A formula for creativity – no.2 : Creativity = Original

There used to be at the top of the Wikipedia page on ‘creativity’ a quote from Dean Keith Simonton. You can’t be creative unless you come up with something that hasn’t been done before. Now Professor Simonton has a PhD and has written 12 books on creativity and genius so I really have no place to comment but I do take issue with this and obviously the Wikipedia editors did too as it’s not there anymore.

What he’s saying is that

Creativity = hasn’t been done before

These are his words right but I think we can take the phrase and condense it down to

Part of the reason creativity is a burden for all of us is because the pressure to be original is a burden we have imposed upon ourselves. There’s tremendous pressure from managers, our peers, even ourselves to be highly original as creative individuals. But if we look historically, this imposition of creativity = originality is fairly recent.

Keith Sawyer in ‘explaining creativity’ has this to say about originality…

The idea that the artist creates a novel and original work that breaks with convention is only a few hundred years old. Before the renaissance, creativity was associated with the ability to imitate established masters and to accurately represent nature. When the term originality was first coined it meant newness, truth and observation not a radical break with convention. The most original artists therefore were those who best imitated nature.

David Warner describes the act of being creative in a different light. He says that

When we organise existing matter we’re taking advantage of left over learning, half made plans, parts and pieces of other projects, all of it yet unorganised. If there is anything original to be found in the act of creating, perhaps it should be found in the organising of existing ideas and existing matter. When it comes down to it, the burden of creativity is one of synthesis not novelty.  

Jonah Lehrer beautifully summarises the act of organising when he says…

A new idea is simply a new connection between old ideas

This is not to say that I’m trying to make a case for removing any facet of originality in the creative process, obviously originality can play an important role in creativity. Sometimes it’s difficult to describe some products with any adjective other than ‘original’.

So rather than just having create = organise, perhaps we need a slightly more complex equation… I’m going to say that the variable c, being creative is equal to the function of two variables, organise and originality. Now both of these words begin with ‘O’ so a different symbol needs to be used for one of them… c = creativity, s = synthesis (organise), o = originality

So when we think of creativity as first and foremost the act of synthesising and organising we immediately free ourselves from the burden of originality. We’re then at liberty to assemble, to combine other ideas and make them our own*(see note below).

*note – as mentioned in the introductory post to this series, this is why I have not sought permission from Cameron Moll (who I first heard using this material) to either edit or publish it in this format. Later in his own version of this keynote speech he shared some of the other people involved in his process of assembling the session material.

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