When people are asked how they would define creativity they often answer that the meaning of the term is pretty obviously inherent in the word itself: It means the ability to create, or make. On the face of it this seems like a reasonable first approximation. Unfortunately it does not hold up to scrutiny. In order for e.g. our vacuum cleaner not to be considered creative for creating a ball of dust when turned on and moved about the apartment, or for a CRT not to be considered creative for creating white noise on the screen when there is no TV signal, we need to further specify what it is that is created and wrap the process of creation in some further constraints. Once we start down that road, however, we see how easy it is to get lost in “definition land” – trying to define the admissible features of the objects that could be counted as creative output, or trying to incorporate the product with the process that produced it – is both difficult and strewn with counterintuitive blind alleys.
What becomes clear early in such efforts is that it is not so much the objects themselves which are “creative”, and our efforts are perhaps misdirected by focusing on the product – rather than the output we should be looking at the process that creates the output. If the output of a process or a set of processes is consistently creative then we must agree that the process is a creative one. Creative things or objects thus present “evidence” of creativity, but they are not themselves “creative”. If it is the process rather than the output of the process that we should be talking about when trying to decide what creativity is, what about these – presumably cognitive processes – is it that sets a creative one apart from a less creative one?
Someone once said that the only way to be creative is to “break one's programming.” It is not clear, of course, what people mean when they say this – are they referring to our genetic code, or social conditioning, or something else? One interpretation could be that what is meant that to be “creative” we must be able to change our minds about things, in particular, about our goals. Certainly, changing our goals based on e.g. new information, is a very important capability. The top-level goal for any living being is, of course, that of survival. But if creativity means the ability to “go against one's programming” in this way, then the most creative people who ever lived are all dead now – by their own hand, as this line of reasoning puts suicide at the top of the ladder as the ultimate creative act.
No, it must be something different than all of these that defines a creative process. Here we will consider creativity to be defined simply as the ability to achieve goals, or solve problems, by producing non-obvious solutions. A highly creative process is therefore one that consistently – more consistently than others – comes up with non-obvious solutions to posed problems.
2012©Kristinn R. Thórisson