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

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.

Maybe some of these distinctions are unique to American culture, or to my own experience? I’m not validating them, by the way; I’m saying that I see them and I think they’re not helpful.

Here’s why they’re not helpful

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 degrades or devalues many kinds of work, including perhaps the work that you do, you will feel dissatisfied. You may follow half-baked urges to chase your passion, change careers, reinvent yourself in an effort to get some satisfaction.

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 real problem and one that deserves attention. But you don’t solve the problem by going elsewhere, by focusing on situations or outputs or external circumstances or labels. The shift that needs to happen is internal.

What creativity is not

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 a trait that some people have and some other people do not have.

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 out of 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 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 fucking reality, what can you NOT create?)

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

Creativity is transforming. 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. Instinct tells us to protect ourselves, to survive, to hide or run or right. Intuition tells us to take a closer look. 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.

Why creativity matters

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.

Photo by Shabu Anower on Unsplash


December 4, 2018