Creativity is so misunderstood, and one reason is simply the way the word is used in language. My New Oxford Dictionary of English defines ‘create’ as ‘bring (something) into existence,’ and often creativity is thought of in this general way too. In other words, to create is to produce, and to produce is to create. So making goods in a factory, erecting a fence or building a house could be thought of as creative in this general sense, as could uttering a sentence, drawing a mathematical formula on a blackboard or walking on wet sand and making footprints as you go. You’ve done something. You ‘created’ a reality.
In each case, however, unless the thing being produced is novel or surprising in some fundamental way, this is not creativity. Such things, indeed, are very often the precise opposite of creative in that they are predictable replications of previous productions, usually for a jolly good reason. That mathematical formula has to be accurate or it’s wrong; that sentence has to say ‘Happy Easter’ in that particular context or else it will be confusing or meaningless; and those footprints will resemble one another, as well as most other people’s footprints, because you are a human being with human feet (I’m assuming).
Creativity is not merely about production. It’s about the production of the unexpected and unpredictable, whether we’re talking ideas or material things. The US Patent Office’s definition of inventions eligible for certification is that which is “new, useful and non-obvious” and this encapsulates quite well the essence of creativity itself.
That’s why childbirth – sometimes described as the ultimate act of creativity – isn’t really creative in the sense I and creativity scientists use it. A baby is new. It is useful, for want of a better word. But non-obvious? No. Give birth to a baby unicorn, and now we’re talking.
The truth is that creativity is relatively unusual. The vast majority of ideas and objects we see around us are replications of previous ideas. Again, there’s a good reason for that. Once a great design for that new mobile phone is finalised and advertised, people want to buy one which reliably delivers the functions promised. If you have a piece of furniture in your house, which I’m betting you do, then you can virtually guarantee that there are others just like it elsewhere. Listen to a song on iTunes and it’s exactly the same version of that song by that artist that everyone else is listening to. (Probably Ed Sheeran.)
But. Every single artefact and every single human-generated idea that exists in the world today was, in a sense, once creative. All cultural phenomena are like echoes of moments of creative genius. Sometimes that creative moment was quite recent, but sometimes it was long, long ago. Your iPhone in essence was really and truly creative a decade ago when it was first designed and sold. Your bikini was truly creative in 1946 when Louis Réard launched his garment advertised as “smaller than the smallest swimsuit.” And your microwave oven was a creative idea in the mid-1940s when Percy Spencer invented it.
We can go back further. X-rays were a creative advance in the medical world in 1895 when German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered them. The printed word was a creative idea in the mid-15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Spectacles were a creative idea when they were developed in Italy in 1286.
We can go back further still. The cup, the shoe, the necklace. The work of art. The song. We’ll never know who created these things for the first time in history – prehistory, actually – but that mug sitting near your laptop, those slippers on your feet, that gold chain around your neck, that painting on your wall or that song playing on your Bluetooth speaker; once upon a time, in a cultural world far, far away, their first manifestations were brilliant, shocking, wonderful new ideas that blew people away with their ingenuity.
You might say all this is patently obvious. But if that’s the case, it’s remarkable to think how much people like me who advocate creativity in education and training have had to fight to get its importance recognised. Creativity made every artefact you can see and feel and experience. Understanding that might help it be accorded its rightful status in modern society.