[This post is part of a series on creativity. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
The more you try to define creativity the more you learn, among other things, the term doesn’t mean what most people think it means and it says more about the person calling the thing creative. I think it doesn’t help describe things much.
People usually think an idea being creative means it is new and original. But the more you look at what people call creative, the less that makes sense. Here are two illustrations.
First, if anyone qualifies as creative, Manet must and if any of his works do, so must Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe. Yet most people find it more intriguing and creative the more they know the lineage, which should make the piece less original.
Second, Albert Einstein must equally qualify as creative, as must special relativity as a result of his work. Yet he told people his ideas were evolutionary, not revolutionary. He knew the middle steps from reconciling known laws of physics that inextricably led to his results (I’ll post on the topic later). He viewed and tried to convince people his work was less creative.
In both cases, people call the works more creative the more they understand the work. Too difficult a leap from their worlds to the solution and they assume its creator either knew something they didn’t and couldn’t, went through a process they weren’t privy too, or something like that.
Notice that meaning describes the imagination of the observer more than the idea. That’s why Einstein viewed his work as less creative than others. To him the path was obvious, he just followed it. Others didn’t know the path. That’s why I titled this post “What makes people see something as creative” as opposed to “what makes something creative,” including an extra three words I’d omit if I their meaning weren’t important.
Personally I don’t like calling something creative because it deflects attention from the creator to the creation when the creator is the more interesting part. Of course, what I consider important merely states my values that people tend to be more interesting than objects or ideas, but I think most people would agree on the effects I see in the results.
Calling attention to the “creativity” of the creation implies it’s complex and difficult to achieve or re-create. Calling attention to the process its creator used enables people to re-create it. The former perspective is more romantic and makes better stories. The latter is more empowering and makes ideas and solutions more accessible, which leads to better lives.
That difference in perspective is partly why I don’t think using the term helps describe things much. I think it’s counterproductive in a way I’ll state without justification that’s like why people recommend calling your child hardworking (describing process and behavior) instead of smart.
So the answer to this post’s title is that people perceive an idea as creative when it’s slightly more than they would have come up with but not way out from left field and they don’t know the middle steps that led to it. It helps the more useful the idea is, or potentially so, but utility is not necessary.
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