Creativity is a Learned Process

Creativity has always been essential for our cultural growth, but there are still many misconceptions about this elusive process.

Extrapolating from the video interviews/segments below.

If creativity can be learned, then what are the steps in that process?

  • increasing capacity for uncertainty — poet John Keats called this negative capability, or the ability to stay in a space where you don't really know what is going to happen next
  • being willing to chase down ideas — and to understand that not all of them need to lead somewhere… as I am often reminded, ideas are steps upon which to build something. It is the experience that makes the idea come to life
  • developing your own set of tools and prompts — the creative impulse is one piece of the process, at some point however you need to sit down and do the work… I find the work transformational in that it informs what happens next
  • understanding how to work — is a key part of bringing creativity to life and the shape of understanding looks a lot more like a spiral than a straight trajectory. I am reminded of the spiral then-President of IKEA North America Pernille Lopez drew for us on a whiteboard when we talked about running a business
  • keeping at it by allowing yourself the despair — the not so cozy part of the spiral, leads to new things

“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get to work.”

[Chuck Close]

What are the cognitive stages of creativity?

  • people who tend to combine more different kinds of inputs that come into their brains tend to be more creative
  • different stages of the creative process act in different neuro-networks (areas that communicate with each other)
  • during the preparation stage — when you are trying to learn many things — neuroscientists can observe increased levels of activity in areas of the brain associated with attention and deliberate focus
  • then there is the important stage where you let it go — this is called incubation — mind wandering and time away from the task lead to better ideas when coming back to the task
  • a further stage is that of illumination or insight — where these connections automatically or subconsciously collide and reach the threshold of consciousness (that happens to me late in the day, because I am a night owl and need silence and space to think)
  • which is why I work late into the night (the blog is a great sounding board for those ideas and has been a fantastic tool for me) because at this stage of the creative process verification needs to happen
  • at this later stage you use critical thinking to think about your audience and craft the message so it is best received by people
  • this stage is important because some of the greatest creative ideas can be lost when they are not packaged in the right way and consumable
  • cognitive scientists are working on identifying and separating all these different processes — of note is how to bring all of the stages together to cull a more nuanced form of creativity

How do you transcend the lone creator?

  • good, healthy collaboration will always make the process better
  • the digital tools we have at our disposal to use for work have reached a level of complexity that challenge the experience of a single human being
  • any endeavor and discipline that requires creating something new will benefit from collaboration
  • the members of a collaborative group make up a single meta-artist — they sum up their perspectives and skills in a way that you could not do as an individual
  • it is the conversations that are the result of additional ideas — a concept I believe in deeply
  • there is a creative maturity that you need to take very seriously and stand by and that is — your ideas are not you and criticism of your ideas is not criticism of you
  • you also need to not be married to your ideas and be ready — and willing — to let go. I am reminded of the many stories Ed Catmull shared in Creativity, Inc. (the top book in my summer reading list) to explain Steve Job's creative process
  • if you work with someone who is the carbon copy of yourself, you might as well be working alone — actually, organizations that keep hiring carbon copies of the same person get into serious trouble on performance, and I have had the data and the experience of it as I shared #Inbound14 on the bold stage
  • it is very difficult to be creative without trust
  • collaboration amplifies your voice — when you work alone, you may have the satisfaction of having created something all by yourself; when you work with a group, you see something grander coming to life, and you were part of it
  • it is such a beautiful way to connect with other human beings — making something together

Why nothing is original

  • filmmaker Ferbu Ferguson says he does not think there is any creating without being influenced by other work by other people
  • we need to let go of this notion of originality
  • we have this notion that ideas come out of the blue — kind of like the light-bulb going off (from my linguist days: you might be intrigued by the fact that “eureka” actually meant “I found” in Greek)
  • even though that flash of inspiration came from your subconscious, it was the product of processing all these influences that you had in your system

Remix of ideas

  • how we create new ideas is by using the remix: copying, transforming, and combining ideas (kind of what I am doing now with this post)
  • copying means simple mimicry — we do a ton of this, it is how we learn
  • transforming is taking an idea and creating variations of it — innovation starts with a base, you are transforming what is there on top of a platform that already exists
  • combining means you take existing ideas that nobody thought of putting together and make them harmonize — that is extremely creative
  • even work that seems extremely radical is a combination of these ideas
  • Gutenberg, for example, remixed existing ideas and added the screw press, which was used for pressing oil or wine, and not for printing technology

We copy, combine, collaborate our way into creativity. When we keep pushing, it is possible to find something that has not been done before.



Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

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