Is everyone creative? Sure they are, but in very different ways and to varying degrees. There is a big difference between the folksong you wrote for your college sweetheart and a symphony composed by Beethoven. Go to a top shelf art fair and the difference in creative abilities between an accomplished artist and amateurs or dabblers becomes obvious. The same goes for everything from poetry slams to reality shows that showcase singing and dancing. Our democratic longing to make everyone and everything equal has lead us to make creative greatness indistinguishable from an act of personal expression. Of course there is a confluence of factors that determine what we consider to be creative or take as valuable -- social norms, economic incentives, both innate and learned abilities and a grocery list of other influences. But what is lacking is meaningful appreciation of the different levels of creativity and how we can use them as steps for increasing our own potential. Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Louis Armstrong were God-given talents, so let's leave that work to the higher ups. What we need is a way to increase the magnitude of our own creativity.
Borrowing from everyone from Aristotle to Zappa, we will examine the five levels and types of creativity, from the easiest to the most difficult to master, and some of the creative methodologies associated with each:
Mimetic Creativity: Mimesis is a term passed down to us from the Ancient Greeks meaning to imitate or mimic. This is the most rudimentary form of creativity. Animals from Caledonian crows to orangutans have the ability to create tools simply by observing other creatures. Watch a mother and child together and it becomes clear that we do the same. It is the foundation of the learning process. An often overlooked form of creativity is simply taking an idea from one area or discipline and applying it to another. For example, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who wants to improve the patient experience may pay a visit to a Ritz-Carlton known for its customer service. Like an anthropologist observing the customs and behaviors of a unique culture, this doctor will be able to search and reapply creative practices from one domain to another. Though not new to the world, these creative practices are novel and useful to our physician.
The key to mimetic creativity is to investigate ideas in unfamiliar places or ways and to implement them to familiar ones. Steve Jobs saw this ability to move across boundaries to adapt ideas as the key to useful creativity:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.
There is a strong sense-making element to this form of creativity. You have to be able to recognize patterns so that they can be replicated. Mimetic creativity translates what is created in the observable the world all around to what can be recreated in the mind. Going on excursions or just looking over the fence, this type of creativity requires a heightened sense of awareness and the ability to make astute observations. The wider your travels and circle of friends the more experiences you will have to draw on.
How to Improve Your Mimetic Creativity:
- Go On Field Trips: Travel to new places and meet new people. Bring your phone or digital camera and record events so that you can both be aware of the experience as it happens and re-experience it when you have a little time and distance to spot things you may have missed before. Be sure to look for patterns and benchmarks, indicators of success or failure, so that you have a good ideas about what really works and doesn't, and why.
- Make New Friends: As the song goes, "Don't surround yourself with yourself." To get new ideas you have to swim in a different gene pool. Find some interesting people who don't think like you, believe the same things you do or frequent the same places. Ask questions about their thoughts on traditionally taboo subject such as politics or religion and just listen. Also pose questions about unique challenges you face and explore how they would resolve them. Feed your head with different ideas -- magazines, the web or social media. If you're not a little uncomfortable, cast your net a little wider.
- Copy Nature: Inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller created the geodesic dome Spaceship Earth synonymous with Disneyworld by copying the geometric structure of spores and plankton. This form of design, where something is observed in the natural world and then modified into man-made creations, is called biomimicry. Think of it as an accelerated form of evolution. Leonardo da Vinci drew flying machines after observing birds in flight and maple keys spinning their way to the ground. The U.S. Navy does the same when it fashions a rudder of a battleship after the aerodynamic fluke of humpback whale. Pay attention to form and function of the natural world around you.
Here are some resources to get you started improving on good ideas:
- Go On Field Trips -- Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others by David Kord Murray
- Make New Friends -- Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger
- Copy Nature -- Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus
What mimetic creativity methods and resources do you find most useful?
To learn more about how mimetic creativity works you might want to read Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller.
It's time to put on your walking shoes and head out to places unknown. Remember, a creative life means you make it up as you go along.