Creativity is Not a Universal Language

When we say “You are so creative,” we usually mean “You are so artistic.” We equate artistic skill with creativity, which as all misconceptions, is partially true. An artist is someone who has a dedicated practice of artistic expression. They have learned their art form like a language: color theory as their alphabet, perspective as grammar, composition as storytelling. To speak fluently in any language, you need years of continual practice, but to speak elegantly you have to be deliberate, honing your speech through trail, error, and feedback. This is what it takes to become creative in any field: when you know the language well enough to play with the words. So really, the compliment “You are so creative” means “You are so dedicated to your craft,” whatever that craft may be. 

Cause here’s the thing: creativity is not a universal language. The artist and scientist are creative in different ways. In fact, the poet and painter have different skill sets. This is why creativity is referred to as “domain-specific.” John Baer explains this concept through a simple metaphor in the article Creativity Doesn’t Develop in a Vacuum:

“One cannot become physically fit by doing just one kind of exercise that trains a single set of muscles; all-around fitness requires diverse exercises that use and train many different sets of muscles. So is it with creativity. Different domains require different creativity-relevant skills, knowledge, attitudes, motivation, and personality traits.”

(1) John Baer, “Creativity Doesn’t Develop in a Vacuum”, New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development

It can feel both jarring and obvious to think of creativity this way. We are used to referring to creativity as a general trait. You are either creative or you are not. But once you see creativity as domain-specific, you understand its nuance and specificity. While the artist has toned their artistic muscles, you may have built your parenting endurance or your coding speed. Each domain requires its own problem-solving/finding skill set. As the cliche goes: you need to know the rules in order to break them, which requires domain knowledge. In fact, this is where the “10,000 hours” rule comes from; research has shown that it takes about 10 years (10,000 hours) of studying a domain for a significant creative discovery (2). This means the people we call creative geniuses were not born creative, but were curious enough to devote 10 years of deliberate practice to their domain, learning from failure all along until they reached a breakthrough. This is both humbling and illuminating; creativity is not possessed but earned. And we each have our own domains of expertise. So the next time you wonder “Am I creative?,” you should follow up with “In what?

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

I realized recently that it’s been 10 years since I became a Creative Arts student. And now, I am teaching Creative Arts students! I finally feel like I have enough domain-expertise to share with others. And what’s more, I feel an alignment of everything I’ve worked on for the last 10 years. I see connections to creativity everywhere, like ever expanding possibility. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be on the edge of a breakthrough; the crest of a wave that built across the vast ocean, only breaking at its peak. But first you have to start with a ripple. 

Knowing that it can take 10 years to be innovative in a field may stop you from getting started. As Ira Glass once notedmany of us never pass the gap between our ambition and our taste (3). We judge our work against our idols and inevitably fall short, not acknowledging that our muses went through the same grueling process. That the only way to get better is to try and try again. This is why Liz Gilbert defines a creative life as one driven more by curiosity than fear (4). Curiosity is what will give you the resilience to pass the gap and the fortitude to keep questioning fear, until 10 years have passed and you can start surfing the wave. 


1. John Baer, “Creativity Doesn’t Develop in a Vacuum”, New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2016, p.9.
2. Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.93
3. “The Gap by Ira Glass”, video by Brien Daniels
4. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Originally published November 3, 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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