It’s been fascinating to watch the “how to be creative” meme play out in the WSJ, NPR, and similar outlets lately, mostly off the back of Jonah Lehrer‘s new book Imagine. Creativity is important, more important now than ever, but what’s really interesting is that how we think about creativity changes over time. What creativity means to me and you today is different from what it meant twenty years ago or two hundred years ago. Same word, different experience. That matters too. We need to understand creativity before we can unlock our own potential.
And it matters to companies. In the book The Elastic Enterprise, Nick Vitalari and I point out that really strong companies have broken out of one part of the old industrial mold. We’re not arguing that these companies have moved to a post-industrial model – that argument has been made elsewhere and I think it’s on everyone’s agenda. We are identifying precisely what it means to do that.
What we are saying is that successful companies have gone beyond the old Adam Smith doctrine that says: creating more wealth follows on from creating more specialization. We now know that at a certain point specialization creates unacceptable overheads. The gains become liabilities. Once you determine that there is no more to be gained from specialization then the options for achieving growth become more interesting and indeed transformative.
First though creativity. I’ve attached a chart I used in a post recently. It’s one page 2 of this article. Take a look. What is shows is that our interest in creativity has consistently outstripped interest in key memes like capitalism. It’s a very, very simple indicator. I could burden you with more but for now take it on face value. There’s a second chart there too – it shows creativity against religion.
What both show is that we care deeply about creativity and have done for more than two centuries. The fascinating feature of that obsession though is how it has changed. We have migrated through different ages of creativity where our priorities have differed so much that we might as well be talking about different phenomena – almost. Creativity is a very malleable term.
Here, approximately, is my pitch for the five ages of creativity.
1. Creativity is about religion, it reflects a reverence for divine creativity in the world around us.
2. Creativity is a romantic concept and it largely encapsulates the emotional burden and expressions of men (not women)
3. Creativity is a taught discipline that applies to art, design, architecture and similar professions
4. Creativity is a method that needs capturing for science and technology
5. Creativity is about personal, individual potential and, like social communications, it is franchised to all of us.
The myth in the how to be creative meme is that we see it as a lone genius at work. I don’t think that connotation has really applied to creativity over the past hundred years. It’s so 19th century.