The following is one of the first interviews we had on the Fueling Creativity in Education Podcast with Dr. Marta Davovich Ockuly on Redefining Creativity. You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript below!
Matthew Worwood: I wonder if you could share a little more about your personal journey that led to the redefinition of creativity.
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: Redefining creativity became my ‘mission’ on my first day of class at the International Center for Studies in Creativity (ICSC). I arrived in Buffalo in May, 2010 to earn a Master of Science in Creativity.
I had just been offered a position teaching Creative Process at Eckerd College in my new ‘hometown’ of Sarasota, Florida. Even though I had a 20-year background as an award-winning creativity professional, as well as founding/running my own Center for Creative Change for nearly a decade, I needed a ‘terminal degree’ related to creativity to qualify for this teaching position.
After doing my research, I chose ICSC and decided to begin in the summer semester and take extra classes to complete the program in one year. I walked into the first course session excited to join a diverse group of new graduate students, about 30 or 40, anxiously waiting for this adventure to begin.
When the professor entered the room, he walked straight to the front of the class. He turned around to face us and asked: “Who can tell me the definition of creativity?” You could hear a pin drop. No one said a word.
He then stated: “Creativity is novelty and usefulness.”
The words, “You’ve got to be kidding” burst out of my mouth! He looked at me with a smile and said: “Novelty and usefulness is the scholarly definition, but you can define it any way you like.”
I kept a smile on my face, but inside I was angry with myself. How could I have registered for a program without even knowing how they understood creativity? I knew what creativity was. It was a human experience filled with imagination and action and expression.
I was gob smacked by the idea that someone could call it novelty and usefulness. So many thoughts were flying through my head that I had to close my eyes and take a deep breath. Once I got quiet, I heard the words of my ‘inner voice’ say: “What if you are here to reimagine the way human creativity is defined in the world?” That idea filled me with energy and excitement! From that moment (and to this very day) it’s been my mission and purpose in life.
Matthew Worwood: Thank you, Marta. I think that response is challenging me to think about my own approach to creativity. I typically present the scholarly definition of creativity when working with students and teachers, but you articulated the value and importance of engaging in a personal journey to identify what creativity means to us at a very personal level as well.
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: Yes. When I dove into my research I resonated with creativity researcher Ruth Richards, who brought forward the concept of “Everyday Creativity,” as well as Mark Runco, who suggested: “All creativity begins with personal creativity” (2019). I had the advantage of being a confident creator, but as a newcomer to the field of creativity research, I felt that my priorities related more to inspiring, encouraging, and developing creative confidence in people though engagement in the creative process and learning through trying and failing over time.
It honestly never occurred to me that creativity was something to be evaluated by others. I looked at it as a process to test and inspire others to take action. I understand creativity as a multi-component phenomenon. This construct is dynamic, not static. The ‘novel and useful’ definition points to a static outcome. For me, creativity is a lived experience centered in the person engaging in a process.
In my view, an artifact (or product) of creativity is simply evidence that someone’s creative process is complete. While it was challenging for me to accept the ‘scholarly definition’ my professors in the program in Buffalo cited and used, I was encouraged to explore my interest in exploring understandings of creativity anchored in the actual lived experience.
I discovered that research about the lived experience of human creativity was relatively rare, and it ended up becoming my research focus for an entire decade. I hope my doctoral dissertation’s introduction of the first dynamic, descriptive, and phenomenon-based definition of human creativity rewrites a part of creativity history moving forward.
Matthew Worwood: Can you now tell us your definition of creativity, as well as the research process that led you to that definition?
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: I’m a heuristic qualitative researcher. That means I focus on words and images, and my research is based on observation (and engagement) rather than statistical or numerical analysis. The word ‘heuristic’ is actually a synonym for the term empirical. True empirical research is based on observation of lived experiences, but it’s not framed that way by the American Psychological Association.
To be heuristic, my research questions needed to relate to my own experience. I asked: What is my lived experience of creativity? At the end of my 10-year process of researching how to define creativity in a way that encouraged and developed creativity in human beings, I came up with this definition:
“Creativity is the person-centered process of imagining possibilities and taking embodied expressive action that makes your ideas real.”
What’s unique about that definition is that it’s distinctly human and the first person-centered universal definition of creativity. Researchers now in 2020 and 2021 have determined that all creativity begins with human creativity. It is very important to note we are living in a time when humans have non-human competition.
The field of human creativity was launched in 1950, and the field of computational creativity launched in 1952. So both have been researched for almost as many years, and to this day they use the same definition of creativity.
My research showed a big difference: machine creativity is not imagination-informed, nor is it embodied. Machines are more adept at processing information than humans, so working together is important.
But humans are distinct. They can imagine. They’re curious. They ask questions, they absolutely have a feeling body that is affected by their environment, their ancestry, their DNA—a lot of things that machines don’t have. Humans are literally born dreaming and imagining, curious, expressive, and creative.
We need to move. We need to explore and play and dig in the dirt. We really want to get into something that is interesting, joyful, and meaningful for us. And when we do that, we’re energized, because creativity isn’t an instant answer. It’s a process that unfolds over time, whether it’s a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime.
Creativity is happening when we’re engaged in the process. With my definition, I wanted to get to the essence of what was unique about humans, because we know projections say that machines will be taking over 30 to 50% of all jobs. The World Economic Forum lists creativity as the key element in the top five strengths needed for dealing with the challenges facing workers in 2025 and beyond.
Cyndi Burnett: Thanks, Marta. That’s a very interesting perspective on creativity, and I feel dynamic and descriptive just hearing it! So you’ve been developing a lexicon of creativity terms. Can you share with our audience this lexicon of creativity terms you’ve been working on?
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: Yes. It was sparked by my dive into computational creativity research. I came across a list of the most common terms associated with creativity. And 90% of the words on the list were nothing in my experience that I would call essential for creativity.
So I decided to create a language, a lexicon, of lived experience and creative terms. It now has 500 words and it’s the first one ever developed, but I really want to open it to the public. When I share my new definition, I just don’t share the words of the definition, I share a word cloud that surrounds the definition and you’ll be able to see it on the creativity and education website.
I’ll just read a few: Self-expression, insight, passion unfolds over time, deferred judgment, improvisation, intuition, potential persistence, experimenting, joy, making, pushing past fear, emergent, authentic, meaningful, taking risks, hard work, failing forward, wondering, incubation and a really big curiosity. Those words evoke the elements of human creativity, and they’re not the same as machine creativity. And I think that distinction is important to keep making. Right now, moving into the future.
Cyndi Burnett: We’re going to switch gears a little bit. Given that we have educators and parents listening, do you have any activities that they could do in their classrooms or at home that can help them explore the definitions of creativity with their students or children?
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: Well, I think the first thing I do in my class is asking everyone to share their definition or understanding of personal creativity, their own creativity. Because when I ask “what’s your definition of creativity” most people stop and think, because it’s not normal to think about how you define something.
And in our culture, we don’t have a clear definition. If you look it up in the dictionary, creativity is defined as the ability to create. Well, the number one rule for defining words is don’t use the same word in your definition. You’re not explaining it. You need to explain and describe. So people have a hard time thinking of associated words, but once they put their focus on it, many do mention imagination or playing or making. They often mention art.
My classroom always has several signs, and one sign says, “Not all imagination is creativity, but there is no creativity without imagination.” And the second one says, “All art requires creativity, but not all creativity requires art.” There are biases that come in, and I’ve found that most of my students self-identified immediately as not creative.
On the first day of class, students would line up before the class and ‘warn me’ by saying: “I’m here because a counselor recommended I take this course. I am telling you I’m not creative, and you can’t make me be creative. I know creative people. My mother is, my best friend is, and all that. And I am not that.”
My response would be to listen, nod my head, and say something along the lines of: “You are here to engage in creative process. Trying new things and failing forward are part of awakening creativity. You will never be graded on an end product.”
Matthew Worwood: The thing I’d like to highlight from that response is the emphasis on creativity knowing no boundaries and being a process that expands beyond the silos of a single discipline. I think seeing it as a process related to being human can perhaps help those who sometimes struggle to make a connection to the concept of creativity and how that concept applies to their field.
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: Thank you. I appreciate that. So many people associate creativity with being an artist or having a special talent. Motivating, encouraging and helping people connect with their unique creative power without fearing evaluation helps students trust the process. That’s where the magic happens.
Normally this is not done in a way that is replicable, and in the classroom, as you said, process takes away the fear of evaluation. When you take away that fear, students can feel safe to take risks, to fail forward. I also offer extra credit, extra points for failing forward. And it doesn’t take long before the students relax and start to have fun and push their own boundaries. That’s the requirement for the course: be present, be in process, push boundaries. Failing forward gets extra credit.
As I have noted, the number one factor associated with creativity is not talent, or being published, or being famous. The number one factor of creative people is that they’re aware of their creativeness. They’re able to say, “I am creative.”
Those words, in and of themselves, open doors for people of any age or background to understand that they are born creative. We are literally unique as a species because of our abilities: not just of painting a picture or inventing something, but the fact that we can imagine a possibility and bring what is not yet into being.
Matthew Worwood: Marta, I think that’s a wonderful response to end our show. But before we do, I wondered if there were any final things you wanted to share with our teachers and parents listening today?
Marta Davidovich Ockuly: I really want to encourage and thank all the creativity educators and encouragers, and the positive creativity influencers out there. I also invented that term, but I have an invitation for you. No definition of creativity is the be all, end all. It is one perspective, so use it, challenge it, adapt it, play with it, try it on for size, improve it. And I would love to hear definitions that inspire you to take creative action or invite you to step into the process of creating with joy. The world needs more creativity encouragers, awakeners, and positive influencers. Who you are is creative. The big question right now is ‘what is the future you are imagining?’ I invite you to join this conversation.