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Defining Creativity Book Summary by Wouter Boon

What you will learn from reading Defining Creativity:

–  A view of creativity from multiple perspectives – including philosophical, biological, and cultural angles.

–  An overview of the creative process, including its underlying mechanisms and the role of imagination, discovery, communication, and evolution.

–  An analysis of the cultural and psychological aspects of creativity.

Defining Creativity Book Summary:


It’s time to define the illusive creativity:

The concept of creativity is often considered challenging to comprehend. Even researchers find it challenging to formulate the principles of creativity. This is due to the fact that not all creative output is necessarily seen as “creative.” There is a distinction between being personally creative, meaning you create something new, and creating something that has a lasting impact, as it alters people’s perspectives. In this sense, creativity is a subjective, culturally-driven, and constantly evolving concept that is determined by experts in a particular field to be a valuable contribution to the field.

The definition of Creativity provides a thorough understanding of what creativity entails. It encompasses the most critical elements of creativity, drawn from various authoritative sources, and examines the subject from various angles, including philosophical, historical, cultural, psychological, biological, and evolutionary perspectives.


Chapter 1. Building Life


Bringing into existence:

A common definition of creativity found in dictionaries is “The capability of producing something new.” Based on this definition, acts of creativity are not limited to humans, but can also be applied to creations of nature.


Making something visible:

A significant manifestation of imagination-based creation is discovery, which entails bringing to light or revealing what has already been created by others or through natural processes, but was previously unknown. Hence, to discover means to uncover or reveal.


Chapter 2. The Value of Originality



In addition to originality, another crucial characteristic in defining a work as creative is value. Value does not necessarily refer to financial worth, but rather the recognition and esteem given to a work, idea, or theory by those who receive it.

The meaning of value varies across different creative fields, such as art, literature, or science. For example, in the arts, value often pertains to aesthetic enjoyment, while in fields of innovation and science, it refers to practical usefulness. Regardless of the field, value is not a term commonly associated with creativity.

Value is a challenging aspect of creativity because it is not inherent to a creative work, but instead relies on the reception of its audience. This makes creativity a subjective and constantly evolving concept; sometimes an audience only assigns value to a work after the creator has passed away.

For an idea to be considered as having historical impact, it must be shared with the public and translated into a form that can be communicated, commonly referred to as a “medium.” Only then can the world have the opportunity to see or experience the idea, and only then can it receive recognition from its audience.


Intellectual Property:

In Western societies, creative works are often held in high esteem when they are considered “original.” This term refers to being the source or the first of something new. As most people are better at imitation than creation, only a small percentage of individuals are truly original. In social and cultural terms, originality has inherent value, and those who produce new ideas are seen as intelligent and independent thinkers. The value embodied in a creative work is thus reflected on the creator, leading some people to strive to appear original, even if their work is not truly innovative.

Yet, in certain cultures, intellectual property laws are not highly regarded. This is because the concept of originality has not been a priority in their approach to creativity. In many modern Asian cultures, being original is not necessarily viewed as a desirable trait, as the group is given more importance than the individual. Being distinctive as an individual is not seen as a positive attribute and may even be considered offensive. In many ancient and non-Western cultures, creativity is centered around mastery of a craft and preserving tradition, rather than originality or change.


Chapter 3. Cultural Change:



If the appreciation given by an audience determines an idea or person to be considered creative, then creativity can be seen as a cultural occurrence. This is why creative and cultural domains share close similarities.

A cultural domain is comprised of memes, which are units of information that are learned, remembered, practiced, and passed down by the members of the culture. Examples include languages, values, songs, jokes, recipes, laws, etc.

These memes define the culture and help to sustain it. However, memes are always subject to change as new ideas are introduced. But these changes are only adopted by the culture if a significant number of people find value in them.



The experts in a specific creative domain determine if a new idea is significant enough to change the domain. These experts, such as editors, journalists, scholars, exhibitors, publishers, and investors, possess a deep understanding of their domain, strong connections within it, and the ability to influence others on the worth of certain ideas. They act as gatekeepers and serve as a link between the creator and a broader audience, facilitating the distribution of ideas.


Scientific Breakthroughs:

Scientific history is filled with examples of revolutionary ideas that were initially dismissed but are now widely accepted.

Galileo Galilei, for instance, faced punishment for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the universe. Similarly, theories such as plate tectonics, the impact of a meteor causing the extinction of dinosaurs, and the expanding universe were once met with strong opposition.

It’s challenging to picture what the field was like before these groundbreaking ideas were embraced.

The timing of creative ideas is intriguing as they often emerge simultaneously in different places when a domain is receptive to change. While Western society emphasises the individual as the sole source of a creative idea, it’s important to recognise that the experts play a crucial role in shaping the domain. However, it’s the collective influence of various forces within a creative domain that ultimately determines the acceptance and adoption of new ideas.


Chapter 4. Motivated by Personality:



The creator’s personality also plays a significant role in determining the value placed on new ideas in a creative domain.

This is evident when comparing the careers of Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Despite being similarly talented, Van Gogh’s introverted nature and lack of connections limited the success of his work, whereas Picasso’s charismatic personality and extensive social circle helped to increase the value placed on his art. This highlights the importance of being socially active and well-connected in helping to establish an artist’s work as valuable.


Mood disorders:

The link between creativity and bipolarity stems from the combination of being both imaginative and curious on one hand and highly focused and productive on the other.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is an emotional disturbance that causes individuals to fluctuate between feelings of intense happiness and deep sadness. During the manic phase, the heightened optimism helps creative individuals to envision endless possibilities. However, during the depressive phase, the same person becomes reclusive, isolating themselves and solely focusing on bringing their ideas to fruition. Additionally, highly creative individuals are often more likely to receive a diagnosis of mood disorders.


The eccentric:

The role of the audience in the creative process cannot be ignored, as they can both inspire and hinder the creator. While their stimulation can be beneficial, too much pressure from the audience can have a negative impact.

In the artistic domain, audiences tend to prefer the work of eccentric individuals, and journalists and experts often focus on writing or promoting the work of those who stand out from the norm. This creates a cultural norm in which artists are more successful if they behave in an unusual manner.


Chapter 5. Mastering the Rules


Technical and cultural rules:

There are two types of knowledge that are important for creativity within a specific domain: technical knowledge and cultural knowledge.

Technical knowledge enables us to use tools and techniques within the domain, while cultural knowledge helps us to understand the norms, conventions, and symbols of the domain, and to anticipate how experts and audiences will react to new ideas presented to the domain.


When you become a photographer, you first need to learn some technical rules: how to operate a camera, how light influences the sensor, and how to manipulate photos. Then, in terms of culture, you first learn about the famous photographers of the domain and why they are valued.

After you’ve learned these basic rules often through formal schooling-you become further enriched with knowledge on the job, by practice and interaction with peers and audiences. Once you start to understand the nuances of the domain and discover your specific qualities, you adopt a personal style and form a vision of your position in the creative domain.


Chapter 6. Unfamiliar Combinations:

The secret to creating unfamiliar combinations lies in identifying the link between different conceptual domains, which can be established through the use of analogies – comparing idea A to idea B. What analogies thus basically do is use the imagination to perceive things differently.


The Periodic Table:

Dmitri Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table, first introduced in 1869, showcases how combining domain-irrelevant knowledge can lead to a major invention.

The table arranges the chemical elements based on atomic number, electron configuration, and recurring chemical properties in a simple and organised manner. Unlike previous attempts which only arranged elements by weight or valence, Mendeleyev combined both and created a unique scheme where elements were ordered by increasing weight horizontally and by similar chemical properties vertically.

This breakthrough was inspired by the card game solitaire, where cards were arranged by suit and number, and Mendeleyev combined two distinct ideas – the elements and the game – into a novel combination.


The power of general knowledge:

To create unfamiliar combinations, having a vast pool of general knowledge is crucial in addition to domain-specific expertise. This general knowledge serves as the source material that could form one half of the combination.

The larger your database of knowledge, the higher the likelihood of discovering something valuable to apply in your current domain. Thus, having an inquisitive mindset, a desire to learn, and an awareness of the world are just as important as being imaginative and flexible.


Creative combinations:

The likelihood of a creative combination being successful is influenced by the level of obviousness of the combination. It might seem that the more subdomains there are, the easier it is to come up with creative combinations. However, the closer the relatedness of the subdomains, the greater the chance that the combination has already been made. Therefore, a combination that elicits surprise has a higher probability of being truly innovative.

However, a combination that is too shocking may elicit disbelief, laughter, anger, or resistance, rendering it either ahead of its time or just a poor combination. Finding the right balance between surprising and not too surprising is crucial in determining the potential success of a creative combination.


Chapter 7. Problem Solved:

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them – Albert Einstein

Essentially, when faced with a challenge that does not have a straightforward answer, humans resort to their creative abilities. In other words, creativity is utilised when a problem presents itself.


Finding problems:

Identifying the right problem and framing it in the right context is crucial in the problem-solving process. Just as important as finding a solution is finding the problem. By re-evaluating and adjusting the context in which you approach a problem, you can alter both the number and nature of potential solutions.

For instance, when faced with the challenge of crossing a river, the obvious solution is building a bridge. However, if that proves difficult, you can broaden your perspective by asking: “Is building a bridge the only way to cross the river? Can I swim or paddle across instead?” By doing so, you have expanded the context and changed the problem.

Additionally, asking questions such as “Is this the best spot to cross the river?” and exploring other options could lead you to discover a natural bridge that offers a more straightforward solution. Or you may even realise that crossing the river is not necessary.

The act of questioning the problems you aim to solve and uncovering new problems is a critical aspect of problem-solving.

It is why Einstein said that the really important breakthroughs  in science are made through reformulating old problems or discovering new ones, rather than solving existing problems.


Fixed assumptions:

Identifying the correct problem can be challenging. This is because our brain operates under the influence of established beliefs and prior experiences, which shape our fixed assumptions.


Zooming in:

Zooming into a problem can sometimes lead to the creation of additional, unresolved issues. The deeper you delve into a problem, the more complications you may encounter.

This is particularly relevant when dealing with an unclear problem. For example, a statement like “Sydney needs an opera house” is too broad and lacks definition, yielding numerous potential solutions.

The clearer a problem is defined, the more specific the direction for finding a solution becomes. In general, scientific fields tend to work with more precisely defined problems than artistic fields.


Switching brain halves:

Both divergent and convergent thinking play a role in problem-solving, no matter the problem’s nature. The creative process involves divergent search in the conceptual domain for various solutions and convergent application of the domain’s technical and cultural rules to determine the best solution.

An example is the sketch for the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon, which arose from divergent thinking, but the actual construction required convergent application of laws such as gravity and motion. Even when attempting to break free from conventions and explore new domains, rules still need to be followed, such as creating harmony and rhythm in poetry to be appreciated.


Chapter 8. Preparing for Insights

Since insights play a crucial role in creativity, it would be ideal to have a clear understanding of when they can be expected. Unfortunately, this information is not readily available. However, we are aware of the area of the brain where insights occur.

In ancient Greek mythology, the Muses were the goddesses associated with literature and the arts and were believed to impart creative ideas to individuals, causing an “aha” moment. This is why the term “inspiration,” meaning to be breathed upon, is often used in reference to creativity.


Preparation and Inspiration:

Acquiring creativity is not a straightforward or effortless task. It requires a crucial stage in the creative process known as “preparation.” During this phase, one conducts research, gathers information, evaluates related ideas, and considers suggestions from others. This is a highly logical, demanding, and sometimes even disheartening aspect of the creative process, as it does not yield any scientific, inventive, conceptual, or artistic results.


In 1838, Darwin finally had the missing piece to complete his evolution theory thanks to Thomas Malthus’ work on the survival struggle of people. Upon reading Malthus’ publication, Darwin understood how favourable variations would be maintained in the competition among humans, while unfavourable ones would be eliminated. This realisation, known as the “Malthusian insight,” gave Darwin the foundation he needed to develop his theory.

Darwin’s evolution theory was the result of years of preparation, but the key insight that brought it all together came from a source beyond his conscious efforts. The distinction between the two is that preparation involves focused research and exploration within a specific field to solve a particular problem, while inspiration arises from serendipitous encounters or broad interests unrelated to the problem at hand.


Chapter 9. Unconscious Sensibility

It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition that we invent. Henri Poincaré

According to Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling and the creator of South Park, Matt Stone, the key to successful ideation is to generate a multitude of ideas and discard the ineffective ones. This highlights the importance of being able to say “no” as much as pursuing a good idea, as spending too much time on a worthless idea is a waste of resources.


Chapter 10. Evolution Explores

If we don’t get lost, we’ll never find a new route.Joan Littlewood

Although our unconscious mind plays a crucial role in the generation of brilliant ideas, the majority of the creative process involves the conscious stages of planning and evaluation.

Transforming an idea into a tangible form is a challenge that requires significant effort and perseverance. This is why the path to creativity is often plagued with difficulties, and all these challenges necessitate extensive preparation and evaluation.

To put it simply, the creative process is mainly hard work. Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time with over 1,000 patents to his name, accurately summarised this as, “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”


Happy accidents:

The creative process can be likened to discovering a map that has yet to be fully explored. Some significant locations and connecting paths are missing and the exploration process is crucial for filling in the missing pieces.

Each attempt made during the creative process, even if it leads to a dead end, contributes to the understanding and expands the knowledge base, bringing a clearer picture into view. Only when the map is fully discovered can the most effective path become clear. This is why the solution often appears obvious in hindsight, as Einstein stated: “In the light of knowledge gained, the successful outcome appears almost effortless.”

The creative process can sometimes be frustrating, but it plays a crucial role in refining initial ideas and often leads to their improvement. Steven Spielberg’s iconic film Jaws, released in 1975, is a prime example of this. Based on a novel by Peter Benchley, the production of the movie was plagued with challenges, including the difficulties of constructing and operating mechanical sharks. Despite these setbacks, the movie ended up being a massive success, becoming the first blockbuster and grossing a record-breaking amount at the time. This success was due, in part, to the creative limitations imposed by the unreliable sharks, which forced Spielberg to employ a more suggestive approach to filming, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. The result was increased suspense and an even greater impact on the audience, demonstrating that the creative challenges faced during the production of Jaws ultimately helped to shape and improve the film.


Trial and error:

The more unknown a particular field of knowledge is, the more avenues must be explored to arrive at something novel. The amount of experimentation needed is not only determined by the extent to which the field has been explored, but also by the structure of the field and the clarity of the problem.

Some creative individuals prefer working with loosely defined problems within a flexible domain, which allows for extensive research and exploration. Others, however, favour a more focused and directed approach to the creative process.


11. Connected Visions


Collaborative creativity:

The significance of having more information to tap into in the creative process cannot be overstated, as it serves as the foundation of all creative endeavors. The internet trumps the printing press as a source of knowledge by being dynamic and constantly evolving, making it easier for people to contribute and access.

In modern times, some of the most well-known creative works like television shows, films, music videos, computer software, and video games are the result of collaboration between a multitude of skilled individuals. As the range of knowledge, tools, skills, and specialized fields continues to grow, it’s crucial for creative professionals to have effective means of communicating and sharing knowledge.


Changing the universe:

Therefore, the ultimate contradiction in this book is that while creativity flourishes when individuals are interconnected and regularly exchange knowledge, abilities, and concepts, the creative journey demands a singular, focused idea executed with a single-minded purpose. Even in a future where our planet becomes a digitally connected super-intelligence, much like the prebiotic chemistry that eventually gave rise to intelligent life, we will always require creative individuals with ambitious goals to have a clear vision of how they can transform or perhaps even create a whole new universe.


All the Elements of Creativity:

Innovation – Creativity creates new concepts by utilising existing virtual and tangible components.

Imagination – Creativity employs imagination to see familiar things and knowledge in a new light.

Discovery – Creativity uncovers unseen possibilities and information.

Communication – Creativity transforms ideas into communicable forms, such as works of art, performances, inventions, and written theories, for sharing with a wider audience.

Worldview – Creativity offers a unique perspective on the world, be it objective or subjective.

Everybody – Creativity draws on a range of cognitive and unconscious abilities that all individuals possess to varying degrees.

Culture – Creativity operates as a sociocultural mechanism, only accepting new ideas as valuable within a creative domain.

Change – Creativity modifies the technical and cultural rules that define a creative sphere.

Motivation – Creativity drives creators to focus on making their ideas a reality through psychological motivation.

Happiness – Creativity brings joy to individuals as they immerse themselves in the creative process without distractions.

Combination – Creativity blends familiar knowledge within a particular domain with seemingly unrelated knowledge from another domain to create a novel combination.

Problem-finding – Creativity identifies issues by questioning the established structure of knowledge within a domain.

Problem-solving – Creativity utilises divergent thinking (finding numerous solutions) and convergent thinking (finding the optimal solution) as a mental tool for resolving problems.

Insight – Creativity unconsciously generates problem-solving insights that reveal new structures of knowledge.

Process – Creativity follows a process of internalising the rules that define a domain (Preparation), allowing acquired knowledge to mature through incubation, and evaluating and implementing the insight (Verification).

Harmony – Creativity organises knowledge in a harmonious manner.

Exploration – Creativity forms ideas by exploring various execution methods.

Evolution – Creativity acts as an evolutionary mechanism of trial and error, aiding individuals and cultures in adapting to changing environments.

Interaction – Creativity enhances knowledge structures and complex ideas through interaction between individuals.