When is Creativity?

To begin a newsletter reimagining the context of creativity, it feels pertinent to answer the question: What is creativity? Each of you come with your own understanding, assumptions and associations. How might we find a definition expansive enough to hold us all? Those who study creativity use the following definition:

Creativity is a new combination of thought that is determined to have value, use, or meaning.

This definition offers as many answers as it does questions. It provides a succinct explanation of ideas as new combinations of thought, but is any idea ever truly novel? Isn’t the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun? Perhaps this is why the inclusion of the word “combination” is necessary; all ideas are just a combination of existing thought, sometimes new to the thinker. That “aha” moment is when your brain discovers a unique blending of your experiences. But what about the second half of the definition? Who determines when an idea is valuable, useful, or meaningful? This is what led the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to ask not “What is creativity?” but “Where is creativity?” He had this to say: “There is no way to know whether a thought is new except with reference to some standards, and there is no way to tell whether it is valuable until it passes social evaluation. Therefore, creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context”. (1This separates imagination from creativity; the former being internal and individual, the latter external and social. What I take away from this is that creativity is relational. To be creative you must engage with the world, seek out experiences to inspire new combinations, and immerse yourself in a community or field for your imagination to have meaning to others.

Which leads to my favorite definition of creativity by the arts therapist Shaun McNiff:

“Creativity is the ability to take what exists and change it into something new through unique responsive acts.” 

(2) Shaun McNiff, Imagination in Action: Secrets for Unleashing Creative Expression

Here McNiff seems to be answering one more iteration of our question: When is creativity? The title of McNiff’s book, Imagination in Action, answers this by recognizing that creativity takes action; a moving from the internal to the external, the individual to the social, a response. It is this definition that I find the most transcendent. In every responsive act there is possibility for creativity, meaning everything we do can be creative. Even more so, we are creative when we act in relation to our contexts; creativity can simply be making meaning of our surroundings. As one of my mentors once said: “Your voice is your creativity”. (3In other words, your voice is the expression of your imagination; the externalization of your internal world. So the next time you tell a story, think of it as imagination in action. You are creating the world with your words. And as Krista Tippett of the profound On Being podcast states: “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others.” (4So let us use our imaginations wisely and speak of creativity in everyone.

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

Start redefining your daily routines as unique responsive acts. What combination of experiences led to these routines? Have they changed overtime in response to your surroundings? For example, what factors led to your current style? Or route to work? Or grocery list? Can you try something else that will create a new combination of possibilities? Even one new thought can open up your creative potential! 


1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, p.23
2. Shaun McNiff, Imagination in Action: Secrets for Unleashing Creative Expression, p.2
3. Andrea Spagat, Interview for Digital Storytelling: A Safe Space for Creative Expression by Evelyn Thorne
4. Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, p.15

Originally published July 21, 2019 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.

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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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