The Good News about Creativity

I’ve talked a lot about using energy and focus (and a little about using memory) to drive creativity. Now it’s time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Creativity… what is it, exactly?

You already have a definition in your mind, even if it’s ‘I know it when I see it’. That probably beats the most common definition I come across: the process of generating something both new and useful. It works but it feels a little flat. I think we can do better.

Creativity is magic.

I’m serious. Think about it – your senses pour information into your brain that gets stored as memories. Creativity is the act of pulling something out of your memories that was never there in the first place. Like a rabbit out of a hat, except there is no trick or illusion. Creativity is like remembering something you never learned. Magic.

Now, you might think that definition is a little odd. And you’d be right. After all, remembering is a smooth, clean process – you delve into your thoughts and retrieve the information you want. Creativity is a messier process where you combine and experiment and create and tweak. Except… that’s not right. You are not a computer. Memory isn’t a clean process; it’s a messy one. The act of remembering information requires you to imagine it. Each time you remember something, you change it a little. Memories don’t sit in well-organised boxes; they are an entangled mess like the cords behind your computer – follow one cord and you’ll likely end up at the wrong power point.

Simply put, you don’t remember information – you recreate it. This is how false memories work. Your mind creates something new and mistakes it for a recreation of something old.

This is excellent news, especially if you have ever described yourself as ‘not creative’. If you can remember, you can create.

Now, again, you might object to this oversimplification. And, again, that would be fair. Someone who memorises a book about painting doesn’t suddenly become a creative artist. That’s true, but there’s a couple of points I’d like to address about that.

Firstly, ‘creativity’ doesn’t mean ‘can paint beautiful landscapes that make you weep’. Obviously it can mean that. But normal, everyday creativity is something that everyone has. There are a few things in life that can be objectively optimised; for everything else, creativity plays a key role. Deciding what to cook for dinner or what shoes/shirt combo to wear invoke the same mental process of a grand artist, just smaller and faster.

Secondly, while memorising information about painting doesn’t automatically lead to creative art, the reverse is not true. Highly skilled creative people, by necessity, have memorised vast amounts of relevant information. Some of this information might be from books, but much of it will be informal: techniques observed from other artists, styles they have experimented with, and so forth. Any skill – every skill – involves memorising incredible amounts of information.

Think about a skill you do well. Now think about all the information in your head about that skill. If you wrote a book about it, it would fill volumes.

So, the good news about creativity. You already do it. Misidentifying yourself as ‘not a creative person’ because you cook by following recipes is neither helpful nor true. (Besides, even if you never deviate from recipes, there are infinite recipes out there – how did you choose your favourites? I doubt it was using some optimisation technique.) Rather than think of creativity as something ‘other people’ do, recognise that it is a core part of your life.

If it is something you already do, it is something you can improve.

A lot of creative skill relies on memory. You might never rival Picasso but, if you learn a lot about painting, you will exceed the average person.

It is easy – nay, inevitable – to learn lots about things that interest you.

So find what you know deeply and embrace your creativity.

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