What is creativity anyway?


in Creativity

I used to think of my lawyering days as highly uncreative.  Pouring through mountains of facts and reading tedious pages of case law to define the problem and develop strategies to resolve the issue. 

I know now that what I was doing was really creativity in action.  Even though the context of that creativity was one that I ultimately did not find appealing, I was engaged in the creative process.

Creativity is traditionally defined as the development of original things or ideas through the use of imagination.  I am willing to bet that most people think of creativity in artistic terms:  writing, painting, music, and so on. 

But creativity is really bigger than that.  It is a way of being – receptive and open.  A way of thinking.  A way of looking at the world you inhabit.  And it is not the purview of a select, special few.

A recent article in Newsweek magazine, which suggests that our creativity as a nation is on the decline, provides a scenario that I find very useful when thinking about creativity:  it is the ability to sift through a vast catalog of information and reach a plan of action through fact-finding, idea-finding, and solution-finding.

“To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).” The Creativity Crisis by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

Imagine my surprise when I read this.  This is exactly what I had been trained to do as a lawyer. 

And, if you are anything like me, it is what you do in your daily round.  Generating a multitude of ideas to cover a childcare situation when the babysitter falls ill and the car breaks down so you can’t reach Grandma on the other side of town and the dog just swallowed your license tabs.  Sifting through ideas to figure out the best result.  To handle the situation.  To come up with a plan.  But we often discount this as being creative.

Po and Merryman describe the creative thinking process like this:

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.
Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.  Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas.

Is that cool or what?

What if we all remembered that we are creative beings?  What if we owned that creativity?  What if we consciously applied this kind of thinking to everything in our lives?  What if we lead lives centered in creativity?

I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it….

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Chee August 23, 2010 at

Thanks for sharing this. It’s always interesting to see how people are creative in various industries. Serviced-based industries can be just as creative as product-based. We don’t have to create the next new shiny tech gadget in order to be considered creative!


Andrea August 23, 2010 at

You are so right! Idea creativity is available to all of us – in any context. Thanks for commenting!


Henrique Fogli February 9, 2012 at

One tip I follow: in this mobile/tablet age we live today, I’d recommend downloading any mind map software and playing with it. Keep your divergent thinking always in shape.


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