitant to give, isn’t it because we are judging, condemning, and refusing to forgive?

Sometimes we are judging others (they aren’t worthy of my generosity) and sometimes we are judging ourselves (I don’t have a gift worth giving).
Sometimes we are condemning others (they won’t do anything good with this gift) and sometimes we are condemning ourselves (I’ll be rejected. My gift isn’t good enough. I can’t make a difference).
Sometimes we aren’t forgiving others (I won’t help her, she’s a jerk; I won’t help him, because he never helped me) and sometimes we aren’t forgiving ourselves (I deserve to feel guilty; I deserve to be isolated; I’ll just mess it up like last time…).

Foolish generosity is a gift to ourselves.

Foolish generosity opens up a flow of giving and receiving, creates soul-deep connections, breaks down barriers, and makes our lives bigger than they are.

It also releases the hold that material things have on us.

It helps us face our own fears about provision and safety, and learn that we have power, that we are capable, and that we will be okay. That knowledge helps us break thru obstacles and limits and start trusting that we can do, and be, what we want.

Learning to be foolishly generous to others helps us to be foolishly generous with ourselves, to be kind and accepting of our own faults, and to take action on our own behalf rather than passively hoping for things to work out. It’s an expanding virtuous cycle, one that we have the power to initiate at any time.

3. Reject specialization

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert A. Heinlein

Specialization, in one sense, is excellent and useful. Focus your attention on a single area, and build your skills to mastery. Specialization is necessary for expertise, deep work, and true craftsmanship.

However, confining yourself to a single silo (of information, or interest, or type of interaction, or group, or ability, or mode) is detrimental to your own growth and creative ability.

Creativity comes from connection.

If you specialize so deeply in one area that you reduce your thoughts to that single area, you are reducing your ability to be creative. If you limit yourself to a silo of some particular belief, to a social silo, to a silo of predetermined behavior, you limit your ability to grow and expand.

You limit your personal development (which is just to say, you limit the effect your own creative powers can have on you, on your Self).

Perhaps the better way advice is not to reject specialization, but to limit the specialization you allow.

Specialize practically, not philosophically.

Dive deep and develop practical expertise: that kind of specialization is invaluable. Get good at specific skills. Then branch out and develop related skills. Master a niche of your craft, then another. Go deep, then go wide.

Philosophically, though, go wide before you go deep. Don’t dive into a tribal understanding of one area, and allow the tribe-think to define your entire world.

Be wary of the “right path” guarantee.

There is no right path; there is only the path you choose (and all the other paths you don’t choose). Be wary of secrets, keys, and doctrines. It’s a quick step from belief to control. Reject labels.

Reject the ease of being a pre-filled form. Make waves. Ask questions.
Pick and choose from the wide world of perspectives and philosophies.
Look for connections. Look for the threads that wind through the partitions.
Track patterns, not personalities.

Notice conflicts: they show where shared passion exists. We have more in common than we realize.

4. Embrace a short-and-messy work cycle

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Anne Lamott

A work cycle is idea to completion.

Completion means you close out the project: quit working on it, or on this version of it. And you release it, either by shipping it or trashing it. (Trashing is a kind of shipping, if you think about it.)

Completion does not mean finished or perfect; it means closed and released.

You don’t reach completion; you decide on it.

You set a marker, a standard of some sort. The standard itself is arbitrary. The key is that it’s reachable and clearly defined.

Define a point of completion by some standard: hours put in, word count, deadline reached, features finished.

Honor the point of completion: once you reach it, you stop. You close it out. You release, whether or not you think it’s ready. (We hardly ever feel like our work is ready.)

Decide the project is complete. You decide the product is done enough to be released. You don’t wait until you feel it. You don’t wait until it is fully finished. It will never be fully finished.

When working on a larger project, set smaller internal endpoints so you can reach completion. Internal endpoints show you where to focus your energy from day to day.

Completion releases you to turn your energy to other things.

A short work cycle with a defined endpoint frees you from those endless perfectionistic loops. You get to know that you’re on track. Internal endpoints give you the the high of finishing something even when the work is ongoing.

And the messy part?

Well, creativity is always messy in one way or another.

Maybe it’s paint splatters on the floor. Maybe it’s a story so personal and vulnerable you feel exposed when you share it. Maybe it’s an idea that’s still rough around the edges. Maybe it’s the shift you feel in your own understanding as you work on something: Ah, I thought this was it… but this is not quite it.

Maybe it’s the disconnect between the plan you trusted and the reality you encountered.

Instead of trying to clean up all those rough edges, polish all those surfaces, finish, perfect, smooth, hide, clean and organize and categorize and cover, how about this: release it.

Embrace the inherent messiness of creativity.

It’s supposed to rip you open a little bit. It’s scary because it’s risky. It’s risky because it’s real.

I’m not saying you should skip editing or throw any piece of crap into the world. I’m saying don’t force your work to fit in a safe little box. Don’t waste your time on that.

Let it be a little weird and a little raw. Ship it out there. Give it to us, as is. We want it.
Trust me: we want the real, raw, vulnerable, messy, edgy, boring, weird, detailed, ripped-open oddity that you want to give us. We really do.
So, you release it; and now you go forth to the next thing. The next idea. And you keep doing this. You feel a little terrified every time. But it’s okay.

You lessen the fear of failing, the fear of releasing, the fear of judgment, the fear of imperfection. You embrace all of these fears: you release things that are flops, that are undone, that are rough around the edges, that are weird, that don’t fit, that are obviously imperfect.

You keep the ideas fresh.

You keep an open flow of energy and learning, an open conduit for creativity. Each cycle teaches you how to be a better creator. Each cycle teaches you that you are a creator. Each cycle is rough and messy and short and energizing and you create a momentum that feeds your creativity. Keep it going. We need your work.

5. Make more mistakes

There is no logical, rational, pre-structured criterion “out there” with a divine plan. There is no truth “out there” which our weak minds or souls eventually run across. There is this casual, haphazard, amoral process that leaps the logical gaps and brings about newness. And the procedure’s only demand is that given talents be invested, risked, doubled, the possibilities explored.

To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong.

Joseph Chilton Pierce

To create means to make something new. Kind of.

You don’t create out of thin air.

You start with raw material, which exists along some spectrum of “rawness.” Maybe it’s a lump of clay, a bunch of words in your head, a few notes of music, or a pile of lumber. Maybe it’s a photo, a folk song, a quote, an antique chair, a pile of flour and butter, or somebody’s voice that you overhear.

You do something with it.

You make something out of it. That’s it. That’s creating.

To create can be to create something new or it can be to create a copy.

The most interesting bit, I think, is that the volume and type of work doesn’t differ much whether you’re creating something new or creating a copy.

You’re writing a book or baking some bread or making a chair or composing a song: it’s the same bit of work, technically, whether you are following someone else’s design, mark for mark, or whether you are following your own design, speaking with your own voice.

The only thing that’s different is where the design comes from (you or someone else). And whether you have the courage to use your own design.

To copy great work is helpful for learning. It’s a good way to learn technique. It’s a great way to practice the skills of your craft. It’s an essential part of any apprenticeship. It’s a good ongoing exercise for anyone who wants to keep getting better at some particular thing.

But it’s not the same as being creative.

Of course, every thing you create has elements, bits, pieces, giant portions that come from somewhere else.

But stealing something to use it as part of something new that you’re making is different than making copy after copy of something that’s already been created.

If you create a copy, and it’s bad, you can always blame the original. If you create something new, and it’s bad, you can only blame the creator.

If you are the creator, you have to take the risk and assume the responsibility:This novel is terrible. This painting is awful. This song sounds like monkeys screeching. This idea is stupid. This product is lame. And it’s my fault, because I made it.

We identify the self – who am I? – with what the self creates.

So, if the novel or painting or poem or strategy or business or product or sculpture is terrible, then… then… you are terrible, too, right?

Alternately, a nice safe route is to just copy stuff that you already know is good, because that seems like a shortcut to feeling that you are good, too. Except it doesn’t work.

You know when you are being creative, and you know when you are copying. And you can pretend, but you do not genuinely feel that you have proven yourself by copying someone else’s work.

When you are creating without being creative, you find that the more you do, the more you have to do. Each copy you produce matters less, and so you need to produce more, or better, copies to prove yourself. To prove your worth.

When you are creative, you find that the more you produce, the more mistakes you produce, but the less they matter.

You start to see each creative work less as a separate thing and more as a part of a rather amazing whole.
You realize that you’re building a creative canon; that your output is cumulative rather than linear; that your creative potential increases in direct proportion to your creative action. You realize that all of it is part of the creative process.

And the best part of all is that you realize that you are good and worthwhile as a being, full-stop, distinct from any creative output you make or don’t make.

But until you have the courage to be creative, I’m not sure you can get to that realization. You have to dive in. You have to risk it. You have to be responsible. Then you mess up, and it turns out to be okay. You get it right, and that’s okay, too.

And you can quit needing to be perfect every time.

Pursue creativity like your life depends on it

Maybe it does.

You can’t dive very deep into creativity without confronting some demons. Maybe you fight them and win. Maybe you fight them and lose, retreat, and strategize.

Either way is progress toward a cleaner, healthier, more open you and a freer, richer, deeper, more fun creative process.

I believe that creativity can heal the world, because through creativity we learn to heal ourselves.

Through creative work we learn that we are deeper than we realize. That we are layered. That we contain multitudes. Giving more of our attention, time, and energy to creativity is giving more attention, time, and energy to ourselves. We explore, discover, heal, see and know, accept and love our selves. We recreate our inner world, and in so doing we change the outer world.

The more we flow in creativity, the more we surprise ourselves: Whose voice is that, speaking? Whose story is this, spilling out of me? What are these emotions? Where did these images come from? Why do I feel such a strong connection to this form or that sound? What are these movements? What is this drive, this desire, this urge to create? What does it mean?

Creativity is transformation. We take what is and make something more. We bring magic into the mundane, and timidly offer these gifts to the world. Ultimately, it is ourselves that we transform. It is our selves that we create.


  1. Oxford Living Dictionary: definition of creativity
  2. Wikipedia: definition of creativity
  3. Cambridge English Dictionary: definition of creativity
  4. Giulia Lowe and Gwenda Willis. “Sex Offender” Versus “Person”: The Influence of Labels on Willingness to Volunteer With People Who Have Sexually Abused
  5. Principles of Social Psychology. The Social Self: The Role of the Social Situation
  6. Gatekeepers of the Creative Domains
  7. George Land and Beth Jarman, Breaking Point and Beyond. Via Creativity at Work.

Back to the top