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Chapter 23: What is Creativity?


Chapter 23: What is Creativity? 

   Creativity is not just for artists and scientists. We need creativity to solve the countless problems we encounter in our workplace and in our daily life. Whether you are a student writing a term paper or a company CEO expanding your business, a creative mind brings better results. Psychologists also tell us that people are happier when they can exercise creativity in their work. 

   Where do new ideas come from? The simple answer is that new ideas are just old ones combined in new ways. A mobile phone is an old landline phone without a wire. A smartphone is a mobile phone with powerful computer functions. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is a creative masterpiece, but what makes it unique is the arrangement of the musical notes, not the individual notes that all composers know. Einstein had the creative insight to put together the famous equation E = mc2but the concepts of energy, mass and the speed of light were familiar to all physicists. In some sense then, it is true that there is nothing new under the sun.

   The observation that new ideas come from old ones is of practical importance because it tells us that creativity requires knowledge. Creativity does not happen in a vacuum. Our imagination depends partly on what we know. If you know very little, you can only recombine a few ideas to get new ones. When you know more, the combination of new ideas you can come up with increases exponentially (more and more rapidly). 

   We often forget that creative achievements are built on past successes by other people. Without Newtonian physics, Einstein probably would not have discovered relativity. To create something new, it helps to know what other people have done and which things work and which do not. It is not surprising that creative types are eager learners and they often read a lot, of everything. Remember Mark Twain's famous quote that “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.

   Coming up with something new in itself is not hard, but it is not sufficient for creativity. It is easy to think of new ways to combat global warming that nobody has thought of before: kill half the people in the world or switch on all air-conditioners to cool the air. These ideas might be new, but they are just stupid, and producing 1,000 of them will not make you a creative person. Creativity is a matter of coming up with new ideas that are also useful.


     Although there are no set-up rules for generating new and useful ideas, there is actually a lot we can do to become more creative. Creative people are often diligent/hard-working, disciplined, and highly focused. Many have a daily work routine that they steadfastly follow. The work ethic is motivated and sustained by a passion for their work. Ultimately, you have to discover for yourself what you love to do, and the kind of environment and lifestyle that make you more productive. But whatever the details, the work cycle often follows a four-step procedure: 

     Step 1: PREPARATION 

     Start by gathering information about your problem. This might mean going to the library, searching the web, talking to people, or collecting data or other items. Keep everything you have found in a way that you can access them easily, whether in a notebook, a box, or a computer. At this stage, you just collect whatever might be relevant without too much filtering or analysis. This is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes people are too impatient, and they want to make great discoveries even when they do not know enough. Others might be unwilling to explore unfamiliar territory and so fail to gather the data they need. So broaden your mind and think about all possible sources that might help you in your task. 

     Step 2: EXPLORATION

     At some point, we need to stop collecting and start analysing and digesting what we have collected. This might mean trying to classify the material, reorganise them, look at them from different perspectives, and try to connect ideas and draw conclusions. The aim is to use the connections to come up with a new and useful idea. 

     If possible, avoid all distractions and devote 100% of your attention to the task for a long period of time. A few things might then happen. First, we might get some preliminary ideas and conclusions about what might or might not work. So make sure that you always have a notebook ready in case you need to record your thoughts. Writing them down can make the ideas clearer, and we can build on them or revisit them later. 

     Do not give up so soon even if you do not seem to be getting anywhere. Keep trying and come up with a few more observations. Go further than where you think you can go, and when you absolutely cannot continue, you have earned your well-deserved break. 

     Step 3: INCUBATION

     This is when you leave your task aside, relax, and forget about what you have been doing, and just wait. Many of us might have had the experience of being unable to solve a problem, but after a good night's sleep, the solution came up suddenly the next morning. Or an idea might come to you while you are listening to music, taking a shower, or watching a movie. For some strange reason, a period of inactivity after intensive thinking does seem to promote creativity. The fact that sleep enhances creativity is well documented. Some people say it is because it gives a chance for the unconscious mind to work on the problem. 

     Whatever the explanation might be, working as hard as we can and then taking a break appears to be an effective strategy for most people.


     Once we have obtained some promising ideas, we should check whether they really work and whether they can be improved further. When we are dealing with a problem that requires a complex solution, it is very rare that the first solution we come up with is the perfect one. If the proposal turns out not to work, we should try to understand why so that we can avoid similar mistakes in the future. Even when we have found the perfect solution, we can always review the whole creative process to see how we can repeat the success. 

     Although we often read about the successes of creative people, we usually pay less attention to their failures. What is important is that we know why we fail and learn from our mistakes. Here are some main reasons why people fail in their creative endeavours:

     Failure due to lack of knowledgeNew ideas are based on past knowledge. Your idea might not be successful if you do not know enough, or you lack the relevant skills. Response: Learn more.

     Failure of conceptThis means there is something fundamentally wrong with the initial idea or theory. Whether in science or in art, creativity always contains an element of luck. Sometimes we discover that our favourite approach turns out to be a dead end, but only after considerable time and resources have been spent. Response: Tough luck. Ditch the approach decisively and quickly, and move on to something else.

     Failure of judgmentYou can have the right idea, but make the wrong decision in executing and developing it. Maybe you were careless about the details. Maybe you did not work fast enough and other people beat you to it. Again you might also just be unlucky and made the wrong call. Response: Reflect and improve your work process, especially if you have failed the same way before.

     Failure of attitudeForging (moving forward gradually) a new path where others have not gone before requires courage and the right balance of attitude. Fear of failure causes us to abandon an idea before it comes to fruition. Response: Work harder to avoid failure. Allow yourself to fail in private and learn from your mistakes so it is less likely for you to fail in public and look foolish. Be brutally honest with yourself and listen to people you can trust, even if you do not like what they have to say.



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