“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” 

C.E.M. Joad 

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how creativity works, and what it can bring to the workplace. And that would be fine with me if, in addition to being wrong, they weren’t also actively harmful. We need to stop pigeon-holing creativity. 

I’ve met so many people who say they aren’t creative, or worse still, CEOs who say that’s your job. Creativity isn’t just for marketing interns, or for people with purple hair and piercings, or for creatives. In fact, the more senior you are, the more you need creativity. You can light a fire under your business with creative ideas. 

The business case for creativity 

  • Identify opportunities. 
  • Embrace challenges and risks. 
  • Stimulate innovation. 
  • Foster collaboration and fun. 

So what’s stopping us? 

To answer that question, we need to take a step back and ask what creativity is. There are a lot of definitions out there, and most of them are pretty high brow. You want a definition that works for you, that doesn’t throw up unnecessary expectations. So, before we move on, I want you to ask yourself: 

How would you define creativity, in your own words? 

What is creativity, anyway? 

The problem with creativity is that we don’t understand what it is, and more importantly, who it is for. Take a look at this range of definitions.

creativity noun

​the use of skill and imagination to produce something new or to produce art

Oxford Dictionary

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
Steve Jobs

creativity noun

the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas

Cambridge Dictionary

“Creativity [is] the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.”

Robert E. Franken, Human Motivation

Do you see how inconsistent they are? Just look at the difference between the Oxford and Cambridge dictionary. You would think that the two leading British dictionaries would be able to come up with a single, authoritative definition. Yet, if you go with Oxford, you can only use creativity to produce art or something new. And if you go with Cambridge, it’s an ability, not a practice. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs, like many creative icons, makes it sound both very simple and very mysterious. 

Like Franken, I see creativity as a kind of problem-solving. It isn’t just for art, or for artists, or even for creating new things. It is an ongoing process, something that is always with us. 

Imagine a child that is trying to solve a jigsaw. He can’t get the last two pieces to fit together, so he turns one of them upside down. The pieces fit, and he declares he’s finished. It isn’t the way the puzzle was designed to be solved, and it may not look right. He may even have skipped a valuable lesson about perseverance and attention to detail. But it is creative. He has stepped outside of the ordinary course of things and solved a problem. 

My point is – don’t set the standard too high. You’re not being modest or self-aware. You’re stifling your own creativity. And if one thing kills creativity, it’s self-doubt. 

“[Creativity is the] extraordinary result of ordinary processes.”

Sternberg and Lubart

The creativity myth 

  • Inspiration can’t be controlled. 
  • Creativity is a rare gift. 
  • A creative success can’t be repeated or understood. 

Research from the last decades shows that creativity can be practised, taught, and used strategically (Benedek & Jauk, 2019; Silvia, 2018). Think about what that means. Creativity isn’t just a thunderbolt moment. The “lone genius struck by inspiration” is a great story, but doesn’t capture the hard work, expertise, and perseverance of successful creative people. Remember – a lot of these narratives come from writers, who love telling exciting stories, and reap the rewards of having “genius” status.  

Think about it: would you think of a Michelin-starred chef as creative when she is composing a new, exquisite dish? If you would, shouldn’t it follow that it is also creative when you are hovering in front of your own fridge, thinking of a combination of ingredients that would make a good meal? 

What works for you? 

When do you feel most creative? 

If you feel blocked, what do you do? 

Tapping into your creativity is about creating the best circumstances – for you. External circumstances affect each of us differently. When we are stressed, some of us shut down and can’t look beyond the safe option. Others feel a rush and actually stop being as self-critical when under pressure. 

You often see perfectionists delay working on creative or daunting tasks. Then just before the deadline, they do their work all at once. The pressure of time allows them to ‘override’ their inner critic and take more risks. After all, it’s too late to make the work ‘perfect’. It’s a strategy – and yes, it can be self-defeating. 

You may recognise some counterproductive patterns. My advice is: don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, can start to analyse what your process looks like, and challenge yourself to take small steps to change. But don’t punish yourself. We all have habits, and most of them aren’t going to change overnight. Especially when, on some level, they serve a purpose. Remember: self-acceptance and embracing your process are hugely beneficial to creativity. 

… and now what? 

Even if you agreed with everything in this article, you may still feel stuck. My colleague Dr Jessica Houlihan is writing another entry in this series, which is all about practical ways to unleash creativity in your business. Whether you are a sole trader or part of a team, you will find exercises that you can apply immediately to your business. And if someone in your team tries to wriggle out of contributing, you now know what to tell them.