The Enigma of Creativity

I’ve been told that I’m creative and intuitive.  I never know how to respond to that, thinking, “Compared to whom?”

What does it mean to be creative?  Where does creativity come from?  Are some people born more creative than others?  Can we foster creativity in ourselves and others?  These are important questions because creative people are an asset for organizations and for society as a whole.

Art, literature and music obviously rely on creativity, and although we treasure the finished work, society seems to value the creator less.  Why is that?

What Creativity Is and What It Is Not

Organizations need creative people, but often seem to avoid them except in times of severe distress.

Books have been written about the creative process and how to foster it.  Creativity seems to be a prominent primary or secondary topic of TED talks.  I decided to put my thoughts down first and then listen to some of the TED talks, read a few articles, and find how much in agreement my thoughts and the thoughts of pundits are.

First my thoughts on the subject:

I believe some people are born with more latent creativity than others.

I think that creativity can definitely be nurtured, and conversely it can be discouraged, even squelched.

Creativity requires imagination.

The direction that creativity takes is a product of innate abilities, interests and opportunity.

Intuition is somehow related to creativity, and intuition depends on seeing relationships between things that create a bigger picture of how everything relates. Because intuition is a nonlinear process of thought there is no straight line approach to finding it.  Inspiration – that “Aha!” moment – comes from glimpsing the bigger picture.

Creativity Within the Larger Framework

The level of creativity within a society seems to rise and fall over time.  Some of the greatest insights happened almost simultaneously by different people. 

Charles Darwin was not the only person to imagine evolution.  Earlier biologists and archaeologists had observed that there had been species that had died out, and that species appeared to change over time, but it took a paper by an economist on the futility of government support of the poor due to the effect of overpopulation, to create that “aha” moment in two men; Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.  Both came up with what Darwin termed natural selection.  Darwin went down in history because he wrote a book, “On the Origin of Species”.

Neither Darwin nor Wallace came up with their concept in a vacuum.  The work of many previous naturalists, the zeitgeist, and perhaps most importantly the awareness of a similar system operating under the same rules allowed them to have their inspirations.

Creativity seems to flourish most in societies that have at least some members of the society with leisure time.  Ancient Greek society had a wealthy class who had time to think, discuss ideas, and write those ideas down.  All of the work of daily life was accomplished by servants and slaves.

Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest had enough leisure time because of the abundance of food and a moderate climate to develop complex cultures and religious art.  Utes in the desert of Utah and Nevada, on the other hand, struggled daily just to find enough to eat.

Children left to their own devices are very creative.  The most common two words used by small children left alone may be, “Play like”.  Too much structure and too little free time may stifle creativity.  It is true that children can get into very precarious situations because of their creativity, but creativity can also get them out of those situations.

Sometime in the late 1970s mothers began planning all of their children’s time.  Moms talked about soccer and little league and ballet and tap.  They ran Johnny here, picked up Susie there and dropped Jason off somewhere else.  It was a wifely, motherly sort of mission.  Kids needed to be kept busy.  “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

I would like to know how the creativity of kids who never got a chance to wool gather has compared to those who had time alone.

Perhaps, creativity was and is stifled because it is considered dangerous.

Business organizations say they want creative people; their leaders speak of “thinking outside of the box”, but they really only want people who can think of another way of doing the same old thing.  They want someone who can think of another way to flog a flagging horse.

Only in desperate situations do they seek change.  Typically, they bring in an outsider who they refer to as a “change agent” to really shake things up, to change the way that things work, and as soon as that change is made the change agent moves on and is blamed for all of the ensuing ruffled feathers.

The change agents aren’t all that creative.  They operate from a change agent play book.  Real creativity comes from the bottom up, from some unexpected place, and rarely at an opportune time.

Parallels exist in art.

For centuries in Europe painting was commissioned.  Portraits of wealthy people and religious scenes dominated art.  The portraits were sober depictions of people who desired to look staid.  Religious scenes portrayed some moral lesson or biblical story.  Schools of art taught students how to follow certain guidelines and how to paint accurate depictions of people even if those images were idealized.

And then in 1874 a group of French artists, operating in opposition to “The Salon”, had a showing of paintings that were panned by critics.  Monet, Degas and Pissarro, stressing that they were from no school, nevertheless painted in a revolutionary style that emphasized light, appeared unfinished, and depicted modern life (modern for that time). 

One critic, Louis Leroy, said that they were nothing but sketches; that gave an impression of a painting.  That critic gave the movement its name.  The impressionist movement wrenched the entrenched art community out of its comfort zone.

How significant was this change?  Let me give you a personal story.

Sometime in the early 1980s I went to Chicago for a medical education seminar.  Midweek I had an afternoon off and decided to go to the Art Institute of Chicago.  The experience was book-ended by two experiences that I didn’t fully recognize at the time for what they were.

I did not follow a tour guide, but wandered through the museum sort of aimlessly.  The first collection I looked at was of the works of Edward Hopper.  The museum has a sizable collection that includes “Nighthawks 1942”, Hopper’s most recognizable painting, and one of the most recognizable paintings by any American painter.  I was struck by how small the works were.  Art appreciation classes give no real idea of the size of works.  Nice.

I then stumbled through a number of rooms of medieval and renaissance art.  Dark.  Sober. Depressing. It seemed that I looked at portrait after portrait of some woman sitting near a window covered from the chin down by a gray dress with a white cap that tied under her chin.  I’m sure that was not exactly the way it was; it just seemed that way.

And then I walked through a door and almost dropped to me knees.  Staring me in the face was an enormous bright yellow and gold sunflower painted by Vincent Van Gogh.  This was one of a visiting exhibit of Impressionist paintings on loan from elsewhere.  In the same room were paintings by Monet, Manet, Degas and other artists from that period.  There were café scenes and paintings of people strolling along the side of water.  Everything looked like a pleasant dream; of life like it should be.


What Hopper’s Nighthawks 1942 diner scene and Degas’ scene had in common was an egalitarianism, a slice of life where the characters were not posed.  There was a sense of something happening even though everything was still and the paintings felt calming even though Hopper’s work was dark, nearly black and white, and Degas’ work was filled with color and light.


What happened in Paris in the late 1800s that allowed or spurred the development of impressionism?  There was something in the water.  The Impressionist period began about 1860, and this closely coincides with a reconstruction of Paris during which avenues were widened, new buildings constructed all of which brought about a sense of change and, at the same time, alienation. The widened avenues allowed the existence of outdoor cafes. There was also an increase in the amount of leisure time, and even people who painted with no commission could somehow survive, have a cup of coffee, and talk about ideas.  It was the right mix.

The View from Those With Creative Success

Now, it’s time to see how expert’s ideas on creativity coincide with mine.

The first things I found in an online search were self-help books.  They would declare that there are three sources of creativity and twelve paths to using it, or something equally formulaic.  I didn’t bother reading even the summaries of these books.

Sting was interviewed by Guy Raz on the TED Radio Hour about his new show, “The Last Ship”.  In particular he was asked to talk about his creativity and where it comes from.  Here is a summary of his experience and thoughts.

Creativity begins in childhood, and is fostered by free time to dream.  As a boy, Sting helped his father, the milkman in Wallsend, England, deliver milk in the hours before dawn.  There was little talk, everything was quiet, and he had time to imagine his future life.

Sting left Wallsend and began a 20 year career of almost nonstop songwriting and performing and then it stopped.  For about eight years he stared at a piece of paper every day and nothing happened.

Eventually, he came to the realization that he had made a Faustian bargain; people paid to hear him reveal things about his inner person, and he had revealed everything.  He says that his conversation went, “Sting, you’re in the way.  Get out of the way.”  Thinking about where else he might get inspiration he thought of his childhood. 

Almost immediately the dam broke and songs came welling up.  He also switched to his childhood dialect.  Wallsend, located in Tyne, part of the old county of Northumberland, is named for the fact that it was at the end of Hadrian’s Wall, the wall built by Romans to keep the wild people from the North at bay.  At the time of Sting’s youth, Wallsend had a coal mine at one end a shipyard at the other. 

The local dialect is thick and Sting said that he never used it except when he became angry, but as soon as he started writing about the shipyard the lyrics were all in dialect.

It is as though he was channeling the voices from his youth.  Channeling is the word he used.  “You don’t own it (creativity).  It is a very ephemeral thing.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, described her experience, after the experience of writing a best seller, of having people look at her with pitying looks that she came to realize were because they thought she had written her best book and was finished.  Perhaps, she said that is true, but she is not so sure.  She described the ideas of Greeks and Romans that creativity was a gift of spirits that lived in the walls of your home.  They leave the gift at their discretion and you have no control over when the gift may come.  You just have to recognize it when it comes.

One scholarly article stated that “innumerable” programs had been devised to enhance creativity in organizations.

These programs, she clustered into four groups, 1) idea production, 2) imagery programs, 3) enhancing knowledge 4) thinking skills with idea production being the most common.

A quote from another source, though, struck me.

“The standard tools we’ve relied on for so long in parenting and teaching – evaluation, reward, competition and restriction of choices – can, in fact, destroy creativity…we must perform a balancing act.”

Today’s educational system of teaching to a test may be the worst example of a total loss of balance.

Finland, which is thought to have one of the best school systems in the world, has teachers who encourage discussion in the classroom, have never done away with recess, and feel that participation in class is a sort of play that encourages creativity.

Creativity has its Downside

Two plus two always equals four.  Another answer is not creative; it is wrong.

Intuition can be treacherous.  While intuition is critical to making the big leaps, intuition, even among the brightest individuals, is wrong about five percent of the time.  Intuitive leaps always have to be validated.  That is a hard thing for intuitive people to do.  They are used to being right so often that it seems like drudgery to have to slog through all of the effort of proving what they “knew” all along.

Intuitive people make non-intuitive people nervous.  Intuitive people are often the brunt of ridicule.  Women are more intuitive than men.  We know that is true from the phrase, “women’s intuition”.  Women make men nervous. Q.E.D.

Most people are uncomfortable with change.  Creative solutions to problems usually involve change.



Views: 214

Comment by JMac1949 Today on March 13, 2017 at 10:40am

This is supposed to be the oldest prehistoric art ever found:

Some 540,000 years ago, an ancient ancestor of modern humans took a shark tooth and carefully carved a geometric engraving on a mollusk shell. The engraving -- the oldest piece of art ever found by at least 300,000 years -- as well as a shell tool were found at a site in what is now Java, Indonesia.

Just goes to show you that idle hands are the devil's playground.  R&L

Comment by Foolish Monkey on March 13, 2017 at 11:10am

that's the dichotomy of creation -putting aside ego - the self, and channeling vision, which I suppose might be thought of as the purest self.

only I don't consider creation my purest self - I consider the energy, the muse, the result (whatever it is, in fact), it's the driving force that's entirely aside from my self - it's something my skills may flesh out.  that's the point of working on one's skillsets - to increase the chances of getting out of your own way.  

the more I think, the further my desired end is from me.  but the more I LET MY THOUGHTS come, closer.  meaning I can't control.  I can only channel it and allow it to voice itself.

thinking about it, it's seems odd or weird, but odd and weird are far from the truth.  the truth is,  sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's like pulling teeth, but in the end, creation is very satisfying. 

Comment by marilyn sands on March 13, 2017 at 12:37pm

I have much to say but don't know where to start. What a big subject you have proffered.  I admire you for chipping away at the mystery.  R&L

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 13, 2017 at 12:46pm

JMac, 540,000 is a lot of years. Smithsonian considers this art to have been made by Homo erectus.

Mitochondrial Eve ~ 200,000 before present.

Pre-modern humans including H. heidelbergensis, thought to be the progenitor of both H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, moved out of Africa. 

H. sapiens moved out of Africa  about 100,000 years ago and spread across Europe and Asia.

Was H. heidelbergensis the ancestor of H. denisova? Apparently.  The entire genome of a single individual in Siberia shows that she was a brown eyed girl.

Denisova, Neanderthal, and other possible archaic human branches got here before Homo sapiens, but by how long?

Imagine that the brown eyed girl was around as long ago as transistor radios!

Seriously, a 540,000 year old cousin of modern humans making art should make people rethink what it means to be human, and to ask who really did the cave drawings in France.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 13, 2017 at 12:49pm

marilyn, I'm undaunted.  Why not comment on the thing that is most interesting to you?  I think that JMac broached an interesting subject.  Creativity - the desire to make art - apparently doesn't depend on a big brain.

Comment by Rosigami on March 13, 2017 at 1:11pm

Rod, I know several artists, some of them past teachers of mine, who made some important life decisions so they could explore their drive toward creativity. Most of them chose not to be parents. That's a biggie for sure- the biological urge to reproduce is creativity in its most basic form. 

Creativity as the desire to make art is profoundly important to me. I paint because I want to, need to.
I do believe the accoutrements and schedules of the modern age takes away children's time to be creative.
But not every child has the same urge toward imagination and creativity.
I believe every child should have the opportunity to explore what's inside them, though, which is essentially why I run art studio classes for kids in my home. 
You didn't think I actually made  living at that, now, did you? :) 

This is a big topic, Rod. Thanks for presenting it here. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 13, 2017 at 1:38pm

Rosi, the creative urge runs strong in my family and my wife's.  I've said, at times, that it is a curse.  Really creative people, as you point out, cannot be happy unless they are creating.  Forgoing having children is a big sacrifice, almost as big as remaining celibate.

Your comment about teaching the kids reminded me of a conversation I once had.  I walked into a new sportsman's lodge being built and found a woman doing trompe l'oeil painting.  She was completing a fly-rod leaning in the corner that looked like the line ought to be wett.  As I was coming in I noticed that her car was a 7 series BMW, and I said, "I didn't know artists made that kind of money, even artists as good as you."  "What kind of money?"  "Enough to drive that "beemer".  She laughed and told me that her husband was a corporate lawyer.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 13, 2017 at 1:47pm

Everyone in my mother's family was a musician.  Mother was a self-taught pianist who was very comfortable playing in keys with a lot of sharps or flats because her hands were so small when she started experimenting that she could reach the black keys easier.  Once Dad retired and we left home she started doing genealogical research, wrote a family history and began painting.  I was amazed.  Her explanation was that between raising us, milking twice a day, and doing all of the other things required on a farm, she never felt she could afford the time.  It made me appreciate her even more.

Comment by greenheron on March 13, 2017 at 2:13pm

Humans are born with creativity. In cultures where creativity is highly valued and supported, it flourishes in the art, music, literature, cuisine, architecture. In cultures where it is under-valued and less supported, it survives, as the province of the eccentric, the privileged, the disabled, the insane, the bohemians, the self-selected few. In some cultures, creativity is not set apart from work. In Bali for example, entire villages are dedicated to a particular craft or technique, e.g. silver shot beading, wooden carving, etc. Art and craft are the same thing and everybody does it.

With visual art (the area I’m more familiar with) at a very young age, individuals opt in or out: I can’t draw, Johnny can draw. It seems much the same for other disciplines. Athletics for example. I have a fear of any sport where a ball comes flying at my face at high speeds (I wear glasses). In gym class I was always the last picked for games and consequently grew up thinking of myself as a terrible athlete.

When married, my hub had athletic privileges to incredible university athletic facilities, an Olympic size pool being one. I started doing a few laps there in the afternoons. Within a year, I was doing one hundred laps, at impressive speed. I could hold my breath for nearly three minutes underwater. I had muscles and a hard body, like an athlete. I realized that I was an athlete. Hitting a high speed ball with strength and accuracy isn’t the only way to define athlete.

Creativity is exactly like this, already in you.There are many doors to it. Find your entry, and nurture, value, support, and practice creativity, until it has an every day presence. Maybe it’s baking cakes or styling hair. Creativity isn’t limited to art music and literature. I wish we’d stop defining it that way. Read some of the exchanges in the grrls clubhouse post. That's creative exchange, creative play, creative theatre, flexing and exercising of creative muscles. 

Btw Rodney a friend teaches an interdisciplinary art and science course with students at Harvard Med and the Boston Museum School. I wish that course had been in existence when I was an art student. Both the med students and the art students learn aspects of the others discipline and take this back to their practice. They also learn how close they are in what they do.   

Finally, an interesting tidbit, if you’re still reading (I know this is a long comment). Degas was one of the first artists to use photographic reference, camera being available to the general public by 1862. A radical shift in Degas’ paintings was his use of cropped composition-note the half dancer coming into the picture frame. This looks normal to us now and we don’t even notice, but in his time, it was a big deal, and the result of looking through a camera viewfinder. Same with accurately galloping horses (also crashing ocean waves, birds, etc). Until the camera, it was impossible to capture this with accuracy. Artists did their best, sometimes with rubbery boneless results. Degas not only cropped his horses into and out of the picture plane, but his horses were the first to run right. 

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on March 13, 2017 at 2:34pm

This is delightful, Rodney. Thanks!


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