In his famous TED talk, the late Sir Ken Robinson said (2:49), “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” It’s high time we also more clearly defined “creative person”—including its cousins, “creative” (a term used widely in the professional world, particularly in advertising), “creator” (a term used by YouTube and platforms to define the people making the content).
If we go with Robinson’s point, the naive answer would be that everyone skilled in an artistic or craft skill can be considered a “creative person.” It’s not dissimilar to how Nike makes that athleticism is a part of being human, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” That means, regardless of wider acceptance or even how good you actually are at a sport, you are an athlete. (It’s worth noting that this belief helps Nike sell more shoes.)
After years of studying and practicing creativity and the creative process, I’ve come to this conclusion:
Labelling anyone as a “creative person,” or anything as “creative,” also creates the definition of not creative. This distinguishing does a disservice to the actual creative process.
Creativity is just about creating something—focusing on the process, discovering new possibilities, and actually doing the work.
That’s why children are creative; they haven’t had years of labels applied and stuck to them yet. They don’t have a role to play, and thus, just by existing and expressing or playing, they are being creative. In that sense, everybody was a creative person (even a “genius!”).
Furthermore, the idea and image of creativity has been so mythologized, politicized, and financialized now that it’s become absolutely useless. It would be entirely more beneficial for us to consider creativity as something to do—not something to be.
Even moreso than today, being a creative person used to be expensive. Photography and film required paying for a camera, writing and publishing required paying for printing, recording and producing music required paying for studio time. And distribution would require printing, factories, and shipping. Sure—the rare tenacious or resourceful individual might have been able to finesse resources for their creative work, but I’d suggest it’s likely that many dreams got squashed out of economic necessity. As I write this, with the lower cost of electronics, and the Internet for free distribution, the barriers to creating and releasing work became next to zero.
If it wasn’t an economic necessity, there was also an educational barrier. Teaching yourself art used to be incredibly difficult. Now, again, thanks to the Internet, it’s still difficult—but perhaps a little (or much) less so. You can pay for a MOOC, email people for specific questions, and follow them on social media. You can also try to apprentice and build relationships remotely. The entire world can be a vision board. It still requires tenacity and finesse, of course.
I say all this not to say that getting paid for creative work is easy, or that creative professions are less risky; that’s a whole different topic. But rather, there has never been a better time to learn how to be creative. And as such, if you start taking pictures with your iPhone, someone could call you a photographer. Or, you could just declare it yourself.
But if that were a case, anyone with a camera phone would be considered a photographer. And any person with a computer keyboard would be considered a writer. And any person with a pencil and paper pad could be considered a designer.
So, the definition of “creative person” became murkier. And now it’s a mess figuring out who’s a creative person, and who’s not.
The Image of Creativity
I wonder why being a creative person is even so desirable to some people in the first place. It could be because of the mythologized rock stars, or perhaps the corporate proclamations on the value of creativity, or even just because it’s so fun to be creative.
I have a suspicion: To many people, being creative is synonymous to being in the same group of people that they admire. It’s the same as buying a pair of Adidas shoes, or perhaps the original iPod. It’s the linguistic equivalent to being a “CEO” or “entrepreneur” even; it’s a signal that means, potentially, being accepted, and even excellent, at a fair cost. In this case, the cost of calling yourself “a creative person” is zero.
Nonetheless, the artist is in some ways synonymous with “creative person.” Accessible labels, empowered by accessible media and distribution means everyone can be an artist now.
Critics are, understandably, upset—perhaps even insulted—by this. High art used to be taken seriously. Now, with the wrecked business models and lack of support and funding, and the hordes of people wanting to proclaim themselves creative geniuses, where was the standard? The traditions were disappearing.
Of course, to borrow Sir Robinson’s heuristic, if we viewed creativity as the same as literacy: in a world where everyone is literate, that doesn’t mean nobody is literate. Same with basic arithmetic, or swimming. Everybody can swim; does that mean nobody is a swimmer? So it should be with creativity. Everybody can be a creative person.
Still, creatives need to be evaluated somehow. Who was “good” at creativity, and bad at it? What did it mean to be creative? Would the distinguishing be in technical skill, or subject matter, or originality and surprise?
Here’s where my parents were concerned. Despite how I filled notebooks with my drawing and writing, they wanted to protect me from the subjectivity and politics that would come with art and creativity—a war that I wasn’t likely to win, perhaps because of the skin I was born in. They figured, nobody could argue with math; you either did it right or you did it wrong, and hard work paid off.
Anyway—creative evaluation comes from the form and attributes that creative work takes. Make art, not content, is a rallying cry to hold the “art” we publish online—known more commonly as “content”—up to a higher standard.
There is a hierarchy to labels. Content is a “cheaper” word than art—”content marketing” is lower on the hierarchy than “editorial studio,” “freelance writer” is lower than “author,” “Soundcloud rapper” to “rapper” to “recording artist,” etc., even though a lot of these things don’t really matter.
They’re all labels.
And since we can label ourselves, now, we don’t need to wait for other people to define us and label us, nor do we need to listen to them. We have the option of living in our own realities, so long as we understand that “to be a creative person” we need to “do creative things.”
In order to be a creative person, we simply need to create.
In order to be creative, you need to do creativity.
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity, he splits creativity into two categories—small c creativity, personally creative, in which people “express unusual thoughts, who are interesting and stimulating—in short, to people who appear to be unusually bright,” and capital C creativity, “the kind that changes some aspect of the culture.” In other words, he writes, “Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.”
Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of creativity is, by today’s context, narrow and exactly what a non-practicing creative would write. It’s focused on acceptance—you are only allowed to be a creative person when your act, idea, or product changes an existing domain or transforms one. There is much to be critical of—the fact that all domains are blending together, the fact that companies and corporations are putting out new products (sometimes, the least creative!), and such—but mostly, it’s the idea of acceptance.
Perhaps in Csikszentmihalyi’s time, acceptance was a clear line—you either made it, or you didn’t. You were an insider, or an outsider. While those groups still exist today, an abundance of creative work is happening outside the formal definition of fields and domains. So, I believe this Csikszentmihalyi’s distinguishing of the two is no longer as useful as it used to be.
And more importantly, I believe that by focusing on being accepted, you will be a less creative person. You will get blocked, fixated, and frustrated by the impossibility of the task you have set for yourself. You will be scared of getting rejected. (See Andre 3000 and Rick Rubin.) Unless you have a vast amount of resources, you will not be able to make something perfect. You will need to make a lot of acceptable things, and to have the sensibility to know when perfect is emerging.
The Art of Doing Creative Work
When I was writing this, I thought—a critic might say, rightly—that the world didn’t need another somewhat pedantic piece on defining what a creative person is. But then, I remembered, being creative meant forgetting about the outcome, and just making. And so, on a Friday evening, I loaded up the Google Docs outline I had for this, and I turned it into a blog post. That’s how creativity works!
Is creativity work? Is work creative? Another topic for another post, perhaps. But if you’re interested in doing more creative stuff, or trying to get more creative at your day job, I wrote a book entitled, There Is No Right Way to Do This. Studying practitioners like Mike Saviello (the aforementioned Big Mike), Dacoury Natche (Grammy-award winner DJ Dahi), and #the100DayProject facilitator Lindsay Jean Thomson, I’ve written up 46 starting points to support you whether you’re looking to get more creative for any project.
If you agree, and want to do creativity, I’ve written a bunch of other blog posts for you to read, starting with how to be more creative, understanding the creative process, and creative activity through daily challenges.