Saturday, 14 January 2012

What is creativity?

Some thoughts by John Conroy based on his contributions to a debate on Creativity, can it be taught, on Linkedin


Creativity is inherent in us all from birth, it lies there waiting to be woken, sparked into life.

Like walking, crawling and speaking, we will try it but if discouraged we will fail. In parts of the world children who are kept in cots never crawl or walk. Those who never hear others speak, never talk. By the same process, whatever language we hear first is the one we speak.

Unless we have a disability, these basic human traits are natural to us all. Even with a disability, if encouraged enough, a child will make some attempt at these natural functions.

The key for me is the influences around us. Parents, relations, friends, environment and to some extent, schooling.

The reason I say, to some extent schooling is there is a perception that schooling inhibits creativity. I will come to this later.

If you are fed well, live in a big house with lots of fields around you, there is a good chance that you will grow to a height taller than your parents. While this is not a science, as far as I know, there is some evidence to show that people from wealthy backgrounds with all the resources that entails, will live longer and grow taller. There are of course exceptions and a case made for genetic considerations.

The reason I focus on this is, the same principle can be equated to creativity and its outputs.

It is not necessary for the creative to be rich and have all the benefits that entails, in some cases the opposite is the case. Where the corollary exists is in the provision of the resources for creativity to grow. Like other parts of the human, if the correct stimulus is provided we see the development of the competency in all. Food and space to allow the body to grow, can be related to nutrition to allow creativity to grow and find its own space, providing its own unique outputs.

Creativity is not an absolute and depends on the challenge given and accepted by the individual. I believe that if everyone received maximum stimulus from birth, everyone would have the same level, but not identical, outputs. there are other considerations here but thats for a differant debate.

The children of musicians have  greater potential to develope their musical ability than the average individual. The same applies to actors, painters, designers etc. the lake of mud we are in, dictates the type of mud that sticks.

If we go into the lake late in life, we will be less receptive to allowing the mud to stick, we may want to shower and/or be embarresed by the mud.

School takes a beating when it comes to discussing creativity and is to some extent deserved. A school is tasked with delivering outputs in a very prescribed way and its students are examined against this criteria. Teachers have very little discretion and there is no allowances for randomness in the curriculum.
Schools teach precribed programmes and students learn to follow these prescriptive paths, never learning to deviate. It entails accepting whats precribed as real and absolute, never to be challanged.
It also builds in a structure of authority, with a masters being more knowlegable than a degree and if you have two all the better, more heads bow. There is also the level of qualification A/A+ etc, all fine in business where you need to do as you are told and need those below to do the same.
Unfortunatly those who question others or themselves are seen as weird/fluffy/quirky, ones to be watched and keep outside the golden circle.

Having said that, some teachers will encourage students to think outside the box, particularly by reading poets or other writers who have something inspiring or challenging to say. They may introduce them to painters, sculpture or just inspire them to study their environment.

There is another side to the perception of creativity and that is administration.
I would maintain that admin should serve creativity rather than as is at present, where it trys and succeeds in controling the creative flow.
We grant aid, permissions to use resources perform in locations all precribed by administrators or administrative processes. You need to fit into boxes of certian shapes or tactile strenghts and dare you not think outside the prescribed box.
Yet! that is what creativity is, jumping outside the box, shouting, roaring, challanging, pushing, growing and being challanged, forced outside the box, outside your comfort zone, naked and alone, made to think in a way thats differant.
One can of course be creative within an administrative process or restriction and I believe that is the part of us that makes us rebel and challange, even the administrator.

"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go" T.S Elliot.

A large proportion of creatives have attended school and lived to tell the tale. There are of course those who opt out and travel a path not dictated by formal education. A lot of our better writers have gone through the various streams and received degrees, masters and doctorates from the most prestigious universities. Others will tell you otherwise, maybe ‘Gilding the Lilly’ a little.

The point is, school, formal education is only a small part of the creatives interaction with stimulus or anti-stimulus processes.

Bearing this in mind, we all have different influences, different levels of influence and influence from many divergent touch points.

This ensures we are all unique as we all travel widely different routes. Even though our starting and finishing points are the same, it’s what’s in the middle that gives each of us our uniqueness. Brothers, sisters, twins all start out from the same mother, grow up in the same house, go to the same schools, have different friends. They also have more or less the same brothers and sisters, depending on whether they are the first, second or third child, all different in the same environment. They can also have different fathers or may grow up with different parents or siblings. All leading to separate unique creatives.
In terms of whether creativity can be taught or not, I would maintain that it cannot. Creativity cannot be taught but that doesn't mean you can’t learn to unlock it.
I believe we are all born with the ability to be creative and like walking or talking, we learn to develop these skills or competencies by influence from others and the environment around us. Without being insulting to anybody i suggest that creativity is alive and well, to different degrees, within most of us, but is dormant or lack lustre in others. We see art/creativity classes/workshop unlock this hidden talent to different degrees in many people, at different stages in their lives.
There may be an argument about the level of creativity but i suggest there is no argument around all having the ability to be creative.


Creativity is impossible to measure and attempts to do so will kill the process. The advertising industries will look for outputs and call this creativity. The measurement in the advertising industry are in relation to output and impact. No doubt there are creative people working in these industries but they work in all of industry, whether perceived as creative or otherwise.  I have recently seen a process in Dublin City Council where the best innovation from their inner ‘Ideas Scheme’ came from people at the bottom of the ladder. Not alone was there innovation around water blockage in street sewer systems the best and most successful, saving large sums for the organisation, it was discovered that they had a substantial number of other clever and money saving innovation in place.
Creativity must be a free bird, matched to randomness and allowed to fly. Clip its wings and it dies.
Its outputs can be measured against comparable outputs and will always score higher when evaluated by open minds.


Art is another industry or activity where it is presumed has the copywrite on creativity, not so?

It is fair to say that an artist will be creative and constantly challenge his/her ability to enable change and improve output. The important point for me is, creatives don’t need to be artists to learn, grow and contribute in whatever sphere they choose. A bus driver, sewer worker, diplomat, CEO all have the ability to be creative, once they have received the necessary stimulus and validation.

It is important that we recognise creativity and the soft emotions that accompany it. Creative mining is much deeper and richer in an environments that opens the gateway for this process to thrive.

I think the problem in this debate is what we mean by ' taught'. The presumption of being taught is based on knowing nil at the beginning and is fully enabled by the teacher/tutor. Creativity, as pointed out by Velit is everywhere and within everyone, its within us all from birth as a seed. All that can be done is to water the seed, care for it, nurture it and along with the soil, we will see it grow, mature and blossom. You can't teach creativity but you can nurture and inspire it. Teaching is formal and in a sense contrary to creativity, though, life and teaching is not that simple.

What feeds creativity, could it be the six points below.
  • Imagination
  • Randomness
  • A mind open to challange
  • A willingness to enter the unknown
  • Take a chance  
  • Be brave                  


Dublin-a city defined by its creativity.