Creativity: What Is It and Who Has It?

The experience gathered from books, though often invaluable, is but the nature of learning; whereas the experience gained from actual life is the nature of wisdom...
-Samuel Smiles

Creativity and innovation were the big buzzwords at the MBA Leadership Conference presented by the Graduate Management Admission Council some years ago in Newport Beach, Calif. Businesses want creativity and innovation in order to win and maintain competitive advantages. Business schools want to turn out graduates versed in these skills.

So in typical business and academic fashion we set out to quantify and measure those things. There’s nothing wrong with that and I was waiting in line to steal whatever statistics we could find. But honestly, I just don’t know how you measure creativity and innovation and I’m not even sure I know how you define them.

I do know that creativity is more a process than a quality. It is highly inefficient and requires commitment, patience, and a sense of play to use. And this is true if you’re a musician, a businessperson, an improviser, or an architect. More than anything else, creativity requires doing. I don’t believe there are “creative” and “uncreative” people, just people who create and people who don’t.

Jeff DeGraff, a professor at the University of Michigan, presented at the conference and made reference to a fascinating study. A group of ceramics artists were instructed to create (1) an “ideal” or “perfect” piece and (2) 100 pieces in which the goal was simply to produce the number of pieces without focus on quality. Judges rated each artist's work and in each case the piece selected as “best” was not what the artist intended as best but one that came from the lot of 100. DeGraff’s sensible conclusion is that where creativity is concerned, “Quantity is quality.”

Twice shortly after that conference I happened to find myself talking to piano players who didn’t consider themselves creative. They’re adept at playing, they both said, but when it came to improvising they were terrible. “Who told you that you were terrible?” I asked each player. Both admitted that was their own opinion, which in my mind, isn’t that valuable. It’s a part of that phenomenon that makes us hate the sound of our own voices when they’re recorded.

“How much time did you spend practicing your piano improvisation?” I then asked. Each player responded that they spent very little time, leaving me to wonder how they could they have mastered improvisation without devoting time to it. One was heartbroken she didn’t sound like the great Bill Evans but he certainly worked for years developing his craft and if she had done the same she might have developed a style that equaled his. Or maybe not.

When people tell me I’m a fine improviser, I tend to reply, “Thanks but after doing this for decades it would be a shame if I weren’t.” Yes, I feel I have some native talent but it is the experience and the work that has made me excel. By comparison, I don’t consider myself a good visual artist but then I’ve devoted almost no time to that since I was a kid.

Practice makes perfect? I don’t think so. But practice is the only way you’ll get good. And aiming for perfect, as DeGraff’s illustration and my experience as a performer, director, and teacher suggest, isn’t really relevant. Practice—doing—is commitment.

Commitment means that you’re sticking around for the bad stuff. It makes sense to say you’ll be around for the good, whether it’s a relationship, a job, or striving to be more creative, but commitment means you’ll stay with it through the fights, the small bonuses, and the poems you really hate.

Committing to creativity and innovation means you’re willing to accept that you might not wind up where you want go. It means a lot of work might wind up at a dead end. The only guarantee is that the more you work at creativity, the better you get at the process and the more likely it is that you’ll create something wonderful and new. Create your 100 pieces and trust that something tremendous will be among them.

-Greg Hohn, Director