When did Creativity “Start”?

Take a moment and watch small children at play. See the curiosity, the wanting to know, the experimenting, the seeking for and discovery of possibilities in the simplest things? It seems as if we are all born with the natural ability to be creative. But, like with so many other ‘natural phenomena’, it took centuries to be discovered and its true significance to be understood.

Who Made it Happen?

In 315 B.C. Aristotle laid down his three laws of idea-association, which are still recognized as keys to creativeness. He defined the imagination as ‘the movement which results upon an actual sensation.’ And this means? We recall from the residue of memory, we then trace the association by starting with the thought of the object presented to us, then we consider what is similar, contrary or contagious. Not much was said or written about the subject for centuries after that and it was only in the 20th century that a ‘creative trend’ slowly but surely started to assert itself.

In the 1930’s Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, became increasingly frustrated with the amount of time wasted at business meetings and, also, with the poor decisions reached at the end of these laborious sessions. This led to the development of the technique of brainstorming, which he described in detail in his book, Applied Imagination (1964). Although Osborn seemed to link brainstorming to creativity only as an afterthought, it eventually became part and parcel of the creativity process. The idea behind brainstorming is that it should promote fluency (generating many ideas effortlessly) and flexibility (coming up with many different kinds of ideas) – both important in getting new and different possibilities. Osborn and Sidney Parnes were also the creators of the CPS (The Creative Problem-Solving Model) used world-wide in business and education – but more about this later.

Another name worth mentioning is J.P. Guilford. After World War II there was a realization that the victory was achieved by the impact of innovation in research and development. It was the creation of radically different tools of war (the atomic bomb for example) that had made all the difference. It was in this post-war climate that Guilford addressed his fellow psychologists and pointed out how badly creativity had been neglected.

Guilford outlined a research design by which the domain of creativity might be clarified, and it was this design that Guilford pursued for the following 35 years. He attacked the intelligence tests developed prior to 1950 because they completely ignored creative thinking. He then constructed a battery of tests and from the results came to recognize what he saw as the primary factors that accounted for individual differences in creativity. These included fluency, originality, flexibility, redefinition and sensitivity to problems.

Not long after acquiring his doctorate in psychology, Paul Torrence was approached by the US Air Force. It was the early Korean War and it was clear that aircrews were likely to face cruel circumstances as prisoners of war in North Korea. Torrence was chosen as the man to train the pilots and crews to survive all kinds of dangerous and extreme conditions. They would be facing deprivation, severe weather conditions, lack of food, water and shelter; they would be downed in a jungle, the sea or behind enemy lines.

Before deciding on the appropriate training courses, Torrance decided to study existing training courses and research literature first. He also interviewed hundreds of Air Force personnel who had survived similar experiences in World War II. He became more and more surprised at what he learned. It seemed that, no matter how much training soldiers have received, they were constantly faced with unexpected situations.

The survivors were those who could take elements of their training and of what life had taught them to create a new way to survive. It was this discovery that fascinated and inspired Torrance to spend the next few decades to study creativity. He was also the creator of the Torrance Test of Creativity (developed in 1979 and called the Demonstrator) and several others.

Edward de Bono, author of the well-known book Six thinking Hats, is perhaps best known for originating the term ‘lateral thinking’. This term is explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘seeking to solve problems by unorthodox or apparently illogical methods’ and closely linked with creativity helped to polarize and encourage creative thinking in business and education.

The list is endless. Another leading researcher, Morris Stein, has done extensive research into understanding various training programs, tools and techniques for developing creative ability and creative thinking in individuals and teams. Joe McPherson delivered a speech (in 1990) titles “The Whole Enchilada” which covered the many elements of creativity he had dealt with during his entire professional life. He wrote several articles comparing creative problem-solving processes.

Then there are the Japanese. They were among the first to show intense interest in the early CPS process of Osborn in their Quality Circles work, involving a creative group process, which are now world-renowned. Masakuzu Nakayama was the ‘inventor’ of the NM Method of creative problem solving and Jiro Kawakita of the KJ Method now widely used. Torrance had been very interested in the Japanese contributions to creative thinking and spent six months in Japan as a guest of the Japanese government.

Of course, it will be an impossible task to mention all the men and women who have paved a small or large role in the research, writing and growth of what can now be called THE CREATIVITY MOVEMENT. But we can thank all of them for making us more aware of a ‘different way’ of thinking, of doing, of looking at problems. They have helped us see a whole new world of opportunities out there.

‘Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for, like a new bird seen in your trees, and, if you turn to your usual task, disappear.’- Ralph Aldo Emerson

What is creativity (not!)?

It is clear that many people worked long and hard to establish creativity as an important aspect of business, of education, of solving problems in everyday life, etc. BUT WHAT IS IT?

Am I creative if I

  • Know the answer
  • Know several alternatives to the question
  • Ask a question in return
  • Think about it first
  • Question the question…

The answer to all of these? YES!

Confused because you are looking for one definition? Maybe we should look at what others have said about creativity. Let’s start with the dictionary. Although dictionaries differ slightly, here is a sampling of what several have to say:

Creative: able to create, inventive, imaginative, ground-breaking, generative, innovative, original, expressive, artistic, ingenious, inspired, stimulating, productive, visionary, clever, gifted.

Let’ hear how the creative masters define creativity:

Paul Torrance (1994) said, ‘Creativity is the process of seeing problems or gaps…, forming ideas, …testing these … and communicating the results.’

Williams (1968) saw it as ‘a conscious act of human intelligence’.

To Parnes (1967) it is a ‘function of knowledge, imagination and evaluation’.

Children have also had their say about the meaning of creativity during creativity courses. What do you think of these:

Creativity is:

  • Singing in your own key
  • Plugging in the sun
  • Shaking hands with tomorrow
  • Never to say never

What about these definitions:

Creativity is:

  • Wanting to know
  • Taking Risks
  • Being flexible
  • Seeing the flip-side
  • Challenging the ordinary/ the one right answer

How about just simply this:

Creativity is looking at the world with a fresh pair of ideas!

Judging by our ‘spontaneous selves’ when we were children, it seems that we are all given the potential to be creative. It certainly does not seem as if we grow into naturally creative adults, though. Each one of us opens our front doors in the morning to start our day, BUT, only some of us see the world we work in, live in and play in with fresh eyes. Those are the people who, every day of their lives, go on a journey of discovery. We would like to invite you along for this creative journey.


Excerpt from the book Creativity Uncovered by Kobus Neethling and Raché Rutherford with exercises by Alan Black. You can purchase the book here.


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