Can Anyone Be Creative? How? What next?

Can Anyone Be Creative? How? What next?

Can Anyone Be Creative? How? What next?

Is creativity MORE important than all of the other attributes that demand our time, attention, and resources?

Can anyone be creative?
What next? 

These three questions have driven much of my career.

To start with the obvious, creativity is a good thing. Creative people tend to be happier and more successful than less creative people. They are funnier and sexier and they can use their creativity to cope with stress and heal more quickly after trauma. Obvious negative stereotypes still persist. Some are true: creative people are more anxious. Others are simply false: your average creative person is not more likely to be severely mentally ill. There are hidden biases as well. Teachers and bosses alike say they value creativity, but they may still unconsciously dislike creative people.

This disconnect between what we say versus what we think may come from the many half-truths and bits of misinformation about creativity. Despite the cliché that no one agrees on what creativity is, there’s a pretty strong consensus among researchers on how to define it. Creativity can be a person, a process, a product, or a place, and it should be both new and task appropriate or relevant. Of course, this definition tells us everything and nothing.

With Ronald Beghetto, I’ve proposed a Four-C Model of Creativity. Mini-c is personal insights: Ideas which are new and meaningful to you, even if others have gone there first. It could be the spark that gets you to add nutmeg to your hot chocolate, or the first time you use duct tape to solve a problem. Little-c is everyday creativity, recognized by others—perhaps a song played at a coffeehouse or a birdhouse sold at a craft fair. Pro-c takes you to the level of the expert, typically reflecting a decade of practice. It might be a biology professor who studies animal communication or the latest Saints Row video game. Big-C is genius: Mozart, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain, or Frida Kahlo. Big-C takes time. Is Jason Robert Brown an immortal Broadway composer? He’s certainly a current superstar (and one of my favorites), but we need another hundred years to see if he’s entered the repertoire alongside Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Cole Porter.

So: Can anyone be creative?

Anyone can be mini-c. Most people can be little-c. Several can be pro-c. A scattered few can be Big-C.


Lists of suggestions on how to be more creative have begun popping up everywhere, from Buzzfeed to Newsweek. They are usually rooted in some fact and will rarely do harm. They tend to make things a bit simple and overlook important details. Does brainstorming work? Sometimes (better to write down ideas instead of shouting them out all at once, and the boss should wait outside the room). Does spending time in a different country make you creative? Well, it’s a start—assuming you take the time and effort to experience and absorb the culture around you; the people who go to China and eat at McDonalds aren’t going to necessarily see a boost. Regardless of the nuances, however, there is a broad research basis for understanding the traits, abilities, and behaviors that can make you more creative.

Being open is a major component. You might try new foods, have intense conversations, take (sensible) risks, go to museums, play with ideas, let yourself daydream a little, appreciate beauty, and generally enjoy all the different experiences that life has to offer. Yet being creative also requires follow-through and tremendous amounts of work and knowledge. An aspiring novelist must read, write, rewrite, and then repeat. Getting ideas (divergent thinking, or generation) is easy. Picking our best ideas and executing them (convergent thinking, or evaluation) is hard. Insight and inspiration are sexy; midnight revisions and weekend afternoons in the library are not.

What next?

This academic year has seen me move across the country to join the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut (UConn) for the rare chance to work side by side with two of creativity’s top scholars and leaders, Jonathan Plucker and Ronald Beghetto. As we set up shop in Connecticut, we have begun working with our colleagues and students to address what we see as the predominant issues in the field.

One of the first things we are tackling is the issue of communication. A wide variety of disciplines embrace creativity (or the related fields of innovation, imagination, genius, entrepreneurship, and aesthetics). We tend to publish in our own journals and speak our own jargon, but we should be able to speak each other’s languages. At UConn, we have been actively constructing frameworks that integrate scholarship across different fields, from psychology and education to business, neuroscience, and engineering. We pay particular attention to questions of context, domain, development, and culture.

We are also working on developing new measures of creativity. Our society values what it can test (see: SATs and ACTs and college admissions). The assessments we have tend either to be rooted in decades-old theory and research or else are too cumbersome (or expensive) to conduct on a large scale. We can do better.

Most of all, though, we believe that creativity researchers have been asking the wrong question. We ask, “Is creativity important?” The answer is clearly yes. The real question is, “Is creativity MORE important than all of the other attributes that demand our time, attention, and resources?” There is a limited amount of class time, government funding, and organizational budgeting. An hour spent primarily enhancing creativity is an hour not spent on developing mathematical skills or building resiliency. How does creativity specifically compare to other positive attributes (such as intelligence or loyalty) in predicting positive outcomes (such as happiness or income)? We are working with our colleagues and students to solve some of these eternal questions.

Bringing this topic back to the arts: Are the arts important? Of course they’re important. But should arts class get more or less funding than physical education? Should there be more time set aside for music or math? Poetry or science? It’s not an if-or choice, but educational leaders have to make these types of choices every day. As creativity researchers, we can help them make these decisions more efficiently and effectively.


This article originally appeared at National Endowment for the Arts blog

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