Have you ever taken any of those “How Creative Are You?” tests? Typical questions in that test are along the lines of I concentrate harder than others on things that interest me, I’m very enthusiastic about x or y, or I like finding out how things work. In my own research, we developed our own “Creative Problem Solving Scale” for software engineers based on our previous findings (more on that later). The problem is that I recently found out that this does not say anything about your creativity. The only thing it can gauge is your creative potential.
After reading and thoroughly digesting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, I realized I had to change my own view on creativity. You see, creativity is in fact a label that is put onto something (not someone) by an expert in the field that is not the maker. No single painter can claim his or her work is very creative: that is a job for the art critics—who are the domain experts that probably used to paint themselves. It is the work, the produce, that is creative. We say that someone “is creative”, but we really mean that someone “produced something creative”.
Csikszentmihalyi calls these people “gatekeepers of the domain”. According to Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is the interaction between (1) the domain (all things art), (2) the field (the current art practices and experts), and (3) the “creative” person (the artist). He diminishes the contribution of the person, something we in the Western world perhaps do not like, as we tend to attribute anything to exceptional performance of the single individual.
I simply cannot proclaim that a certain painting is creative. Why not? Because I’m all but an expert at that particular domain. I never painted myself, and while I like to think of myself as somewhat knowledgeable, in reality, I’m not. Thus, if the experts of the art field declare painting x or y as very creative, then I have to rely on their opinion. Of course I can disagree with them—as I tend to do with a lot of strange modern art lately—but that’s beside the point, as the consensus was reached and I would be in the vast minority. However, when it comes to code and software, I can say something about the creativeness. But I can never call myself creative: that is something that others will have to do (and probably won’t, let’s not kid ourselves).
The consequence of this is that creativity is a cultural-social construct. It is important to pause and think here: cultures come and go. Therefore, the vision of creative work also changes. In 1890, nobody highly valued Vincent van Gogh’s Place du Forum or Sunflowers paintings. In fact, van Gogh led a miserable and lonely life, only selling a few paintings throughout his entire life. A hundred years later, it’s suddenly found exceptionally creative. In more recent cultures, early impressionistic paintings like van Gogh’s are called creative. But at that time, nobody cared, even though his brother Theo did his best trying to sell them. If I was able to paint very similar to van Gogh today, nobody would care either: it’s been done. There is a time and place for everything.
That is why Csikszentmihalyi marginalizes the power of the individual and calls creativity systemic—a lot of energy might be poured into something like painting or programming, but without the right connections, the right moment in time, and the right place, you won’t end up in the history books. Being what Csikszentmihalyi calls “truly creative” entails having the power to alter the domain. van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso: all founding fathers of new domains: impressionism, post-impressionism and cubism. If van Gogh would not have lived in the golden age of the Paris Salon, his painting technique would have been totally different and perhaps gone unnoticed—even after his death.
Not a single painter or programmer should call himself or herself creative: that is up to the field. Does that mean it’s useless to study creativity or the habits of well-known creative individuals? Of course not. We can extract the essence of that made these people create those masterpieces and try to implement them in our own daily lives. Does that make us creative individuals? Of course not. But it points the way: it increases our potential.
There is one well-known test that I believe genuinely assesses the creativity of something, and that is Amabile’s Consensual Assessment Technique or CAT. It’s a very academic way of saying “just assemble a panel of experts and let them decide”. And that is exactly what implicitly happens when you look at the individual, the domain, and the field.
The interviewees in Csikszentmihalyi’s book and the interviewees in my own research show remarkable similarities: they all were extremely curious and extremely persistent. Without these, the motivation to invest large amounts of time and energy into a single topic will wither fast, thereby diminishing the chance of a domain-changing creative contribution. That is why most creative self-assessment tests ask questions like when I am curious, I try to find out everything I can about it or I do not give up easily. Curiousness and persistence slightly increase your chance at creating something that will be labeled as creative by the field. But only ever so slightly. All the other parameters need to match up as well, and we are at the mercy of entropy for most of these.
All this is somehow soothing to me. It could mean that the difference between great creative individuals—Einstein, Nietzsche, Edison, von Neumann, da Vinci—and people like you and me is not so much the intelligence, perseverance, or insight, but rather being in the right place at the right time1.
By the way, all creative people interviewed by Csikszentmihalyi keep a journal. Maybe you should too.