During the Christmas holidays I watched a BBC documentary on the differences in the brain between men and women, their implications and the reasons for possible differences. If any differences between the female and male are to occur, the next question is obviously, if the differences are genetical or arise from culture and social behavior. In search of the answer to this question, professor Alice Roberts interviewed a group of British teenagers on their favorite school subjects and career plans. As the stereotypes would have it, the boys mentioned careers like doctor, programmer and so forth, while the girls mentioned wanting to do something creative.
On hearing the somewhat stereotypical answers from the interviewed teenagers, I was struck with a series of questions:
- Aren’t mathematics and science creative fields of occupation?
- Is not everyone creative at their job (or occupation in general) to some degree?
- Do not art, literature and dance build on existing concepts, thus also borrowing and lending previous ideas and results?
I find it a bit worrying, to say the least, if creativity is perceived to exist only in art, literature etc. while mathematics and science are seen as a mechanical process. In general I would argue that creativity is present in our daily lives: sometimes creativity is merely applying some existing concept or object in a slightly new, quite obvious way. In his informative and entertaining Tedx talk from 2006 Ken Robinson discusses creativity and how our school system educates children away from their innate creativity, an unfortunate claim I can verify based on my own experiences.
Research questions on creativity
To answer my questions on the relationship between art, science and creativity, I defined for myself new questions to be answered:
- What is creativity?
- Why is creativity important, if it is important?
Definitions of creativity
Wikipedia defines creativity as the formation of something new and somehow valuable. The creation may be either tangible or intangible.
As Creativityatwork.com summarizes, creativity is not only thinking and pondering on something new but also implementing that thought and bringing it to life. Creativity is also a process and skill that can be learned, similar to sports, by mastering the basic skills, practicing them and applying them in new situations.
Clayton M. Christensen has studied creativity and in his book The Innovator’s DNA he claims creativity to consist of:
- Associating and drawing connections
- Questioning present knowledge and thought
- Observing human behavior to identify new ways of doing things
- Networking and meeting people to exchange ideas
- Experimenting to test ideas and uncover responses to new approaches
Why does creativity matter?
If we accept the above definition(s) of creativity, it becomes clear that creativity is a requirement for progress. If we are to advance our society, technology, religion or anything else, we need to bring about something novel or new, be it something tangible or intangible. Therefore creativity could be said to be at the center of our modern society that aims to improve the human life without having adverse side effects, or at least with minimal such effects.
Definition of science
Science is about using the scientific method to create, test and improve hypotheses and theories about the world and thus increasing our knowledge.
In science new ideas are based on drawing connections, questioning present knowledge, observing phenomena, exchanging ideas with colleagues and testing hypotheses. These five characteristics are those mentioned by Clayton M. Christensen characteristic of creativity. In this respect science is definitely something creative.
However, science is also something else than just creativity. Science aims to achieve reproducible results and construct refutable theories and models that are in line with the reality. When creating something, we might end up with unique pieces that are hardly reproducible. A creation is also not necessarily refutable, e.g. a painting is hardly refutable in a way a scientific theory might be.
Definition of art
Art is, by one definition, the human activity of creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts that show the creator’s skills and are in some sense beautiful.
We see that at least this definition of art is also in line with our definition of creativity and that art is something that entails creativity. This definition also pertains to many forms of art, equally well to visual arts, music and dance. In a broad sense literature may also be included. Interestingly, we can also observe in the definition of art the absence of the word “new”. I would argue that as well as science, art is very much progressive in the sense that it builds on the past, not necessarily always providing breakthroughs to completely new areas.
In the definition of art we see the word “beautiful”, which goes undefined. I will omit this aspect as it is not at the center of my argument, namely that science and art are both creative activities.
Art, science and creativity
Comparing the brief definitions above it should be clear that both art and science are creative acts. Engaging a career in science does not preclude creative work. Likewise, engaging in art does not always end up with completely new forms of expressing oneself of producing something unforeseen. It should also be clear that creativity needs to be fostered in the daily life to bring it to its full potential. Since creativity is also a process and skill, it is clear that mastering this process takes time and practice.
Being creative daily
Two concrete methods are provided in an old article from Psychology Today for fostering personal creativity on a daily basis:
- Break your routine and do one thing differently, be it a different route to work or preparing your breakfast differently.
- Count how many times during your day and in what context you are exposed to something. E.g. make a mental note each time you come into contact with water, be it in a drinking glass, walking through a mist, observing a waterfall.
Both approaches should help you see the ordinary in a new light and gain new thoughts and perspectives on the common things, helping you to hone your skills in applying the creative process.
Final thoughts on creativity
The HP motto from their annual report of 1999 is a down-to-earth representation on leveraging creativity.
Believe you can change the world.
Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
Know when to work alone and when to work together.
Share – tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.
No politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage.)
The customer defines a job well done.
Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
Invent different ways of working.
Make a contribution every day. If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
Believe that together we can do anything.
To actually create something means also doing something, doing work. Creativity is not just a bunch of nice thoughts. Creativity is also testing those thoughts, bringing them to life and giving them form, so that they are of value. Creativity also requires believing in yourself and working together persistently towards the goal, every step of the way.