The How of Creativity
How creators transform ideas and do something with them
A New Yorker cartoon shows a scene at a cocktail party with a caption: “Did you know that it was Harry who came up with the idea for the daiquiri? He just never did anything with it.”
How do we go from the idea of the daiquiri to doing something with it? How do we make it not be just something that stays in one’s head, either Harry’s or yours?
At the just concluded thematic conference on individual, social, and educational perspectives on creativity in Dubrovnik, Croatia, my keynote address examined research on bringing creative ideas to life. Creativity includes not only having ideas, but developing them and transforming them into products or performances. Monet did not just have the idea to paint water lilies or just have the idea to portray changing qualities of light. He also realized these ideas in hundreds of paintings. Tesla did not just have the idea to harness the power of water (although he started by fantasizing about it!), but he built the first hydroelectric power plant.
People usually ask how creative individuals get their ideas. But, a better question might be: how do creative individuals realize their ideas? Are creative individuals unusually gritty and just stick with it, no matter what? It turns out they are not. At least not in the sense that winners of the national spelling bee are gritty and sit doing the same thing over and over again without being swayed by other interests or activities until final success. As grit involves consistency of interests, it tends to help success in more structured activities. In a series of studies, my colleagues and I found that grit does not predict creativity, but that visible passion does.
How do people take their ideas and their passion to transform them into products or performances? Here are three things you need to know to get you started.
1. There is no formula for success
First step: creativity doesn’t work in steps. Different stages of the creative process have been proposed, including the famous four stage model by Wallas that describes preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Or, the creative problem solving model that includes stages called clarify, ideate, develop, and implement. These models have validity, but they don’t represent well-defined and ordered steps.
A necessary starting point is to decide to do something. This is an act of courage. By nature, creativity involves risk – risk that an idea to reorganize a struggling department store would only end in lost customers or risk for one’s reputation if substantial time is spent on a presentation that is ultimately not well received. To demonstrate such courage does not mean to be fearless. Rather, it means deciding to act in spite of feeling uneasy and uncomfortable.
2. Creativity means tweaks and adjustments
Creators across domains of work – such as art, design, music composition, screenplay writing, or science – usually start with having a relatively vague idea, which changes and develops through the working process. The Pixar movie Up started with an idea about two brothers from a floating city on an alien planet fighting to inherit their father’s kingdom; it ended as the story of an elderly man who ties balloons to his house to fly to South America in order to fulfill a promise to his late wife. To give an example from another domain of work, what is now Flickr started with a game; although Game Neverending did not gain traction, the photo sharing feature within it developed into a creative response to a consumer need in the early 2000s.
The fact that a creator changes and adjusts an idea based on feedback, constraints, or new knowledge is not a sign of failure. It is a sign of successful creative work. In a classic study, Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels found that most creative art was not made by those who spent the most time executing or crafting their pieces, but those who spent the most time engaging with the objects in their still lives by holding, feeling, arranging, and rearranging them. Csikszentmihalyi defined this process of what he called “problem finding” as the key feature of creativity, distinguishing it from problem solving which can be more formulaic in nature.
3. Creativity takes persistence
Achieving something creative often takes a long time. Artists prepare exhibitions for months, designers go through multiple prototypes and iterations to create a product, scientists take months (or even years) to complete a research project and publish the findings. These paths are not smooth.
When a scientist’s grant proposal or research paper is rejected, they feel disappointed (trust me, I am a scientist). Yet, the successful ones are those who persevere. Dr. Yitang Zhang spent years thinking about a basic mathematical problem until he was finally able to solve it. When he did, he was skyrocketed from a lecturer to full professor, not to mention receiving the McArthur (genius) award.
Creative individuals persist in their work, even in the face of uncertainty and obstacles. However, this persistence is often different from what we teach children in schools – to persist through a well-planned set of tasks or steps. Persistence in the creative process is not linear in nature, but includes many reformulations and restarts, as well as keeping in mind the overarching goal while at times abandoning specific courses of action.
Creative individuals experience many and varied emotions in their work process, from the anxiety of facing an unclear problem, to frustration with obstacles, to disappointment or even anger at poor reception. Importantly, creative individuals are not necessarily comfortable with risks or impervious to negative feedback. Rather, they are able to persist in their work in spite of these emotional experiences by managing their emotions and channeling them to fuel their work.
Sometimes we have good reasons for not pursuing creative ideas. Maybe you have a full time job, family, and like to occasionally see friends, and travel. We are not going to develop every idea. But hopefully we do better than Harry who invented the daiquiri, but has never done anything with that idea. Knowing what to expect in the creative process might help manage the stresses and disappointments.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Getzels, J. W. (1971). Discovery-oriented behavior and the originality of creative products: a study with artists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 19, 47–52. doi:10.1037/h0031106
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Grohman, M., Ivcevic, Z., Silvia, P., & Kaufman, S. B. (2017). The role of passion and persistence in creativity. Psychology in Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. 11(4), 376-385. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000121
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