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Graham Wallas, 1920s

English social psychologist Graham Wallas gave us the famous five-stage theory of the creative process.

We Have Not Always Been “Creative”

The Greeks and Romans ascribed the source of what we call creativity to a “genius” (Roman) or “daemon” (Greek) linked to the gods. The concept of creativity as we know it did not yet exist and the ancients regarded being “inventive” as an external process. The modern concept of creativity appeared during the Renaissance when, for the first time, Europeans saw creativity not as a gift from a god, but as arising from the abilities of “great men.” However, the shift from divine origins to mortal was gradual and did not become widespread until the Enlightenment.

English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead coined the term creativity in 1927 while delivering the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Almost immediately, it became the word of choice in literature, the arts, and science. In fact, the term went into wide use so quickly, we have forgotten its recent origins in the twentieth century.

Creativity Basics

Basic definitions of creativity tend to fall within a narrow range. In a 2003 summary of scientific research into creativity, Michael Mumford suggested, “Over the course of the last decade … we seem to have reached a general agreement that creativity involves the production of novel, useful products.” Similarly, psychology professor and creativity researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says creativity can be defined “as the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile.”

How Creativity Works

The situation is less clear when it comes to how the creative process works, and there are a number of prominent theories. The most modern of these claims creativity is the result of the interaction among rich combinations of ingredients. In other words, the creative process involves the ability to link together disparate things in a way that makes some sense. Can you combine canoeing with Shakespeare and a fighter jet, for example? In this model, the alchemical metaphor is a useful and powerful one, with its seemingly magical process of transformation and combination. American social writer Eric Hoffer described creativity as “the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature.”

Another prominent model of the creative process focusses on original ideas and fresh techniques. Here only a few related elements are in play, but they must be strikingly new and adventurous. Merely being quirky is not enough. The American jazz musician Charles Mingus put it this way: “Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

In The Act of Creation, author and journalist Arthur Koestler introduced the concept of bisociation, the idea that creativity arises at the intersection of two quite different frames of reference. Later thinkers developed Koestler’s work into something called conceptual blending. In a sense, this merges the combination theory with the originality theory. Familiar frames of reference not regarded as related are combined to produce strikingly new ideas.

Honing theory integrates creativity with the creator’s own values and philosophy of life. Based on cognitive research, it maintains that creativity has its origins in the self-organizing, self-improving nature of a worldview. The process is reciprocal in that creators use the creative process to hone an integrated worldview. When engaged in a creatively challenging project, a creator’s worldview influences their conception of the task. This theory claims that creativity is associated with childhood adversity, which activates the honing process.

The Creative Process Has Five Stages

Pioneering creative process theorist Graham Wallas believed creative insights and illuminations emerge from a five-stage process:

  1. preparation (preparatory work on a problem that focuses the individual’s mind on the problem and explores the problem’s dimensions)
  2. incubation (where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening)
  3. intimation (the creative person gets a “feeling” that a solution is on its way)
  4. illumination or insight (where the creative idea bursts forth from its preconscious processing into conscious awareness)
  5. verification (where the idea is consciously verified, elaborated, and then applied)

The Creative Individual

Whatever theory they subscribe to, creative individuals need vision, courage, absorption, the ability to combine linear and non-linear thinking, and that willingness to criticize themselves of which Einstein spoke. The level of dedication to creativity can extend beyond the work itself to include even lifestyle. Creative individuals often embrace nonconforming attitudes and behaviours that are notably flexible.