Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, best known for his seminal book on creativity, Flow, offered the following definition of creativity in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Invention.

Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. And the definition of a creative person is: someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain. It is important to remember, however, that a domain cannot be changed without the explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.

What he’s saying, is that if you don’t impact or alter an existing field, whatever it is you’re doing, it’s not creative. A local artist isn’t creative. During his lifetime, Van Gogh wasn’t creative. The renaissance artist Raphael either is or isn’t creative, depending on whom you ask. Trey Spruance isn’t creative.

If you want to be considered creative, you have to sell the gatekeepers. If you don’t convince the gatekeepers, you just aren’t creative.

I’m a fan of Csikszentmihaly, but I’m not a huge fan of this definition. For three reasons:

My first objection is, the meaning of a word is its usage in language. And this narrow definition isn’t how people use the word creativity. We use creativity to describe a child’s ability invent a new game or a friend’s clever response when we’re playing Cards Against Humanity. Creativity encompasses a broad range of activities, many of which aren’t and don’t aspire to be domain-altering.

Second, the skills required to produce something creative are not necessarily the same as the skills required to bring attention or recognition for the creative act. This is why authors have literary agents. And the ability to get one’s art in front of a large audience or a group of gatekeepers at the right time depends a lot on circumstance.

As Csikszentmihaly acknowledges in his book, “When we asked creative persons what explains their success, one of the most frequent answers—perhaps the most frequent one—was that they were lucky.”

The implicit corollary of these creative persons recognizing that they needed a little luck to be recognized for their creativity, is that if things outside of their control had turned differently for them, even with everything else being equal, these paragons of creativity might never have been recognized for their creativity if things had happened just a little differently.

Van Gogh was creative when we recognized his genius and when we didn’t. Taylor Swift may or may not be a better artist than the folks putting on a show at your local dive bar. There are a lot more people doing wonderfully creative things than there are people getting recognized for doing wonderfully creative things.

Third, creativity isn’t domain specific. Indeed, exploration at the edges of domains is the essence of creativity. Csikszentmihaly would probably place jazz pioneers within his definition of creativity, but for every creative person who explores a domain and later creates a new genre, there are other artists who may have a limited following or attract some interest, but don’t alter an entire domain. These guys were loved and appreciated by rock stars and music aficionados alike, they didn’t sound like anything else then or now, but they didn’t really alter an existing domain or create a new domain.

Does that mean that weren’t creative?

Whenever I hear someone measuring the value or worth of something, I think about a pet theory that I like to call McCarthy’s Maxim, which says: Most people’s observations say more about the person (or group of persons) doing the observing than what’s being observed.

Mr. Csikszentmihaly is an academic. And the highest achievement in academia is become a star or a mover in a given domain. His observations say more about what it means to be a successful academic than what it means to be creative. The greatest form of prestige for an academic is to win the Nobel Prize, or the Fields medal, or a McArthur Grant. And the way to do that is to be recognized by the gatekeepers in your field. So he has chosen a definition of creativity that matches those criteria.

Outside of academia, domains matter less. Was Steve Jobs a designer, an artist, or a businessman? Was Gandhi a politician, a lawyer, or a holy man? Was Mother Teresa a social worker, a religious leader, or or an activist?

The answer is, it doesn’t matter. They achieved greatness. They created new things. They were creative whether you acknowledge them for having been so or not.

Creative accomplishment within the traditional canon is a wonderful thing, but so, too, is creativity outside the canon.

The world is big enough to accommodate both.