The safest answer to the question above might be: “It depends on who you are talking to.” Whether we self-identify as creative or not, creativity is part of being human, and we each have personal understandings of it.
I am a word lover, but even after practicing “creativity” professionally for decades, I made the assumption everyone had the same understanding of creativity I did. That was a big mistake. When it comes to having a shared understanding of words descriptive definitions matter.
When Did You First Hear Creativity Defined?
In 2010, I made the decision to attend the International Center for Studies in Creativity (ICSC) at SUNY, Buffalo State to earn a Master of Science in Creativity. On the first day of class, I came face-to-face with the “what is creativity” dilemma. When the professor walked into the classroom, he asked: “What is the definition of creativity? When no one responded he declared: “Creativity is novelty and usefulness.” I tried to stay calm, but my whole identity was wrapped up with being creative, and that definition – scholarly or not – had nothing to do with my lived experience of creativity. I closed my eyes to calm down and heard my inner voice say: “What if you are here to reimagine the way creativity is defined moving forward?” My answer was “YES” – and it became my mission from that day forward.
In Buffalo, I found a safe environment for exploring the subject of “defining creativity” while also being mentored by two wonderful creativity educator/encouragers: Dr. Sue Keller-Mathers, my advisor, and Dr. Cyndi Burnett, my kindred-spirit professor whose “Contemporary Issues in Creativity” course led me to adopt Dr. Ruth Richards for our “adopt a researcher” class project. I chose Dr. Richards because she is known for the concept of “everyday creativity,” and the topic of personal creativity was most interesting to me. She agreed to be interviewed and also invited me to be part of a research study she was conducting related to mentorship. She also encouraged me to apply to Saybrook University. Upon graduation from ICSC in May of 2011, I returned to Sarasota, Florida, and accepted a position teaching “Creative Process” to adult students at Eckerd College based in St. Petersburg, FL. In August, I was accepted as a doctoral student at Saybrook and attended my first residential conference in San Francisco.
How Do You Personally Define or Understand Creativity?
Dr. Richards became my mentor and professor. After I challenged the scholarly definition of creativity in my first course at Saybrook, she suggested I design and conduct an original research study. I developed a simple survey using Facebook as the platform for recruiting participants 18 years of age or older. Participants were asked to respond to three open-ended questions relating to their personal creativity. You might feel inspired to respond to these questions as well!
- Question 1: What does the word CREATIVITY mean to you? (Share your personal definition. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. Simply record what comes up first in your mind.)
- Question 2: Creativity is ____________. (Simply write the first word or words that come into your awareness).
- Question 3: How are you creative? (Give a brief example of what you might be doing when you are being “creative” as you, personally, understand it.)
After recording all the data, Dr. Richards and I identified themes, and then we wrote an article sharing the data. Dr. Richards brilliantly titled this article: “Loving or Fearing Creativity? It’s all in the definition.” In the end, 97% of the 114 participants said something about the creative process prompting Dr. Richards to say, “Creativity was about them, very person-centered indeed (for ¾ of the group). These were personal descriptions more than formal definitions. The words: ideas, imagination, expression, and making topped the list.”
These results offered support for my theory of human creativity as a process to be encouraged rather than a product to be evaluated.
Stepping Into My 24/7 Research Journey
For my dissertation, I decided to study my own lived experience of creativity by doing a heuristic inquiry study. It ended up being the perfect methodology for my doctoral research because I was able to track my personal creativity development journey as a participant in Dr. Natalie Rogers’ “Person-Centered Expressive Arts for Healing and Social Change” 2-year certification program (2013-2015) in addition to my experience of teaching a college course focused on the creative process to adult students at Eckerd College in Florida from 2011-2017. Teaching while being engaged in my own research process proved to be very enlightening.
I began by doing a literature review in order to compile a decade-by-decade listing of definitions of creativity published in the literature between 1950-2019. I also built a personal creativity library of 289 books and papers from 1906-2018. My intuition often prompted me to expand my reading into content areas I had not anticipated. In the end, my dissertation cited 323 references in addition to sharing artifacts of my own personal and unfolding creativity. I recorded my research journey from day to day, in a hard-bound, 200-page research journal. In each journal, I captured notes, quotes, questions, and learnings from my readings, as well as “flow” writing and creative insights as they emerged in my process of diving deeper and deeper into the literature.
Pioneering creativity researcher Howard E. Gruber observed that keeping journals, notebooks, endless revisions, and sketches was an activity characteristic of people doing creative work. He called these artifacts: “fossil records.” My “fossil records” are now part of contemporary human creativity literature. In all, my dissertation cites and shares 165 definitions of creativity from 1950 to 2019. The definition I developed in 2016 held strong until 2018, but subtle shifts in my awareness caused me to replace the words “inspired expressive action” with “embodied expressive action” in January of 2019. Ultimately, I believe the word “embodied” brings our “feeling” and “emotional” bodies into the picture.
Non-conforming/diverse perspectives of creativity are rare in the literature. If all creativity begins with personal creativity, studies focused on the lived experience of creativity – beyond art, science, and eminence – must also be seen as important contributions. Between MDO Journal 1 (January-November 2013) and MDO Journal 25 (January-June 2019), I collected 5,000 pages of data related to these research questions:
(1) What is my lived experience of creativity?
(2) How do I define and understand creativity?
(3) How can the lived experience of creativity be defined in a way that engages imagination, inspires creative action, and increases self-identification with personal creativity?
My findings include a descriptive, dynamic, imagination-fueled, and an actionable definition of person-centered (human) creativity, as well as a non-linear creative process model, a lexicon of lived-experience of creativity terms, and the concept of creativity influencers as they relate to inner and outer creativity encouragers or discouragers.
Creativity is the person-centered process of imagining possibilities and taking embodied expressive action to make your ideas real.
~ Marta Davidovich Ockuly, Ph.D.
I passed my dissertation defense on March 14, 2019, and became Dr. Marta. When I entered the final editing stage preparing my document for publication, I received a call from Marci Segal – fellow ICSC alumna and founder of what is now United Nations-sanctioned World Creativity & Innovation Day – asking if she could use my new definition in the “call to action” document for this global event. I said “yes” and truly felt it was worth all the years of effort to be able to make that contribution to the world. My dream is to increase self-identification with creativity in humans all over the world. Are you a confident creator? What ways are you imagining to awaken creative potential with joy around the world? Let’s take action to make these noble goals a reality together.
The postcard below shows my new definition surrounded by a word cloud of terms associated with the lived experience of human creativity. It is the first explicitly person-centered, imagination-fueled, phenomenon-based, descriptive, dynamic, and actionable definition in the literature.
If you have a term/word you believe should be added, or have questions, feedback or suggestions to share related to this article, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org I will send you a PDF of the definition postcard as a “thank you.”
No definition of creativity is the be-all, end-all. It is one perspective. Use it. Challenge it. Adapt it. Play with it. Try it on for size. Improve it. I would love to hear the definitions that inspire you to take creative action or invite you to step into the process of creating with joy. Who you are is creative. I invite you to join this conversation.
© Marta Davidovich Ockuly
Dr. Marta Davidovich Ockuly is a humanistic psychologist, creativity catalyst, educator, researcher, and influencer with a passion and process for awakening and developing creativity with J.O.Y. (just one yes). She is C.E.O. of the Creative Potential Institute, founder of https://www.joyofquotes.com, and an international speaker and award-winning author. Her life changed in 2010 when as a new graduate student she heard the way scholars defined the word, creativity. It became her new mission to bring forward an imagination informed, dynamic, descriptive, and actionable definition of creativity as an embodied, person-centered process. She accomplished this goal in 2019, and shortly after, her definition was adopted for use with the United Nations’ sanctioned World Creativity and Innovation Day celebrated April 21st.