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Do you think of yourself as a creative person? Do you aspire to creativity? What does it mean? Why would you want to spend your time on creative activity? How should you go about it?


Do you think of yourself as a creative person? Do you aspire to creativity? What does it mean? Why would you want to spend your time on creative activity? How should you go about it?

These are the questions I’d like to discuss in this post.

It’s been stimulated by reading the book Creativity by the psychologist with the unpronounceable name, the inventor of ‘flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Though far from perfect, it’s a good and substantial book, and like all good books, it has made me think. I’ve somewhat changed my view about creativity as a result of reading it, and you can’t ask for more.

Before I go on to summarize and comment on the book’s view of creativity, I’d like to get two niggles out the way, niggles which have more to do with the publishers – HarperCollins – than with Mr C (as I will refer to him henceforth). First, though reissued in 2013, this is an old book, first published in 1996. From the modern cover and presentation, the casual reader might not appreciate that the book is nearly a quarter-century old. Why is there no indication of this, nor even a short new Preface by the author? Did Mr C not learn anything new about creativity, or develop a slightly different stance, during the sixteen years that elapsed between publication and reissue? I bet he did, and I would like to know.

Second, in my copy at least, the book jumps from page 152 to page 185, so I have lost nearly two chapters which I’m sure would have been interesting. There is absolutely no indication that the pages are missing, and it is shameful that HarperCollins can put a book out in this form. If one of my readers is on speaking terms with them, tell them I want a new copy of the full book please (I bought it via Amazon). If you decide to buy the book, which I would recommend, go to a bookshop and check that it is intact before you buy.

Why Creativity is Important

Mr C cites two main reasons. ‘First,’ he says, ‘most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity.’ What makes humans different from apes are language, values, art, science, and technology – the fruits of creativity. Given this, it is odd that so little systematic attention has been given to the sources and nature of creativity.

Second, when we are involved in creativity, ‘we feel we are living more fully than during the rest of life.’ This is a huge claim, but I think it is justified. Certainly, it is true for me, and I hope for you. If it is not, you can enhance the meaning and value of your life immeasurably by learning how to become creative and spending as much time as possible in that mode.

Yet, Mr C has a strange – but probably justified – and rather narrow view of creativity, and it is this we must grapple with before considering how we might become, individually, more creative.

Creativity is not just – or mainly – a property of the individual

On page 1 Mr C launches an initially puzzling surprise. ‘It is easier,’ he blithely asserts, ‘to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.’ He leaves the statement there, before attempting to justify or explain it – several pages later on, in chapter two. So let me try to elucidate what he means.

He narrows the definition of creative individuals by ruling out two common colloquial types of allegedly creative individuals – whom he says are ‘brilliant’ or ‘personally creative’, but not creative by Mr C’s definition.

A brilliant person, he says, is one who is stimulating, unusually bright, and expresses unusual opinions. But they may not – indeed, he implies, are almost certain – not to ‘contribute something of permanent significance’, by which I think he means, do not change the nature of the world in any significant way because of their apparent, and inconsequential, brilliance.

Someone who is personally creative is a notch further up on Mr C’s scale, yet still falls short of true, useful creativity. Truly creative people, he says, are ‘like Leonardo, Edison, Picasso, or Einstein’ in that they ‘have changed our culture in some important respect’. He does not mean that they have to be household names or famous outside their specialization, because his book is based on interviews with ninety-one people whom he says qualify as truly creative, and I had not heard of most of them. For example, have you heard of the historian Natalie Davis, or the poet Hilde Domin?

Yet Mr C insists that all the ninety-one are quite different from his two inferior categories of being brilliant or ‘personally creative’, because they have changed the domain in which they work. ‘The last kind of creativity,’ he says, ‘is not simply a more developed form of the first two.’

Mr C’s Systems Model of Creativity

‘Creativity with a capital C, the kind that change some aspect of the culture,’ he writes, ‘is never only in the mind of a person.’ To change the culture ‘the idea must be couched in terms that are understandable to others, it must pass muster with the experts in the field, and finally it must be included in the cultural domain to which it belongs.’

The system comprises three main parts:

  • The domain – a set of symbolic rules and procedures. ‘Mathematics is a domain, or at a finer resolution algebra and number theory’ are domains. Poetry and history are also domains.
  • Second, there is the field – ‘which includes all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain. It is their job to decide whether a new idea or product should be included in the domain. In the visual arts field the field consists of art teachers, curators of museums, collectors of art, critics’ and foundations sponsoring art.
  • Third is the individual person – ‘Creativity occurs when a person, using the symbols of the domain such as music, engineering, business, or mathematics, has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion into the relevant domain.’ For example, ‘Freud carved psychoanalysis out of the existing domain of neuropathology’, but unless he had been able to enlist substantial followers, his ideas would have had little or no impact.

Therefore, ‘Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one … It follows that creativity can be manifested only in existing domains and fields. For instance, it is very difficult to say “This woman is very creative at nurturing” or “This woman is very creative in her wisdom” because nurturance and wisdom, although extremely important, are loosely organized domains with few generally accepted rules and priorities, and they lack a field of experts who can determine the legitimacy of the claims.”

What should we make of this? Mr C’s model is interesting, not least because his threefold system must gain general acceptance – amongst whom? – to itself become a new domain. And there are domains and sub-domains. Where should one draw the line? Arguably, he has failed to carve out Creativity as a separate domain, because twenty-four years after his book was published, there is no generally recognized domain as Creativity, and no field of experts who can say his model is ‘correct’. That does not mean, however, that his ideas are worthless, or have had no effect. Perhaps it is too early to say.

Let’s take an example with which I am very familiar – and maybe many of you are too. Management consulting used to be a bit like nurturing or wisdom – there were no established rules or methodologies. Consultants were generally white-haired gentlemen whose authority rested on decades of experience – they had seen it all, done it all, and therefore felt entitled to sell their particular brand of wisdom – and people bought it for the same reason.

Then along came business schools, initially also hotbeds of experience, but in the 1950s and 1960s colonized increasingly by academics who tried to make the teaching of business scientific, drawing where possible on vaguely relevant domains which already had at least some scientific or at least systematic and preferably quantitative kudos – accounting, finance, economics, psychology, marketing, operations research. The craze has now gone so far as to encompass classes in entrepreneurship, despite all the evidence that successful entrepreneurs are born and not made. In Mr C’s terms, business became a domain with recognized authorities defining the field, and anyone who wanted to be recognized as a management expert had to learn and follow the rules of the domain, before presuming to create new sub-domains or enlarge the knowledge within any existing domain.

In many ways, this seems to me to be an professor’s wet dream – to gain authority and perhaps lucrative consulting contracts largely based on academic research and credentials, and not on something altogether simpler and more valuable: the ability to help increase a company’s profits and cash flow. The whole methodology that Mr C is attempting to create in Creativity can be criticized on two grounds – it is inherently based on rules and research; and it attempts to corral creativity within an established domain, with recognized gatekeepers, who in many cases are deeply subjective and biased in their judgments. Is poetry really a domain that can or should be constrained in this way? Are the visual arts, where the recognized authorities are often part of a gigantic confidence trick, and the value of a particular artist’s work is deliberately inflated by those who hold a large stock of it?

Isn’t creativity a continuum rather than a digital divide between personal creativity (lower case) and domain-and-field Creativity (upper case), where authorities, often academic, tell us who are the sheep and who the goats?

And yet, there is a certain appeal to Mr C’s system. It is certainly true that to be a successful and creative mathematician, you first need to learn the rules; and to be a successful and creative composer of music, you need to understand the rudiments of notation and perhaps also be able to read music. On the other hand, I suspect that jazz arose as a new musical domain without its protagonists all – or perhaps mainly – knowing the rules of the classical music domain; and that the same is true of the various forms of pop and rock music. After all, Freddy Mercury was a baggage handler, not a graduate of a music academy; and the fans who propelled his work to fame were certainly not qualified gatekeepers as per the C system. People change the culture because their creativity changes the culture – it is more like a bazaar or a democratic market than it is like a system of grading by academic or other authorities.

Some domains, such as the hard sciences, necessarily follow the C system. Other domains, such as the softer and more squidgy ‘sciences’ such as psychology, follow the C system to a degree, perhaps too much. The self-improvement market, to take another example, is highly democratic – it is based on the votes of those who buy books, view videos, and listen to podcasts. Others, such as business and entrepreneurship, follow what works and makes more money, or at least should do so. Would society and business be more creative if we abolished all the business schools? I can’t prove it, and neither can anyone prove the opposite – but for what it is worth, I think it would be a better use of resources and a better generator of creativity if the brightest people in the world never set foot in a business school.

All my life I have searched for simple concepts – such as the 80/20 principle, and the Star principle, which is based on the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘box’ or ‘growth-share matrix’ of cows, dogs, question-marks, and stars – which can be used to raise personal effectiveness, and/or to make more money. There are rules that require being learned and respected to use the 80/20 principle or the Star principle, but a reasonably intelligent person can learn the rules easily and quickly by reading a book, by watching a video, or by having a couple hours of personal instruction. Something that is simple and easy to learn can nevertheless have enormous value, and be used creatively by anyone of normal intelligence and high motivation. A proven principle is not really a domain as defined by Mr C. it is altogether simpler and superior.

I want to end on a positive note. I have enjoyed reading Creativity and found it useful in clarifying my thinking, even if I end up in a different place from Mr C. And in a later post, I will examine his hints for generating greater creativity, and his attempt at saying how creative people are different – because I think there is some wit and wisdom in what he says, and in the quotes he has gathered from creative people; as well as in where I differ from him.