What is creativity?Most of us, when we think of creativity, think of  art and music, and creative writing. So when we want to encourage creativity in our children, we provide them with music lessons or buy them art supplies or encourage them to write fiction and engage in pretend play. But creativity is much more than that. In fact, a person can be creative in any field, even those some of us don’t usually equate with creativity – like math.

What is Creativity?

This is not an easy question to answer, as Joyce Van Tassel-Baska points out in her article “Creativity as an elusive factor in giftedness.” In the article, Van Tassel-Baska lays out how our vieiws of creativity have changed over time. Freud saw creativity as stemming from suppressed desired. Abraham Maslow considered creativity to be self-actualization, and Carl Rogers believed creativity is the ability to ” relate to others in nonjudgmental ways.” More recent views of creativity see it as a social construct and as a trait or series of traits that result in some product or action. It’s not easy to explain what a social construct is either, but Paul A. Boghossian has a thorough explanation for those who are interested in the idea in his pdf article “What is Social Construction?

So exactly what is creativity?  The Center for Creativity and Arts at Emory University asked academics across the country to answer that question. They received several different definitions of creativity, demonstrating just how difficult it is to define “creativity.

Traits of Creativity

It might help to take a look at the characteristics many see as necessary for creativity. Here is a list of the traits from J.P Guilford that people still consider important to creativity.

  1. Sensitivity to Problems
    In general, this is the ability to see deficiencies in products, social institutions, theories, and pretty much anything in life. and to determine that goals have not been met. A deficiency in this case is not a flaw in the sense that the product doesn’t work or the situation is impossible, but rather a deficiency in this sense is something that could be changed to make the product better or the situation more effective or more efficient. The problems in science, too. For instance, a physicist may see a problem with the Big Bang Theory. Such “problems” or deficiencies exist in all disciplines: the hard sciences like biology, the social sciences like psychology, the humanities like philosophy, and even the arts like music.
  2. Fluency of thinking
    This is the ability to think well and without effort.  This fluency allows a person to come up with numerous ideas as well as numerous possible solutions to a problem.
  3. Flexibility of thinking
    Flexibility of thinking refers to the ability to easily move beyond traditional ways of thinking and come up with new ones. For instance, if you were asked to build a house of cards, would you think of bending the cards or would you just assume that you weren’t supposed to bend them because you’ve never seen a house of cards with bent cards?
  4. Originality
    The trait of originality is pretty much just what you think it is. It is the ability to come up with unusual responses, connections, solutions, or approaches. It’s similar to flexibility of thinking, but with originality, the probability of someone else coming up with the same line of thinking is quite small. How many people came up with the Theory of Relativity, for example? This is not to say that two or more people can’t arrive at similar solutions to the same problem, but the number would be very small.
  5. Redefinition
    Redefinition refers to the ability to see old things in new ways. For example, let’s say you need a needle, but you don’t have one. What you do have is a fish, a pencil, a nail, and a dried green bean. Which would you use to make a needle?  A fish, of course!  You’d use one of the bones from the fish. It is strong, but it can be sharpened and it’s possible to put a hole in it. A pencil would not be too big to use as a needle and if you made it small enough to use as a needle, it wouldn’t be strong enough. A nail is stong enough, but you’d have a really tough time getting a hole in it, and if it was a big nail, you’d have a hard time making it smaller. A dried green bean would be easy to make a hole in, but it would break quite easily.
  6. Elaboration
    Elaboration is simply the ability to come up with the details of a general idea or solution. It means that if a creative person is given just a general idea for a task or solution, he or she can figure out the steps it will take to complete it.
  7. Tolerance of ambiguity
    This is the ability to accept uncertainty without feeling stress or tension. Someone with a high tolerance for ambiguity can hold conflicting views and values and find a way to reconcile the two without feeling stressed or tense. It means that the creative person can wait for an answer or solution rather than avoiding a problem or issue that does not at first seem to have a clear answer or that may seem to have more than one answer.
  8. Commitment
    Called motivation by some, this trait enables the creative person to become deeply involved in the task at hand and to be willing to work hard and to keep on working.
  9. Risk taking
    Although this trait was not mentioned specifically by Guilford, it comes up frequently in lists of traits of creativity. It is the willingness to take chances which makes it easier for a person to be flexible and original. Of course, it someone is flexible and original, it’s easy to see that they might also be willing to take risks.  However, it’s one thing to think outside the box, but it’s another thing to openly express new ideas and try them out even at the risk of failure and even ridicule.

Small-C Creativity and Big-C Creativity

Some people think that a truly creative person is one who is able to develop some breakthrough technology like Steve Jobs of Apple, or someone like Einstein who changed the way we look at gravity and so much more in physics. However, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others believe that these are people with Big-C creativity.

People with Big-C creativity are those whose creative endeavors are transformative. That means that what they create, whether a product, an idea, or a theory, can literally change the world. On a slightly smaller scale, they may change their culture or their field of study.  This kind of creativity is rare, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other creative people in the world.

In addition to Big-C creativity, we also find people with Small-C creativity.  These people have the same traits as the Big-C creativity people, but their creative endeavors don’t change the world; they aren’t big. But that doesn’t mean that their contributions aren’t useful or valuable; they are.

Big or small, we definitely want to nurture creativity in our children.

Sources: J.P. Guilford, “Traits of creativity” in H.H. Anderson (ed.), Creativity and its Cultivation, Harper, 1959, pp 142-61, reprinted in P.E. Vernon (ed.), Creativity, Penguin Books, 1970, pp 167-88.
J. P. Guilford. “Characteristics of Creativity.” Illinois State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. 1973. ERIC Document ED080171.

Carol BainbridgeAbout GiftednessNurturing Gifts and TalentsCreativity,what is creativity
Most of us, when we think of creativity, think of  art and music, and creative writing. So when we want to encourage creativity in our children, we provide them with music lessons or buy them art supplies or encourage them to write fiction and engage in pretend play. But...