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What is Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson says that creativity is "the process of having original ideas that have value."

That's an interesting definition and a debatable one.

His definition is similar to most other definitions of creativity. They all suggest that something new and original is required and that the new thing must have some tangible or practical value, if only as a source of inspiration hung on a wall.

This is far too limiting for me.

Consider the following example.

Suppose a Navy cook is responsible for making breakfast every day for his shipmates. Every Monday he makes scrambled egg tacos. Every Tuesday it's French toast with raspberry syrup. On Wednesday he makes Oatmeal with apricots and raisins. Thursday is waffles with nut butter and banana. And so on until he reaches Monday again and starts over.

Each day the cook carefully follows the same procedure as the week before.

There is nothing new.

Clearly, this work has value for the sailors and they enjoy the quality of the food.

Would we say that his cooking is not creative?

I wouldn't.

Even though the ideas are not new, something new is created each day. Yes, the something created is identical to what has been created before, but is it not still being created? Is this not creativity just the same?

Most artists, especially early in their careers, learn to imitate their predecessors, sometimes creating identical copies of the works of others. Is this not a creative act?

Would you say that a great forger is less of an artist than the original? Many would say so. Creativity and art have become associated only with something new and original.

So often we think that in order to have value as artists that we must do something new in a way never seen before. However, most experienced writers understand that their contribution to the uniqueness of a work is small compared to all the forms and standards that have laid the groundwork.

The only reason new and original has so much emphasis is the same reason cliches in writing are frowned upon. When something is so familiar as to become boring, it loses its meaning and it ceases to hold the interest of the observer. There is nothing magical about this. It just becomes boring and predictable. Different is what grabs our attention. But isn't the ten millionth copy of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa just as magical for one who has never seen it before?

The Navy cook is just as much an artist on the fifty-second Monday as he was on the first. And even after his shipmates have grown bored of the routine and stopped seeing the cook as the artist he is, the only thing required for the Navy cook to be perceived as an artist again is that he periodically does something to reawaken his shipmates. It could be a blue plate instead of white. It might be a different greeting: "Enjoy your meal, sailor," instead of "Hurry it up, seaman!" Or perhaps a sprig of green parsley in place of a splatter of hot sauce.

Many of us do not think of such things as works of art.

We do not think of bolts pressed in a machine and flying off an assembly line, each individually, as a product of creativity. But they are. The first was seen as a work of art. It was--and it brought value. And though we as observers may struggle to find meaning in each subsequent bolt, it remains an ongoing act of creativity.

Similarly, the art forger joins in the act of creativity spawned by the original painter.

Creativity is valuable to us for solving problems and engages us with the world around us, and the tiniest variation in an otherwise mundane world is a work of art, our own stamp of uniqueness.

Creativity itself cannot be created, only nourished or starved. It is part and parcel of the human experience. We create for survival, but we also create because it's beautiful and because it is a reflection, in the world, of who we are inside.

In a world where the bolts on the assembly line are seen as mere problems to be solved instead of the works of art they are in an ongoing miracle of creation, we may start to see other human beings as mere objects. We end up with assembly line medicine or mass market products engineered to appeal to the most people. The problem with such things is not that they exist, but what people may come to believe about them, that art is unnecessary, that they represent the final solution to the problem.

Is it ironic that so many of the great innovations are rarely seen as such from the start? Scientific discoveries are ridiculed or laughed at, such as Galileo's premise that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. Many of the biggest blockbuster books were roundly rejected by numerous publishers. In the Harry Potter series, for example, J. K. Rowlings' first book was rejected by twelve publishers before finally being accepted for publication. The rest is history, of course.

I am reminded of the story of an eight year old child of the 1930s who, today, would likely be labeled with ADHD and medicated into normalcy. Lucky for us all, a particularly creative medical doctor saw her differently, in a way no one else had. He saw the beauty in creation instead of an abnormal imperfection. As a result she has filled the world with art and beauty for the past 80+ years of her life.

Her story is told by Sir Ken Robinson in the TED Talk titled "Do Schools Kill Creativity." I include the relevant excerpt in text below:

I'm doing a new book at the moment called "Epiphany," which is based on a series of interviews with people about how they discovered their talent. I'm fascinated by how people got to be there. It's really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of; she's called Gillian Lynne -- have you heard of her? Some have. She's a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera." She's wonderful. I used to be on the board of the Royal Ballet in England, as you can see.

Anyway, Gillian and I had lunch one day and I said, "Gillian, how'd you get to be a dancer?" And she said it was interesting; when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the '30s, wrote to her parents and said, "We think Gillian has a learning disorder." She couldn't concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they'd say she had ADHD. Wouldn't you? but this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn't been invented at this point. It wasn't, an available condition. (Laughter) People weren't aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it -- because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight -- in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, "Gillian, I've listened to all these things that your mother's told me, and I need to speak to her privately." He said, "Wait here. We'll be back; we won't be very long," and they went and left her. But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother," Just stand and watch her." And the minute they left the room she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, "Mrs Lynne, Gillian isn't sick; she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."

I said, "What happened?" She said, "She did. I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn't sit still. People who had to move to think." Who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company -- the Gillian Lynne Dance Company -- met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she's given pleasure to millions; and she's a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Never underestimate the newness and beauty of every part of creation. Sometimes the greatest art is not in the new and unimagined, but in the mundane and ordinary where all one needs is a new perspective.

It is common for artists, and perhaps writers especially, to devalue their own voice. This is not because your story is uninteresting, but only because it is so familiar to you. In truth, you are in the midst of creation itself. Each breath you take is a work of art.