Is everyone creative?

‘I believe that everyone is creative.’ I’m often curious when someone says a version of this. What exactly do they mean? And what do I believe?

I recognise the common motivation behind this statement. It’s useful when you want to counteract the idea some people loudly assert: that they’re naturally uncreative. (Rather than that they’ve spent less than 10 hours in their whole life practicing the piano, and that is the real reason they can only manage a tortured version of Chopsticks.)

But, says Stephanie’s nerdy brain, if everyone is creative, why would it be necessary to say so in the first place? It would be like saying, ‘I believe everyone is a mammal.’

So is everyone creative? My answer is: yes and no. It depends on how you define the word ‘creative’ in the first place.

Creativity is a word with lots of different meanings. Here are some of the main ways it gets used…

Creativity (definition 1): Problem-solving, adapting, putting odd things together to build new stuff

This sort of creativity is innate in humans beings. We collect patterns, make meanings and change our minds. We solve problems, and then tell our friends a story about it. We enjoy the generation of ideas and possible scenarios. And at night we dream and dream and dream, elaborate hallucinations that we glue together from shards of the day before.

When people say, ‘Everyone is […]’ they often only mean ‘most people’. But my best guess is that we can safely say that everyone is creative in this way. Evidence also suggests that creativity was a core factor of all the human species – not only homo sapiens.

Creativity (definition 2): Using skills and processes related to creative thinking or practice

This sort of creativity is a way of working the brain. You have a toolbox of different processes to apply, and you keep going until you end up somewhere. The more tools you have, the further you’re likely to get.

This is the part of creativity that can be most easily taught and learnt. Edward de Bono is famous for sharing creative thinking skills. How many things can you think of to do with a paperclip? If you’re like many adults, it will be 10 or fewer. Give me a couple of hours and I’ll teach you enough tricks to help you come up with a hundred.

Creativity (definition 3): Compulsive return to creative brain states

This sort of creativity is a way of working the brain. Some people ‘have’ to create, and I suspect the brain activity involved is what is fundamentally and intrinsically satisfying to ‘creative types’. It does something: massages, or relieves the tension, or integrates the sections, or processes experiences, or moderates sensory intensity, or releases chemical build-up…or maybe many of these things.

It’s not about the outcome; it’s about the urge and the feeling of doing it. Of course, the outcome matters when it comes to influencing other people, taking your adaptation and infecting others with it. But underlying this kind of creativity is the compulsion to go into this other zone. I can’t explain it better than that, but if you’re like this, you probably know exactly what I mean.

Creativity (definition 4): Making work in a creative art form

This sort of creativity is when you draw, write, sing, invent comedy routines, and so on. The forms are heavily influenced by our cultural situations. In societies where singing is highly valued, many people participate in singing at a level that in a less musical society might be considered ‘highly creative’. 

Creativity manifests itself in all the areas it can do. There is only a small section of this that we recognise as ‘the arts’. Is this definition of creativity the obsessive tinkering habit as it manifests in sociocultural contexts?

The flexibility of the word creative helps to explain why it’s hard to talk about coherently.

To sum up:

Everyone is creative (definition 1) because humans are creative. 

Many people are creative (definition 2) because they find it useful or enjoyable and they have learnt the skills and processes. 

Some people are creative (definition 3) because they have to be, because there is an itch that they have to scratch. 

And a few are creative (definition 4) because they practice some element of what in their culture is deemed an art form.

So, yes, in one sense, everyone’s creative. But using creative skills and processes and compulsively entering creative brain states are probably not universal activities.  And only a tiny proportion of this creative activity is what we in the West at this point call 'the arts'. 

So next time someone uses the word ‘creative’ in a sentence, if you feel like causing a stir, you can always say: ‘That’s interesting, but before you go on, could you just define the word creative for me?’ Then smile sweetly and enjoy the show.

And as you find even more definitions for the word ‘creative’, please be sure to let me know…