What Does It Mean to be “Creative” Anyway?
Creativity is a delicate dance between novelty and value.2 For something to feel creative it must feel both new but also useful in some way.
Although we think of creativity as creating something that is unique, most of it isn’t. In fact, most of what we experience as being “new” is simply taking old stuff and remixing it in fresh or unexpected ways.3
For example, the chord progression of the 17th century composer Johann Pachabel’s “Canon in D” has been refurbished with modern instruments hundreds of times to produce dozens of hit songs just in the last few decades.
Most innovative films or books take old plot-points of their genre and add some sort of new twist or unexpected dynamic. For example, one of the reasons why the show Breaking Bad was so successful was that it took a generic story about the drug trade and replaced the main character with a middle-class white dude that most Americans could relate to. Simply exchanging this one element created a seemingly entirely new and novel story.
Researchers call this “divergent thinking” and it’s one of the best predictors of measurable creativity as well as one of the best skills to learn if you want to be more creative.4 Instead of asking yourself, “How do I create something new?” ask yourself, “How can I change something old to make it feel new?”
Even my own creativity has followed this path. One of the most common criticisms of my books is that I didn’t “come up” with most of the advice I give.
Well… of course I didn’t! You really think I’m going to compete with Aristotle and The Buddha? This advice has been around for thousands of years. I simply repackaged it in interesting and novel ways, changed the emphasis on a few points, and added a couple of my own ideas to spice things up. Instead of focusing on happiness and positivity, I focus on pain. Instead of selling desperate people a vision of success, I help people question their definition of success. Instead of trying to sound like an authoritative dickface, I use phrases like “authoritative dickface.”
And this has worked. The millions of people out there who aren’t into mushy, woo-woo, feel-good self-help crap really appreciate the novelty of the way I write.
Which brings us to the second part of creative work: adding value. Creative work isn’t creative just because it’s “new”—it’s also creative because it adds some sort of value to the world.
I could write an hour-long symphony composed of nothing but armpit farts or invent a new “diet drink” that consists of belly button lint and water. And while these things would certainly be “novel,” they definitely wouldn’t be valuable. Therefore, we wouldn’t consider them to be particularly creative.
For stuff that adds value but isn’t new, we generally consider it to be a rip-off of something or someone else. Think of the movies that Hollywood remakes eighteen times—you still pay to go see them, even though you know there’s probably nothing creative or original about them.
On the other hand, stuff that’s novel but doesn’t add value, we see as crude, tasteless, and immature. See: armpit fart symphonies and belly button lint water.
Nailing the combination of novelty and value is difficult. It requires a lot of trial and error. It requires getting feedback from people. It requires understanding your audience and their values. It requires honing and perfecting your craft over many years of practice.5
And this is where the hard work of creativity comes in. For every genius symphony or mind-melting tech gadget, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of failed ideas. For every hit song, that band probably has half a dozen albums that no one has heard of. For every scientific breakthrough, there have been hundreds of theories that have been proven to be wrong.
Creativity is, in reality, hard work. And like all hard work, optimal creativity requires some degree of routine and repeatability.
And that is why creativity is secretly kinda boring.
It turns out that creativity is a skill. And like any skill, you can practice and get better at it. In fact, just learning about creativity and how it works can help.6
So here are some of the not-so-exciting-but-also-really-fucking-important things you can do to be more creative in your own life.