Imagine you are working at a company that produces peanut butter. You are working at the marketing team and this is your 11th year you work there. In the past, you did some decent marketing work and the product turned out to sell quite well. So, what do you do? You do the usual; you do some online marketing by putting adds online and you put the new product on the top shelves in the supermarkets. These “go-to’s” are not something we call creative. Behavior which falls in the category of habits, the things we expect, are not creative. Read more about habits in this blog. For example, if you want to make music, the go-to’s are singing or playing the piano or guitar. In some way, our environment pushes these instruments in our hands. There is no real creativity involved with picking these regular instruments. These go-to’s are related to affordances. The idea of an affordance is a that product (in our environment) warrants (or attracts) an activity, like a chair is made for sitting, or a dishwasher for washing dishes. I call these “go-to’s” attractors (a term from systems theory). There is a certain interaction between cause and effect causing a non-linear relationship. With usual behavior and habits, we comply with affordances. But once you let the creative mind flowing, you deny the affordances and pick products however you want to. You might even make music with a bottle. This means that you need to let go of the usual cause and effect and the associations between things. Through our past experience and knowledge, we have associations with the things we see around us. When we see a pan, we think “pan” and think it is an object to cook with. However, a baby would have not such strong associations, giving it room to use the object for different, and thus more creative purposes. When being creative, you lose the associations which are common to you and your environment, giving you a “blank sheet in your mind” (an attractor free landscape). Not complying with the affordances of the environment implies, per definition, that creativity requires internal purpose. That is no surprise, as creativity requires “creating”. You need to make something that didn’t exist in this world. However, purpose has quite a significant role. If you are just being pushed around by your environment and have no purpose, you wouldn’t have an internal drive to be creative. Having a purpose by really desiring something makes you creative. You can see that with people in desperate situations suddenly coming up with the most inventive strategies to survive. Because when you have a purpose, you have something that does not exist yet. So in order to reach your purpose, you have no other choice than to create. You don’t become creative as a goal, you become creative as a mean to reach your purpose.
People have a purpose to gain something; like an answer to a question, to understand the world, to find beauty in the world, or to survive in this world. Here the principle of free energy also accounts. People will choose activities where they will gain energy from. For example, if you want to make music, creating a full new instrument costs a lot investment (creating, marketing-, and effort wise) before you can gain energy. By choosing an existing guitar, it is less investment before you gain energy. But if everyone is already playing the guitar the competition is heavy, thus it is hard to gain energy. Then sometimes, you can better be creative and develop your own full new instrument, making unique sounds. If you want to stand out and be creative, you can either be creative with the activity or with the content. The activity would be the thing that you do; like playing an instrument, painting, selling a product, or developing a product. The content would be how you do it. Are you playing the guitar nicely, or do you sell your product through Tinder (being creative)?
You can gain energy with both techniques; playing with the activity or playing with the content. However, you need to excel at different levels. If you pick a regular instrument, you really need to be creative/good with the actual content; make interesting rhythms or play a difficult solo that no one has ever played before. With an activity (within the category “music”) you could be creative by creating a new instrument. You could play music with pots and pans, or with your dishwasher. You don’t necessarily need to play the most difficult tunes the first time to be noticed and gain energy if you create something completely new. For example, the first photos with a camera were not the most amazing photo’s ever. However, they were very creative, as creating a camera is quite awesome.
I made a scheme below to identify the steps within creative processes. The creative process starts with a purpose, why are you doing what you do, aka, what do you want to reach? Next you can pick a category; you can make art, perform science, or get involved with economics for example to reach your goal. Being creative with the direction that you pick could be quite refreshing. For example, you could do politics through art or science through dance. But if you are really creative you could create a full new category that does not exist yet. Then, you need to pick an activity, within the category of music you can play the guitar, the drums, or any other instrument. The exact order of categories and activities is a bit vague though, and there might be some in-between-categories. For example, Art-music-guitar, Science-medicine-vaccine research are quite arbitrary orders. Nevertheless, we end up with the content; the actual thing you are doing, the output you create.
A personal perspective on creativity
Determining what is creative and what’s not, is a difficult thing to do. I believe that creativity is mostly based on habits; things we’ve seen before. If you are going to paint a realistic portrait, you might be very good, but not creative. Realistic portraits (content) using paint (activity) are a common art-form (category). We’ve all seen these painting before. However, making portraits (content) using scrap (activity) are a less common art-form. However, some of us have probably seen this before on the internet, while others haven’t. Our own past experiences make quite a difference in how we perceive creativity. One could regard a belly dancer quite creative while another could perceive the activity as boring or the work of a copy-cat. So, it is from your own perspective what you perceive to be a creative form of expression.
The fine line between creativity and stupidity
Doing things that deviate from the expected behavior is different. This could be considered creative, but also as quite stupid. If you spend hours on making a statue with paperclips this is not necessarily regarded as contributing to anything. It might be creative because you were the first one ever to make it, however, if you don’t contribute anything it might be worth nothing. The underlying purpose is often something that plays a huge role in our perception of creativity. Purpose is a huge deal, mainly in abstract art. Some regard abstract art as being creative, while others regard it as crap. Abstract art is often considered as crap because the backstory is unclear making the art lack of purpose; just an assembly of random pieces. It is too far into randomness. It is the task of the creator to find the “edge of chaos” where people understand and learn from the artist, very close to plain weirdness. Different people need different degrees of structure making “the edge of chaos” personal. An artist needs to play on this edge of chaos. If the art is too random, it is considered crap, if it to normal, it is not creative. Both the creator and the audience play a part in this play and could pull each other closer to create the most creative artforms. An artist could tell his backstory or the audience can search or speculate about the same backstory.
Being creative is not something you can learn in a book or in a blog like this. It is a personal thing that is requires a purpose in any direction, in any activity, producing any content. The possibilities are infinite. It is a process that starts from within, and flows after creation, across the environment where some people might judge it as being creative or not. Thus, in some ways, creativity ends at a personal level as well. Creativity is an interplay between the creator and the audience. Alignment between the purpose of the artists and the perception of the audience is therefore fundamental for art and creativity to exist. However, creativity always starts at the creator. However, something could not emerge from nothing. Thus, the environment is also fundamental in making the artist. It is often the unconventional connections that make creativity; loosing the standard associations and connecting areas that aren’t usual. This could be reached through training, stimulating random collisions, or searching for odd connections.
Want to read to more on this topic?
One could read more about the associative mind in this blog I wrote. I also wrote a blog about “what is crazy?” which is quite a connected theme. Or one could read one of my short stories on my website to find some of my own personal creativity projects.