The Craft of Creativity
Matthew A. Cronin and Jeffrey Loewenstein



Perspectives on Creativity

You keep using that word. . . . I do not think it means what you think it means.

—Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

We do not think creativity means what you think it means. For many people, creativity is a rare gift bestowed on exceptional people. This is why, when we approached a magician named Turley to interview him about creativity, his reply was, “I am not creative.”

Early in his adult life, Turley was teaching developmentally disabled adults and realized that they were unlikely to find appropriate work, but that they would be greatly helped by such work. He figured out that landscaping offered a useful variety of tasks. So he started a landscaping business and ran it for ten years, employing developmentally disabled adults. Later, Turley gained national publicity for his magic act with a $35 want ad in the Washington Post: “Lost at birthday party: Magician’s tuxedo jacket, 96 hidden pockets, snake in right sleeve, and dove in one of the pockets. If found, contact Turley the magician. . . .” When the newspaper came out, Turley sent copies of the want ad to local radio stations with an anonymous note: “I read this and maybe you could help this guy out.” The item was picked up and covered across the country. Turley was also creative in the ways we expected, having generated original magic tricks. His is a sufficient talent that he has performed for several U.S. presidents. And Turley told us, “I am not creative.”

We heard this from many people. Grammy-winning producer Bob Dawson hesitated about being interviewed because he didn’t think of himself as creative. Dancer, choreographer, and veteran of stage and screen Dan Joyce didn’t really see himself as creative either. And who were the people we spoke to who were most likely to see themselves as creative? It was the novices who had not yet achieved anything.

It feels backward for the novices to see themselves as more creative than accomplished professionals. But with a shift in thinking it becomes perfectly conceivable. All that is necessary is to move away from thinking about creative people and about creative products such as magic tricks or songs and instead think about the creative process. Novices told us they were having new ideas all the time. But when we asked what the ideas were, we found that nearly all of them were ideas that had long since become ordinary for people like Bob, Dan, and Turley. Experts feel less creative than novices because experts have already thought about their topics so much they encounter fewer new ideas.

A shift in focus from creative people and creative products to the creative process is helpful both in understanding novice and expert experience with creativity and in learning to be more creative. We should all want to be more creative. In our view, being creative means developing different ways of thinking so that what was inconceivable becomes thinkable. As a result, in our view creativity is no more about rare geniuses writing operas or equations than it is about neighborhood plumbers installing water heaters. If you can think about it, no matter what “it” is, then you can think creatively about it. Creativity is not “out there” in the world, it is “in here” in all of our heads.

People have some control over their heads. This is why they can have some control over their creativity. But we realize that some intuitions about creativity suggest otherwise. Many people tell us that creative ideas seem to come from nowhere, as gifts from the muses. These are the stories we often hear about the creative geniuses behind wondrous works of art, scientific breakthroughs, and technological marvels. These stories of inspirations support the belief that creativity is important. Yet these stories can also sow doubt about whether the many earnest attempts to support creativity in schools and workplaces can possibly do any good. The same doubt results from people saying such things as, “Some people just seem to have it” and “We were probably just lucky.” These statements suggest that creativity is beyond people’s control. These intuitions are misleading. It is possible to learn to go through the creative process more efficiently and effectively than has been done in the past. We think there is a skill, a craft, to creativity.

We interviewed many people about creativity. In these interviews, people often told us, “You can’t learn to be creative.” Yet when we asked our interviewees if they themselves had gotten more creative over time, almost everyone said—usually with some expression of surprise—that they had. For example, composer Jesse Guessford realized that while he had fewer ideas than he used to have, the ideas he generated were much more likely to be good ones. Many people we interviewed realized that their efficiency in generating creative products was far better than it had been initially and so they needed fewer creative ideas. Over their careers, they had learned how to navigate the creative process.

Creativity must be a learnable skill, because many research studies have found predictable interventions that can foster creativity. For example, moderate background noise, relative to quiet or loud noise, can help people be creative.1 And people who have lived abroad, relative to those who have only lived in the country in which they were born, appear to be more likely to solve creativity problems.2 That researchers can find that certain conditions can reliably increase people’s chances of generating creative ideas means that there is something we can do to help ourselves be creative. We could try implementing those interventions ourselves.

Before you turn the TV on for background noise or consider looking for an overseas job assignment, you might consider a few more findings. Scholars report that creativity increases with mindfulness3 and mindlessness,4 positive moods5 and negative moods,6 and hard work7 and play.8 While individual research findings on creativity are intriguing, when looked at collectively they are confusing. Worse, despite all the research indicating ways to help people be creative, a wide range of scholars, educators, and business leaders bemoan the lack of creativity in the world and tell us that we seem to be generating less creativity than ever.9 The problem with looking only at individual research findings is that each study only provides a sentence or two of the full story of creativity. We need to know how the sentences fit together to tell that story.

To understand the larger story of creativity, we need to examine the creative process. This means we need to expand beyond the most common definition of creativity: “the production of novel and useful ideas.”10 This definition tells us something about what to expect when the story ends. We should find ourselves with something “novel and useful.” But this definition does not reveal anything about the story itself. It is as if we are reading the last page of a book, where it describes how marvelous the view is from the summit of a mountain. It sounds nice, but what happened in the three hundred pages leading up to that moment? How did they make the climb? Worse, we seem to have some funny notions about what is involved in the production of ideas. We mostly hear about sudden “Aha!” moments of illumination. Producing ideas is not described as a story unfolding over time but as a magic moment when all of a sudden we blink and find ourselves on top of a mountain, gazing out at a wonderful view. There has to be more to the story.

For example, one story of creativity is about “the train that runs between Tokyo and Hakata [that] is, like the TGV in France, one of the fastest trains in the world. This train is the 500-Series Shinkansen, operated by Jr West and known for its futuristic design and characteristic long ‘nose’ on the front of the train. The Shinkansen enables us to move comfortably and quietly at 300 km/h.”11 The long nose of the 500-Series Shinkansen train is quite different from the short, boxy front end previously found on most trains (Figure 1.1). How the train got its long nose is a story of creativity.

The people who generated that story were Eiji Nakatsu, head engineer for development of the 500-Series Shinkansen, and his staff. Nakatsu said, “You might assume that the challenge for the Shinkansen is how to make it run faster, but thanks to current technology it is now not so hard to make it run faster. In fact, the greater challenge for us is how to make it run quietly. Half of the entire Sanyo Shinkansen Line (from Osaka to Hakata) is made up of tunnel sections. When a train rushes into a narrow tunnel at high speed, this generates atmospheric pressure waves that gradually grow into waves like tidal waves. These reach the tunnel exit at the speed of sound, generating low-frequency waves that produce a large boom and aerodynamic vibration so intense that residents 400 meters away from the tunnel exit have registered complaints. . . . Then, one of our young engineers told me that when the train rushes into a tunnel, he felt as if the train had shrunk. This must be due to a sudden change in air resistance, I thought. The question that occurred to me—is there some living thing that manages sudden changes in resistance as a part of daily life? Yes, there is, the kingfisher. To catch its prey, a kingfisher dives from the air, which has low resistance, into high-resistance water, and moreover does this without splashing. I wondered if this is possible because of the keen edge and streamlined shape of its beak. We conducted tests to measure pressure waves arising from shooting bullets of various shapes into a pipe and through a series of simulation tests of running the trains in tunnels . . . these tests and experiments were performed at the RTRI (Railway Technical Research Institute) with Jr West staff. Data analysis showed the ideal shape for this Shinkansen is almost identical to a kingfisher’s beak. . . . This [nose] shape has . . . reduced air resistance by 30% and electricity use by 15% compared with the 300-Series Shinkansen, while speeds have increased by 10% over the former series.”

FIGURE 1.1. The 500-Series Shinkansen Train. Source: By Rsa—Rsa が新大阪駅で撮影, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This is a very short version of the story of rethinking a part of the design of the Shinkansen train. While we can tell the story in a paragraph that takes two minutes to read, it took Nakatsu years to navigate and resolve this story. The story started when engineers working on the train recognized an objective. They needed to make the train travel more quietly. This might have meant changing the tracks, the wheels, the car bodies, the tunnels, or any number of other things. That it would come to be the front end of the train that would be redesigned was not initially conceivable. At the outset of a story, we might not even know we will be climbing a mountain. We might just be jolting ourselves out of our normal routines and deciding that we need to leave town. The creative process often includes some realization that the normal way of going about things is not enough, that creativity might be necessary.

If we are not going to do the normal thing and walk out the door and go to work, we have to go somewhere else. But where? The creative process is centrally concerned with taking new directions, or less metaphorically, with shifts in thinking. The junior engineer sharing a simple feeling about riding the train led the senior engineer to think about an aspect of the train’s travel that was not previously in focus: the change in air resistance as the train entered the tunnel. The tunnel boom was happening as the train exited the tunnel, and a junior engineer’s simple feeling about entering the tunnel could easily have been ignored. The junior engineer’s feeling was not obviously relevant for making the train travel more quietly, and in itself it did not directly suggest changing the shape of the front of the train. Nakatsu’s transformation of the junior engineer’s observation into a question about managing a change in resistance—not just air resistance, but any resistance—was a new interpretation of the problem they were solving. It was not directly about being quieter; it was about managing a transition in resistance as a means to being quieter. Nakatsu’s story was changing and developing in unexpected ways.

As the story continued, Nakatsu asked himself a question about living things and considered an analogy to kingfishers diving into water. The question and analogy might seem to be the most original aspect of this creative process. For this reason though, it is important to note how firmly the creative process rests on ordinary thinking. The question and the answer relied on the engineer’s history. Nakatsu described it like this: “One day, I happened to see a notice for a lecture in a newspaper; attending the lecture, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Seiichi Yajima, then an aircraft design engineer and also a member of the Wild Bird Society of Japan. From him I learned how much of current aircraft technology has been based on studies of the functions and structures of birds. . . . [he] had recommended that I read a book, Aircraft Designing Theory by Dr. Masao Yamana and Dr. Hiroshi Nakaguchi. This book says, ‘A tree, a blade of grass, a bird or a fish, all can be brilliant and everlasting teachers.’” Given this history, thinking about whether the train’s problem of needing to make the transition from low to high resistance was already solved in nature, and by a bird, is a little more understandable. This does not mean it was easy or routine. Nakatsu had to have actually studied birds and had to ask himself the question about living things managing changes in resistance to have made the analogy between the kingfisher diving into water and the Shinkansen train entering a tunnel. And of course, the analogy might not have been helpful. Stories can have dead ends, backtracking, and restarts. But Nakatsu’s question and identification of the kingfisher were not random events. Instead, the process of shifting thinking rests on ordinary learning and skill while also requiring a change in how learning and skill are applied. Nakatsu had never made this analogy before, and had not thought about the front of the train in this way before.

Even after identifying the kingfisher analogy, there were numerous further questions to address. That the shape of the train’s front end actually did matter and that the kingfisher’s beak shape ended up being a useful model for the train were results of further testing. Whether shooting bullets through a pipe was a routine act or the result of further creativity, we do not know. We do not know how many other questions Nakatsu asked himself, how many other conversations he had with other engineers, how many other possibilities they tried apart from the shape of the front of the train. Recollections about innovations are usually incomplete. Recollections tend to give the impression of more direct and obvious journeys than actually occurred. Even so, Nakatsu’s story with the front end of the 500-Series Shinkansen shows that his thinking changed multiple times over several years.

It can be tempting to emphasize one key moment in a story, a key turning point in the creative process, but this is a mischaracterization. The analogy with kingfisher birds is a classic, sudden moment of insight. But that insight followed from identifying the tunnel boom problem, listening to the young engineer’s description of his experience riding trains, Nakatsu’s turning of that description into a new problem to solve, Nakatsu’s transformation of that description into a new question he could ask, and Nakatsu’s drawing on a pool of knowledge he had developed. Further, the insight about the kingfisher analogy did not directly provide a solution, but rather indicated a new direction in which to look. The front end of the train ended up looking like a kingfisher’s beak, but they did not simply make a large copy of a kingfisher’s beak. Instead, they took the idea that the beak shape might matter and tested whether different shapes for the train’s nose might matter. The testing of bullets and other simulations might well have involved other shifts in thinking. How the Shinkansen got its long nose is a tale of many steps and many shifts in thinking that combined to form a substantially different perspective on the train that made thinkable what had once been inconceivable. The creative process is not a moment but a journey.

One journey is related to other journeys. The creative process around one problem might relate to other creative processes we undertake. This also helps to reveal why going through the creative process is a learnable skill. Changing the front of the Shinkansen train was not Nakatsu’s first or last creative effort. He had learned lessons for himself, such as drawing analogies from birds, that he could consider when faced with a need to change his thinking to solve a new problem. For example, Nakatsu also redesigned the train’s pantographs—the devices that extend up from the train to transfer electricity from power lines to the train. At high speeds, the pantographs produced a very loud whistle. The analogy Nakatsu made this time was based on thinking about the pantographs as flying noisily through the air, when he needed them to fly silently. To a bird watcher, it is not hard then to think of an owl, a bird well known for flying silently. One reason that people can become more skilled at going through the creative process is that one time they go through the process can relate to and build upon previous times they have gone through the process.

This other journey through the creative process that Nakatsu experienced, comparing the train’s pantograph to an owl, highlights the scale of the creative process. We can examine particular moments of insight when we shift our thinking, but the creative process is more than those moments or even a string of such moments. Shifts in thinking may not reveal any answers but begin a process of building new understandings. When Nakatsu made the analogy between the pantograph and an owl, he had no idea how it is that owls accomplish their silent flying and so had no idea how thinking about owls might lead to a quieter pantograph. Nakatsu had learned how owls fly silently from a story by Mr. Yajima, who gave a lecture called “Flight of Birds and Airplanes” at the meeting of the Osaka branch of the World Bird Society of Japan. Owls fly quietly because of their feather serrations. But this was only the beginning. The creative process is not about jumping directly to the end of the story or even just envisioning the end of the story. Instead, the creative process is about changing how we are thinking. Sometimes we can identify new pathways for our stories to take that were previously inconceivable. Sometimes we have to build those new pathways and it is hard to conceive how. In either case, it can change the entire story, what we thought it was about, and where we thought we were headed with it.

In the case of Nakatsu exploring the owl analogy, it led to some surprising developments. First, they had to build knowledge of how serration feathers worked, which was aided by a further clever development. “We conducted wind tunnel tests to analyze the noise level coming from a flying owl, using a stuffed owl courtesy of the Osaka Municipal Tennoji Zoo.” They learned that owls’ serration feathers generate small vortexes in the airflow that break up the larger vortexes which produce noise. This lesson drawn from studying owl wing plumage was applied to the support structure of the pantograph. “It took 4 years of strenuous effort by our younger engineers to practically apply this principle. Finally, ‘serrations’ were inscribed on the main part of the pantograph, and this succeeded in reducing noise enough to meet the world’s strictest standards. This technology is called a ‘vortex generator.’

In their lengthy pursuit of a quieter pantograph for their train, Nakatsu and his colleagues had an insight that owls might be helpful, they built new knowledge about owl flight, they generated an innovative solution for the train over four years of work, and they forged a new technology, vortex generators, that would be applied to many other products including airplanes, ships, windmills, skis, and ice skates. Their long creative process was very fruitful, and it ended at a substantially different place than they could initially, or even as they were in the midst of it, have conceived.

The most exciting aspect of Nakatsu’s creative stories to us, when we first learned about them, was that they were strikingly familiar. We have studied how students solve engineering problems. These kinds of challenges are common activities in engineering classrooms. In our studies, as in Nakatsu’s stories, we observed a drawn-out process of turning the inconceivable into the thinkable, and then onward to the actual.

One engineering challenge we conducted asked student teams to make products that would transport an egg from a launching point up and over a seven-foot wall and down to a target fifteen feet away, safe and sound. The teams had to make products using a given set of household materials. We gave every team a few cardboard boxes and tubes, some sheets of newspaper, string, tape, scissors, and the like—fourteen items in total. The teams created an enormous variety of solutions. But as with the long nose and the pantographs of the Shinkansen train, to understand how they arrived at their inventions, it was critical to follow the process they went through as they grappled with and reinterpreted the challenge.

Teams facing the engineering challenge were not always creative. Plenty of teams tried straightforward approaches. For example, one team saw the cardboard tubes and started taping them together. They were going to roll the egg down the tube from the top of the wall to the target. They noticed that they did not have enough tubes to get all the way there. So they took cardboard boxes and opened them up on both ends so they could extend the tunnel until they had fashioned a long enough tunnel to get the egg to the target. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not work if the eggs rolled into the side walls.

Another group started the same way, also taping tubes together and also realizing that their contraption would be too short. But they got creative at this point. They realized that, rather than the egg going through a tunnel, which is how they first described it, the egg was sliding down a chute. The top of the tube was not necessary. So they cut the tubes in half length-wise, yielding two chutes. This doubling of the length meant they had enough to get the egg from the wall to the target. Of course, they also had to figure out a way to get the egg up to the top of the wall. Still, this bit of creativity contributed to resolving the engineering challenge. The action of cutting the tubes in half length-wise was available to every team. Most teams never thought of it though, because they thought of the cardboard tubes as tubes, not as chutes. That transformation remained inconceivable to most teams.

Most engineering teams transformed their thinking more gradually than the sudden “tubes to chutes” insight. For example, a common action was to try to tie the string around the egg. But tying a string tightly around an egg is difficult. One group shifted from tying the string around the egg to tying the string to a box and putting the egg in the box. At this point, another team member who had put a cardboard tube on top of the wall got excited. This team member tied a longer string to the box with the egg in it, looped the string over the tube, and showed everyone how the tube could serve as a pulley, lifting the egg in its box. Now the team had a way to get the egg to the top of the wall, using their cardboard-tube-and-string pulley system. Then they got stuck, uncertain about how to get the egg from the top of the wall down to the target. They talked about the string, someone else talked about a rope-and-pulley system, and another person thought of a cable, at which point they realized that the egg in a box tied with string was sort of like a cable car. They realized that more string could be tied from the top of the wall down to the target, and the box could slide down the string to the target. Now the wall was less an impediment than a reason to get an egg up high and let gravity help it travel the distance to the target. After this bit of excitement wore off, they realized that they needed a way to get the egg out of the box attached to their tube-pulley and into the cable car box. The initial box that worked with the tube-pulley was no longer going to work. They removed the box attached to the tube-pulley and instead formed a large spoon-like device out of another cardboard tube. This device was made both to carry the egg up to the top of the wall and to transfer the egg into the cable car box. This clever, gradually developed solution resulted from multiple shifts in how the team thought about their materials and the challenge they faced.

For the teams working on the egg challenge and for the engineers working on the Shinkansen trains, the creative process was an extended journey of changing and building new ways to think about the issues at hand. These changes took the stories in new directions, built pathways forward where no pathway had existed before, resolved subplots, and collectively changed the nature of the endeavor in which people thought they were engaged.

The account of the creative process from these engineering stories turned out to be the same as what we heard from artists and accountants, musicians and mathematicians, plumbers and physicists. Everyone we spoke to about what they do when they are creative described a long process of fitfully coming to think in new ways, and then further new ways, and then still further new ways, about what was right in front of them. The changes to their thinking meant that they could now think about what had been inconceivable. As a result, they often learned something new. They also often generated new kinds of solutions. In short, when we asked everyone about creativity, they told us it was a long story.

Creative Products: Insights, Inventions, and Enlightenments

Often, stories are told for a reason. The creative process has consequences. People may occasionally engage in the creative process out of curiosity or playfulness, with no end in mind. But every creator we spoke with had a purpose in going through the creative process most of the time. The nose of the Shinkansen train advanced some goals. The painters and musicians we spoke with were communicating something with their creative products; they were not primarily acts of self-expression. Typically, as creators, we are interested in attaining some kind of product. Our stories aim toward good endings. This is probably the main reason why a better understanding of the creative process matters. If we can increase our skill at navigating the creative process, we might become more efficient and more effective at generating creative products.

In examining the stories of the creative process and cataloguing the creative products of the creators we interviewed, it became clear that there were different types of products. We often heard people talking about ideas when we spoke about creativity. There are many common intuitions about being struck by an idea, or generating a new idea. Creators also spoke about making things. They might be writing a song or designing a video game. Both ideas and things seem to be noteworthy products of the creative process, but they do not seem the same. They seem different in how they emerge and how they are used. In working to generate a clear distinction between these two, the idea and the thing, we noted a third type of product that also emerged and was used in a distinct way. Thus in the end we found it helpful to distinguish between three kinds of products and found that they provide three different views of the creative process. We call them insights, inventions, and enlightenments.

Insights are ideas for changing how we as creators are thinking and so changing what is possible for our stories. Usually, our thinking advances our stories in predictable ways. We think to improve a train using the knowledge about trains we typically use. We think to use cardboard tubes in ways we already know about and can expect to apply in this story. Insights are inconsistent with these assumptions about what to think. For example, when Nakatsu formed the analogy between the train entering a tunnel and kingfishers entering the water, he was forming an insight. He was changing how he was thinking about the train entering tunnels. The egg challenge team’s realization that they did not need tubes but chutes was also an insight. It changed how they thought about the tubes. Insights are like plot twists in our stories. They change how we are thinking about our stories right now, they can change how we think about what happened previously in our stories, and they can change where we next take our stories. Insights typically form over fairly short periods of time. They do not usually end our stories but instead redirect our stories.

Our stories usually end with the formation of some specific thing, which when creativity is involved can be called an invention. Usually, we resolve our stories using ordinary methods, yielding predictable endings and standard resolutions. We get up, get dressed, and tie our shoes pretty much how we did yesterday. We can even solve new problems in ordinary ways. For example, in the egg challenge, many teams formed padded carriers in which to place their eggs so as to protect them from bumps along the way. The stories for making the egg carriers are ordinary. Teams take a small box, crumple newspaper around the egg, place it inside the box, and tape the box shut. Yet sometimes we either do not use or do not know any ordinary way to advance our stories. Sometimes, we form insights that redirect our stories, which is what allows us, eventually, to generate inventions. The new nose on the Shinkansen was an invention. The tunnel boom story could not be resolved until the new nose invention was instantiated and shown to work. The egg cable car was an invention. Inventions resolve stories. They typically form over fairly long periods of time.

Insights and inventions are related, but they are not the same. The insight of an egg cable car was an idea, whereas the invention of the egg cable car was made of cardboard, tape, and string. Nakatsu’s analogy between the train entering a tunnel and a kingfisher diving into water was an insight but not an actual new front end of a train, which was the invention. Insights are generally far short of inventions, just as a plot twist is generally far short of a full story. Insights can fail. A new way of thinking could turn out to be wrong or infeasible. Insights are usually incomplete. For example, even the simple “chutes not tubes” insight was incomplete because the cut cardboard tubes were unstable and tended to twist. A complete invention required more thinking as well as more work to stabilize the chutes. It was more than four years of effort between the insight about owls flying silently and the invention of the new pantograph for the Shinkansen. An invention can require many insights and a considerable amount of ordinary thinking. Thus an insight is a shift in thinking, whereas an invention is something we make or do, something we patent, or something we might go on to develop commercially and sell.

Insights occur within stories. Inventions resolve stories. The third type of creative product, an enlightenment, goes beyond stories. Enlightenments are new knowledge that change how we can think going forward. The insight of an egg cable car resulted, eventually, in an egg cable car invention. But it was not general new knowledge that transformed the teams’ engineering capacities beyond that problem. In contrast, the “owls fly silently” insight Nakatsu had, even before it resulted in the invention of the new pantograph, resulted in an enlightenment. The engineers’ discovery of how the serration feathers on the edge of owl wings function led them to knowledge about how shapes can break up soundwaves. The engineers could use this vortex generator enlightenment in many other stories, not just the pantograph story. Enlightenments can emerge at any point in a story. They usually take a long time to generate. Their effects are not temporary or singular. They are not shifts in how we are thinking about a specific story (insights). They are not instantiated to resolve particular stories (inventions). They are changes to our knowledge, and so can apply to any story.

Separating out insights, inventions, and enlightenments helps to clarify what the effects of going through the creative process might be. We might work to break out of our current way of thinking about something and generate an insight. We might work toward a solution and generate an invention. We might work toward new knowledge and generate an enlightenment. Insights, inventions, and enlightenments are all creative products, just different types, all of which take work.

The Creative Process: From Cues to Products

The Shinkansen and egg challenge examples are illustrations of the creative process. They show the creative process as a break from ordinary thinking. We are cued to consider shifting our thinking, we work to identify an alternative way of thinking, and then we integrate any alternative we find back into ordinary thinking. The creative process extends from and returns to ordinary thinking. To become more effective at going through the creative process then, we have to start by learning about ordinary thinking.

Talking about ordinary thinking might make it seem as if we are not doing anything special. For this reason, let’s call this ordinary thinking process craft as a reminder that ordinary thinking is the result of considerable learning and effort. Craft thinking involves skill and expertise. The word craft is also a reminder that there are strong links between thinking and acting. We work with our bodies and our minds in real time to get things done. When creativity shifts our thinking, we often have to work to reconnect our thinking and acting. In the short run, creativity can reduce our ability to get things done because our new thinking can require new ways of acting. For this reason, most of the time we are not adjusting how we think and act. Most of the time, we rely on our hard-won knowledge to think about what we are doing, take action, and perceive what resulted. Most of the time, we practice our craft.

Practicing our craft involves using the knowledge we have in a way that is consistent with how we have used it in the past. In any given situation, while we have available our entire store of knowledge, skills, and abilities, we actually use only a small subset to think about what is happening. For example, imagine that we were starting the egg challenge task. Although we might know something about the neighborhood where we live, about our grandmothers, about popular music, about how to make toast, and countless other things, only a tiny amount of our knowledge might seem relevant to getting an egg over a wall and to a target. We pull together the tiny amount of knowledge that seems relevant and start thinking and acting. Maybe we put the egg in a box with some crumpled newspaper to help keep it from breaking. The craft process involves drawing on a tiny fraction of our knowledge and applying that knowledge in ordinary ways to guide our thinking and action so as to advance our stories.

Pulling together a tiny amount of relevant knowledge is central to the craft process, because it provides us with an interpretation of what is happening and gives us the necessary focus to take a course of action. The tiny amount of knowledge that we use to understand the situation and form our stories is called a perspective. When an engineering team takes a cardboard tube and decides to roll the egg down the tube, they have taken a perspective that includes the beliefs that eggs roll, that tubes can guide where eggs will roll, and that putting an egg in a tube and having the egg roll down the tube is a way to transport the egg some distance without the egg breaking. This ordinary, basic information is not something any of the engineering teams had to figure out. They knew it already. This was craft thinking at work. Their perspective on the problem made it easy to think of possible actions to take. However, their initial perspective on the problem made them see cardboard tubes, not chutes. Their initial perspective on the problem also made them see string and boxes, not cables and cable cars. As a result of thinking about the materials as tubes, string, and boxes, chutes and cable cars were, at first, inconceivable.

What makes something inconceivable is that it does not fit with our perspectives. For example, here is a riddle: “What gets wetter the more it dries?” Riddles often invite us to take an unhelpful perspective, and that perspective makes the answer to the riddle inconceivable. This is why riddles can be frustrating, because they seem contradictory or nonsensical. Until we change our perspective, the answer is inconceivable. But once we change our perspective on a riddle, the answer is clear. The inconceivable becomes thinkable.

In this case, the riddle invites us to take a perspective that puts “wetter” and “dries” into correspondence. This correspondence leads us to interpret the riddle as “What gets wetter the more it gets dry?” We interpret “dries” as an intransitive verb: something becomes dry. But how can something become dry and become wetter at the same time? If we do not force “wetter” and “dries” into correspondence though, we can interpret “dries” as a transitive verb: something makes something else dry. With this change in perspective on the verb “dries” we have a way forward. What gets wetter as it dries something else? A towel.

Riddles capture in miniature a portion of the creative process. We try to interpret the riddle. Our craft process results in forming a perspective, but not one that allows us to advance our story. Instead, we get stuck. The feeling of getting stuck is a cue. Cues trigger us to consider changing our perspective. After all, if our initial perspective was working, we probably would not be stuck. Our craft process normally works, which is why we use it. Normally, we do not consider all manner of interpretations. Usually, the knowledge we bring to bear, the perspective we form initially, works and allows us to act sufficiently effectively that we do not question it. But riddles are designed to force us to hit a wall, and so be cued to consider alternative perspectives. We are not so lucky most of the time, as in most real tasks we do not hit a wall even when we long should have tried to be creative. In most real tasks we are not cued to be creative. Absent a cue, we are unlikely to be creative, as cues are usually the starting point for the creative process. Part of learning to navigate the creative process more effectively involves becoming more sensitive to the cues that can trigger us to launch into the creative process.

If we take a cue and consider a pause from trying to advance our stories so that we can instead turn to changing our perspectives, we confront another challenge of the creative process. Often, we feel a bit lost. We are not sure how or what to think. We think something about our current perspective is not right, but we do not know what it is about our current perspective that is unhelpful. It all appears helpful and even necessary. In the towel riddle, it is not usually immediately evident that “dries” has two interpretations. Wanting to change our perspective raises a large challenge. Our perspective was formed with the tiny amount of knowledge we thought was relevant. If we move away from what we think is relevant, we are confronted by an enormous amount of information, all of which has a small chance of being relevant. Part of learning to be more effective at going through the creative process involves developing ways to identify possibly relevant knowledge that we can use to change our perspectives.

If we do identify knowledge that we can use to change something specific about our current perspective, then we can conclude this portion of our creative process and return to craft. The new perspective allows us to think in ways that were formerly inconceivable. Whether the new perspective and the avenues for thinking are useful for advancing our story is unknown until we actually try. Thus, having changed our perspective, we return to craft to try to advance our story. Part of learning to be more effective at going through the creative process involves exiting the process and returning to craft. We do not want to get stuck considering endless possible alternative perspectives. We need to get back to craft and to advancing our story.

What riddles do well is indicate how the creative process might work to produce an insight. We stumble into a cue, we change our perspective, and we arrive at an insight, which is one kind of creative product. Riddles are less helpful for thinking about the creative process needed to generate the other two kinds of creative products though, inventions and enlightenments. To understand the creative process leading to these two creative products, we need to broaden out to consider not just how we think about one situation right now, as we do with riddles, but how we think about long stories. This is the point of the Shinkansen and egg challenge stories. Those stories are examples of how we often cycle back and forth between craft and creativity on the way to generating inventions and enlightenments. We engage in craft, get cued to consider our perspective, identify a way to shift our perspective, try using that shift to advance our story, and then see where it takes us. Later, we might get cued again. And it repeats and repeats. There is a detailed interweaving between craft and creativity. That interweaving is the result of two separate developments happening alongside each other: a craft process of advancing our stories, and a creative process of changing our perspectives.

To generate an intuition about the difference between craft and creativity and so learn how to navigate the creative process more effectively, two metaphors can be helpful. One metaphor is to think about the egg challenge task a little more literally. We can consider the set of materials, the string, boxes, newspaper, and tubes, to be like a perspective, and the contraption we build from those materials to be like a story. If we stop building a contraption and instead change the materials themselves—perhaps we change a tube into a chute—then we can now generate different kinds of contraptions than we could before. Creativity is like changing the building blocks (perspective) that we have on hand, and craft is like making things (the story) from those building blocks. The creative process of changing our perspectives means we have different resources on hand to think with, and that new set of resources allows us to generate different kinds of stories than we could previously.

The building block and contraption metaphor is helpful in clarifying the roles of craft and creativity. The distinction between creativity and craft is about what we are trying to develop. Are we trying to form a contraption or more generally develop our stories? That is craft. Are we trying to change the set of building blocks we have to work with or more generally change our perspectives? This is creativity. There is no contraption without building blocks. Craft is necessary. The contraptions we can generate are limited by the building blocks we have available. Craft is limited. Changing the building blocks we have available in itself does nothing. Creativity without craft is unrealized potential. We can think about building blocks, and we can think about contraptions. Both craft and creativity are about thinking, but what we are thinking about is the key difference between them. The building block and contraption metaphor offers helpful ways of thinking about craft and creativity.

Another helpful metaphor for thinking about the craft process of developing our stories and the creative process of developing our perspectives comes from imagining we are driving. Most of the time when we are driving, we just continue straight along the current road. Most of the time we are using craft. But sometimes we turn. Sometimes we get creative. Without making specific turns, there are specific places we will never go. Without creativity, our craft is bounded. This much is fairly similar to the building block and contraption metaphor.

What the driving metaphor adds is a sense of the longer process for generating inventions and enlightenments. We do not know before we turn and then start driving straight again where a new road will take us. Creativity, by changing the perspective we use to guide craft, changes where our stories can go and so changes the products we might generate. But we do not know where the change in perspective will lead us or whether it will end up being helpful for generating inventions or enlightenments. Any given turn, though, is not helpful on its own—we had to drive to that point and continue driving afterward for that turn to be of value. Creativity without craft does not result in creative products. It takes a set of turns, not just one, and quite a lot of going straight, to get anywhere of interest. Craft and creativity together, applied repeatedly over time, is necessary for forming the creative products we care most about, inventions and enlightenments. The trip we started out to take might, if we discover new turns, become an entirely different adventure than we expected it to be. Creativity can change not only where our stories are going but also what we think the story is about and why we think we are telling it.

The driving metaphor helps us to see creativity as having effects that accumulate over time. Small amounts of creativity set among large stretches of craft can come to be seen as much more important than all the craft because it is the creativity that established the direction that craft merely developed. It is easy to take craft for granted. It is also easy, after the journey, to forget about every turn we had to navigate along the way to reaching our destination. Our view of the creativity needed to generate inventions and enlightenments is often partial and often hard to summarize.

A final aspect of the driving metaphor to emphasize is that we often drive around the same neighborhoods repeatedly. This means that once we do learn a certain set of turns, we expand the places to which we can drive in the future. We learn a neighborhood, and traveling around it becomes routine. Once we have been creative, our craft is more comprehensive. Our knowledge is more developed. Our perspectives are richer. A history of creativity expands our capacities for craft in the future.

The expansion of craft due to a history of creativity expanding perspectives is the reason why the novices we interviewed felt more creative than the experts did. For novices, each new turn is a new creative moment. For experts, they have already learned the neighborhood. Driving all over some parts of town is now just craft for them. For example, experienced music producers have learned how to navigate some musical neighborhoods. They can produce new songs using their existing perspectives to make songs similar to the ones they have made before, but that appear new to novices.12 As Ed Catmull from the film studio Pixar noted, when people in creative professions “merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art. Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.”13 Generating products that did not exist before is not enough for creativity. Expert craft can do that. As sound engineer and producer James Thane Robeson put it during an interview, “created does not mean creative.”

The Craft of Creativity

If our aim is to learn to generate creative products, then our task is to improve our ability to navigate the creative process. The creative process is crucial because it is primary. When we are going through the creative process ourselves, when we are the creators, we are engaged in the craft process of developing stories and also engaged in the creative process of changing our perspectives so as to change what our stories can be. When we form an insight, an invention, or an enlightenment, we do so relative to our own understandings. When we focus on the creative process, creativity is relative to the creator. If something is within the perspective of the creator, it is craft. If something is not within the perspective of the creator and so inconceivable to the creator, then it takes creativity for the creator to think it. The focus of the discussion thus far and the discussions to come are on the process of creative storytelling.

The clarity we get when we focus on ourselves as creators going through the creative process is gone when we focus on other people’s products. When we start from other people’s products, we are in a more difficult position. It is tempting to talk about a product as being creative or not being creative. But what does that mean? When we say a product is creative, we usually are not talking about the creative process that led to the product because we usually do not know about the process that led to the product. And it does not make sense to say that there is some inherent quality of the product that makes it creative. Whether a product is perceived to be creative is an evaluation. Whether something is perceived to be creative is a question of the perspective the evaluator forms of the product and the relationship between that perspective and the evaluator’s background knowledge. If evaluators form perspectives of a product that indicate the product is just like other items they have experienced before, the evaluators will not find the product creative. And evaluators could always do so. What strikes one of us as creative may not strike another one of us as creative because we can form different perspectives and we can have different background knowledge.

It is common to talk about creative products, so the expression must mean something. For example, we might see a painting, a video, or a gadget, and think, “That’s creative!” One meaning for the expression is that when we are evaluators and perceive a painting to be creative, we are forming an interpretation of the painting that represents a change in perspective from the interpretations that we would normally form. If a group of evaluators tend to have similar background knowledge and tend to form similar interpretations, then many in that group could have very similar reactions to the same product. Because people in the same community often share beliefs, many of them might agree that a particular painting is creative. Calling a product creative could be shorthand for the typical experience typical evaluators have when first perceiving the product. The limitation of course is that different kinds of perceivers often disagree. People from different backgrounds, people with different knowledge, people from different cultures, and people who live in different eras can and frequently do disagree on what products strike them as creative.

A second reason we might call a product creative is that we are getting some kind of signal from the world that the product is the type of thing we often call creative. We often think of art as a creative activity, for example, so we might tend to assume a painting is creative to some degree just because it is a painting. Or maybe the product has stereotypical hallmarks of something innovative, such as being high tech and made by someone with funny hair. Signals from the world that a product is creative indicate a complicated set of processes for why we call a product creative. Both reasons, that evaluators experience a change from their typical perspectives and that evaluators get external signals that a product is creative, play important roles in why we describe products as creative, as Jennifer Mueller’s book Creative Change discusses brilliantly.14

There is a still more complex reason we might call a product creative, which is that the product is successful. For example, we might consider famous paintings, widely sold consumer products, or highly cited patents to be more creative than unknown paintings, unsuccessful consumer products, or ignored patents. However, it is a complicated measure to interpret. “Examples of once prominent but later obscure creations abound across disciplines—consider the ‘science’ of phrenology, ‘hot pants’ from designer Mary Quant, and the early Oscar winner Cavalcade (which won Best Picture and two other Oscars, and is currently unavailable on DVD).”15 The reverse is true as well. Outcomes that are now prominent were not necessarily successful at the outset, including work by Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Nicolas Copernicus, and Emily Dickinson, among many others. The social impact of creative products is important and interesting. But there are a large number of reasons products are and are not socially successful that have little to do with the creativity that went into generating the product. For example, the creator might be someone important. The creator might have many influential friends. The creator might have generated an exciting way to talk about the product. The market might be ready to receive such a product. There are many other reasons too. A product’s success is an interesting and important outcome. But it is influenced by far more than just whatever creativity might have gone into the product’s creation.

We must give up the fiction that we, as creators, will know with certainty if our creative products are sufficient for our needs when they first emerge. The assumption seems to be that we will. Yet a great deal of research on real-world creativity across fields and people shows that a creator’s success at predicting the social impact of his or her outcomes approximates chance.16 Consider the success rates of people who invest in new ventures. Nine out of ten investments in entrepreneurial ventures fail. If people who make their living picking inventions fail nine out of ten times, and if creators’ own estimates of how successful their outcomes will be are also no better than chance, then it seems unhelpful to condition decisions about creativity on predictions about the products.

The conclusions we draw from work on why people evaluate some product to be creative are that evaluation is a complicated and important process, and evaluation is not the first process that occurs. To evaluate a product for creativity there first has to be a product. Thus we emphasize that the place to start when it comes to creativity is not with whether a person has generated many products that others perceive to be creative, and not with whether a product is widely perceived to be creative. Rather, the place to start when trying to understand creativity is with the process of generating creative products.

Generating ordinary products requires craft. Generating creative products requires craft and also creativity. We have identified the possibility of learning to notice cues that could prompt changes in perspectives. We noted the possibility of developing skill at changing perspectives. We suggested that there are opportunities to learn to manage the interweaving of craft and creativity over the long periods of time needed to form inventions and enlightenments. What that means is that people have the potential to develop specific ways of thinking and acting to help them navigate the creative process. People can develop craft at going through the creative process. This is what we mean when we say that there is a craft of creativity.

Getting Creative about Creativity

The aim of this book is to explain what the craft of creativity involves and what we know about how people can improve their craft for creativity. Part of that process is acknowledging that this might involve changing some of the ways to think about creativity itself. In our own experiences studying creativity, we have had to change our perspective about creativity. We have gotten stalled in our stories about creativity and needed to change our perspectives to make satisfactory progress. We had to get creative about creativity.

The account of creativity that we have been describing might already have changed part of your perspective on the subject. Perhaps you tended to focus on the traits of creative people. Perhaps you tended to focus on the success of creative products. Those are fascinating topics to examine. The reason we are exploring the craft of creativity is because we have worked with large numbers of people who felt that creativity is not a skill they could develop. They not only felt uncreative, they did not think there was a way to improve. We think there is a way to improve, and we hope that what follows provides guidance for why and how all of us can improve.

We have also worked with large numbers of people who felt that creativity was not something they wanted to improve upon, because they were too busy getting important things done. Creativity is sometimes viewed as frivolous, inefficient, and optional. The thought is that special people can be creative, and everyone else should do useful things. We could not disagree more.

Our view of creativity is that if we can think about it, we can think creatively about it. And who wants to be a limited thinker? Take a topic that many people assume requires the opposite of creativity—accounting. Bill Foster, a tax accountant, told us that one year when working on a complicated tax filing he took a break and picked up a tax trade journal. As professors, we could relate—procrastination in the form of doing something that we can feel justified in doing is tempting. In this case though, Foster read an article detailing a power company’s successful attempts to extend the time period in which it could claim fiscal losses because of extenuating circumstances. He realized that the power company’s situation was like the situation of one of his clients, the Long Island Railroad. Mapping the analogy from the power company to the railroad changed his perspective on the railroad’s accounting situation. It was an entirely legal bit of creative accounting that allowed Foster to save the railroad company $50 million.

Creativity is not just about exciting new opportunities. It can take creativity to identify misunderstandings and find ways to reconcile them to reduce conflict. Jeanne Brett, in her wonderful book Negotiating Globally, shows the costs of misunderstandings driven by a failure to change perspectives. For example, she wrote of a conflict arising because one person seemed to be making excessive demands of others.17 The root problem turned out to be a simple translation error: a French speaker used the English word “demand” thinking it was a cognate of the French word “demander,” which is typically translated as “ask.” Asking and demanding are starkly different, but no one on the American side noticed the possibility of interpreting “demand” from a native French speaker to mean ask. Another reason to be creative is that it can take creativity to appreciate a risk that could make a project fail or an action that could ruin our reputations. Max Bazerman and Anne Tenbrunsel’s important book Blind Spots documents many examples of people failing to notice ethical traps because they were thinking rigidly, locked into their perspectives.18 It can even require creativity to be efficient. As Amos Tversky said, “[Y]ou waste years not being able to waste hours.”19 If we refuse to stop advancing our stories long enough to change our perspectives, we are unlikely to get much better than we are now. For many reasons then, we all need to be better at navigating the creative process. We could all stand to improve our craft of creativity. This may well mean that we all need to be a little creative about creativity itself, so we can think about improvements that are currently inconceivable.

Even academics studying creativity can stand to be creative about creativity. As one recent scholarly review of creativity research put it:

[W]e are struck by the relative lack of theoretical advances across the creativity and innovation literatures in the past decade. . . . Although a whole morass of valuable empirical studies has appeared over the last decade, relatively few distinctively theoretical advances have been published within this sheer volume of studies. To invert the title of one article—“stagnant fountains and sparkling ponds”—characterizes, perhaps marginally unkindly, our impression of this situation.20

These are pretty strong words for academics. But these words point to a shared dissatisfaction in the community of creativity scholars with the scholarly frameworks for understanding creativity. For example, we were sitting not too long ago with a prominent creativity researcher talking about brainstorming. He said that he tended to use a brainstorming framework to think about creativity because that was the available tool, despite all its flaws and limitations. He knew there was more to creativity than this, but this is what he had to work with and so he did. Focusing on the creative process of changing perspectives is an avenue for reinvigorating creativity research as well as practice.

To reinvigorate our own thinking about creativity, we gathered fresh observations. After all, when people take seriously that they may not understand something very well, they are obligated to stop focusing on what they think they already know and start taking a harder look at what is happening.21 This led us to discussions with 77 people, for one to three hours each, about their practices and beliefs with respect to creativity.22 The interview approach has led to a great many insightful works about creativity.23 In contrast to some approaches though, we did not start with those who had produced widely successful works of creativity and then try to reverse engineer the process they used to create their works. That would have made it difficult to know whether those processes were actually helpful. After all, those same creators or other people might have used the very same processes to generate many large failures. Instead, we simply asked about the process the creators relied upon when they were trying to be creative, or found themselves being creative. People spoke about their successes and their failures.

The people we spoke with ranged widely in eminence. As we were interested in what people might learn about the creative process, speaking to people across a range of skill levels was important. We talked to people who have achieved at high levels in their fields, winning Grammy awards, Emmy awards, scientific awards, and more. We spoke with experts who worked in relative obscurity, but who made a living from their creativity. We spoke with people who were amateur creators, whose creative endeavors were not their livelihood but a regular part of their lives. We also interviewed novices, such as college students engaged with their first research projects. Interviewing people ranging in skill gave us a window into what expertise in creativity might look like and what the learning process in developing that expertise might look like.

Because we have argued that if we can think about it, we can think creatively about it, we interviewed people working in a wide range of domains. We interviewed dancers, composers, painters, and other “pure” artists. We interviewed game designers, advertisers, product designers, and others applying aspects of art and design to their work. We interviewed people in technical fields such as mathematicians, IT network builders, mechanics, accountants, and engineers. And we interviewed people in many other areas as well, including medicine, law, management, anthropology, tailoring, lobbying, and more. The variety of domains allowed us to understand if domain matters to developing one’s craft of creativity.

We used the responses from these interviews in several ways. We sought out repeated observations and claims to get a sense of creativity as these people understood it. We examined whether there was general convergence or divergence in what people said. Then we examined where the picture of creativity that emerged from the interviews supported, contradicted, or were about issues ignored by the scholarly literature on creativity. Then at the end of the process, after we had formed our best guesses about creativity, we returned to the interviews to see whether our best guesses were a good fit and brought out more in the interviews than we had at first noticed or were in fact contradicted by comments we initially failed to appreciate.

Complementing the interviews as a basis for thinking about creativity, we drew on research findings about creativity and about cognitive science. The reasons we drew on creativity research are straightforward. We drew on cognitive science because the creative process we heard described repeatedly is largely about how people change their thinking, and the cognitive science research community is the primary scholarly community studying thinking. The most important work for us was research describing the content of thought. The more we listened to people trying to talk about changing their perspectives, the more we realized that they spoke about specific changes to specific thoughts they were having, like the realization in the egg challenge that it was not cardboard tubes that they needed but chutes. Few people could articulate the generalization that they were changing their perspectives, let alone tell us much about what a perspective is and what it means to change one. For that, we turned to research from cognitive science.

The discussion of creativity that follows in this book is informed by our interviews, our reading of the cognitive science literature, our reading of the creativity literature, and our own primary research. The interpretations that we present inevitably will disagree in places with some of the scholars on whose work we drew. We also expect that there will be research that would have been useful but that we did not find. We are confident that none of us are fully correct, and we hope that our areas of both agreement and disagreement are opportunities for improvement. That is the nature of research. But we are finding the novel integration that we present here to be useful for our own thinking and to our students. Thus our hope for the student or practitioner is that we provide a useful, usable, and desirable framework from which you can learn to improve your skill at creating. But we also hope to provide you with new insights, inventions, and enlightenments that allow you to generate new knowledge about creativity itself.

Our current view of creativity is centered on the creative process, rather than on creative products or creative people. The creative process is about making the inconceivable thinkable. Specifically, we use the following definition:

Creativity is a process of following cues to generate insights that change our perspectives, which with craft we can use to form inventions and enlightenments.

The Story to Come

This book is intended to help you develop a deep understanding of how creativity works. That is the foundation for learning the concepts and methods to improve your skill at being creative. To this end, exercises are provided at the ends of the chapters for exploring those concepts and methods. To add to the pragmatic goal of the book, there are discussions of what science tells us about creativity. Knowing how and why creativity emerges takes longer to understand than simply which skills make creativity more likely. But such knowledge provides dividends. It provides a foundation of knowledge upon which we can build and refine our skills beyond what this book can provide.

This book strives to be thought-provoking, even for those already quite knowledgeable about creativity. It offers new views on how creativity works. By the end of this book, you may well understand creativity differently, and hopefully be able to leverage that understanding to be more creative in whatever you do. That might even mean developing your knowledge about what creativity is or how it works even further with a new technique or new research. No matter your objective, creativity can help.

This claim is based on one of the biggest surprises from the interviews. People across disciplines described their need for and use of creative thinking in ways that were almost identical. Everyone used their tradecraft most of the time, everyone had times when they needed to change how they were thinking to make the inconceivable happen, everyone used a creative process to do this, and the result was usually something they were proud of. In addition, creativity happened across professions and people in remarkably consistent ways, at least in terms of their thinking processes. In hindsight, it was clear why they gave such similar descriptions of creativity. People are all working with the same kind of cognitive machinery and going through the same kind of cognitive process. The first half of the book is thus dedicated to understanding how that cognitive machinery works to produce creativity.

Chapter 2 starts where most people are when it comes to creativity—at the level of ideas. The creative idea is the insight, which is a product of thought. Chapter 2 explains some fundamentals of thinking—how we develop ideas that are often craft but are sometimes creative. Ultimately this means understanding how our cognitive machinery operates. The chapter examines why we have to form a perspective as we try to make a story for what is happening in our present situation. Perspectives provide great flexibility in the directions a story can go, but they also impose limits on what we can bring to mind. Thus, to generate insights, we need to change our perspectives. Doing so will change what we can imagine happening in our stories. Changing our perspective is different than continuing or building upon our current perspective. But successfully navigating a change to our perspective, successfully producing an insight, allows us to imagine stories for what is happening that were previously inconceivable.

Chapter 3 shows that insight is the beginning, not the end, of creativity. Having an insight changes the direction of our story, but we still have to resolve our story. That resolution will be an invention. Invention requires more than just ideas, it requires action. We have to apply our ideas to the world so that we can transform the current situation into the situation we desire. Often this takes many actions. Thus not only must we produce ideas about what to do, we must also take action, evaluate what has happened, update our beliefs, and act again. We are advancing our story in an attempt to resolve it, and sometimes the world does not comply. So in addition to the thinking processes discussed in Chapter 2, Chapter 3 integrates a discussion of action, as we need to transform our situation to meet our goals. Our perspectives guide this process, which means that insights provide new guidance. Insights can beget further insights, and many insights may be required for a single invention. If we understand how our perspectives guide our actions, we can understand how many inventions are in reach, if we could only think to pursue them.

Chapter 4 discusses enlightenments. Inventions are not the only end product of the creative process. As we tell our stories we learn new things about our world. These are the enlightenments, the new knowledge we could not have imagined until we formed new insights about the world from our interactions with it. There is a tight relationship between creativity and learning, although the two tend not to be discussed together. This is probably the most important gap to fill in how we think about creativity. Creativity has a critical role in learning new ways of thinking about the world. Most learning is craft of course, just as most thinking is craft; we just improve on what we already know. Yet we can also generate new kinds of knowledge that do not follow from what we already know, and will change what we believe. Forming enlightenments means creativity has an even larger impact than we at first think, because it is our knowledge that is the basis for all our action. And because we can share our knowledge, this means creativity is the source of most human achievement.

Understanding the process of forming insights, inventions, and enlightenments prepares us to learn how to go through the process more efficiently and effectively than we do now. Thus the second half of the book is devoted to improving our craft of creativity. Chapter 5 discusses the cues that can signal when it is likely to be useful to begin the process of changing our perspectives. There are four main cues: impasse, dissatisfaction, surprise, and crosstalk. The chapter explores why we experience each one and what that signals about our perspective. When we understand what cues are indicating about our perspective, we can learn to better identify when our perspective could be changed.

Thinking that our perspective needs to change is just a start. We still have to think of a way to change it. Chapter 6 looks at the cognitive tools that help us change our perspectives. We call these activation, analogy, combination, and recategorization. Each tool operates in its own way, so they have different uses and different results. All of them help us with the most challenging part of creativity—finding a way to think differently from how we do now. In examining all four tools, we will understand why there is more than one way to help ourselves be creative. As a result, we can learn to try different tools to generate more insights and to avoid getting stuck.

Chapter 7 discusses the villain in the creative process, uncertainty. Uncertainty threatens the creative process in many ways. We have feelings of uncertainty regarding whether creativity is worthwhile. We are uncertain we can think of anything better or even different from what we are already thinking. We are uncertain that a change in perspective will actually turn out to be fruitful. There are many points in the creative process at which uncertainty weakens our resolve to go through the creative process or even to begin the creative process. Thus, in Chapter 7 we learn ways to handle uncertainty. We also revisit some of the unhelpful assumptions people may have about creativity so that unnecessary uncertainties can be avoided. Part of the craft of creativity is a willingness to go through the creative process and the persistence to stick with it.

Finally, we close in Chapter 8 with a big-picture view of the creative process and the craft of creativity. We also examine the implications of our discussions for how you can better evaluate creative products, better communicate about creative products, and better support others through the creative process.

Improving the craft of creativity is long journey. In an interview, Schell Games CEO Jesse Schell drew an analogy between learning to go through the creative process and learning to run competitively: “Everyone knows how to make new ideas . . . [and we] all know how to run. But if you want to win races? Now we got stuff to talk about . . . we have training to do.” Rather than being fixed, our skill at being creative can improve if we learn more about the process. The scholar Teresa Amabile, one of the leading creativity researchers of her generation, incorporated creativity skills as an influence on the creative process,24 and new research is starting to show that our capability to be creative can be improved.25 When we think of the creative process as a process of changing our perspectives, we are in a better position to appreciate what those “creativity skills” are, why they work, and how we can learn them. We can develop our craft of creativity.


1. Ravi Mehta, Rui Juliet Zhu, and Amar Cheema, “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” Journal of Consumer Research 39, no. 4 (2012): 784–799.

2. Angela Ka-yee Leung, William W. Maddux, Adam D. Galinsky, and Chi-yue Chiu, “Multicultural Experience Enhances Creativity: The When and How,” American Psychologist 63, no. 3 (2008): 169–181.

3. Adam M. Grant, Ellen J. Langer, Emily Falk, and Christina Capodilupo, “Mindful Creativity: Drawing to Draw Distinctions,” Creativity Research Journal 16, no. 2-3 (2004): 261–265.

4. Kimberly D. Elsbach and Andrew B. Hargadon, “Enhancing Creativity Through ‘Mindless’ Work: A Framework of Workday Design,” Organization Science 17, no. 4 (2006): 470–483.

5. Teresa M. Amabile, Sigal G. Barsade, Jennifer S. Mueller, and Barry M. Staw, “Affect and Creativity at Work,” Administrative Science Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2005): 367–403; Alice M. Isen, Kimberly A. Daubman, and Gary P. Nowicki, “Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52, no. 6 (1987): 1122–1131.

6. Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Matthijs Baas, and Bernard A. Nijstad, “Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood-Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94, no. 5 (2008): 739–756; Jennifer M. George and Jing Zhou, “Understanding When Bad Moods Foster Creativity and Good Ones Don’t: The Role of Context and Clarity of Feelings,” Journal of Applied Psychology 87, no. 4 (2002): 687–697.

7. Robert W. Weisberg and Richard Hass, “Commentaries: We Are All Partly Right: Comment on Simonton,” Creativity Research Journal 19, no. 4 (2007): 345–360.

8. Charalampos Mainemelis and Sarah Ronson, “Ideas Are Born in Fields of Play: Towards a Theory of Play and Creativity in Organizational Settings,” Research in Organizational Behavior 27 (2006): 81–131; Leigh Thompson, “Improving the Creativity of Organizational Work Groups,” The Academy of Management Executive 17, no. 1 (2003): 96–109.

9. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Richard Florida, “America’s Looming Creativity Crisis,” Harvard Business Review 82, no. 10 (2004): 136.

10. Teresa M. Amabile, “The Social Psychology of Creativity: A Componential Conceptualization,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45, no. 2 (1983): 357; Jennifer M. George, “Creativity in Organizations,” The Academy of Management Annals 1, no. 1 (2007): 439–477. Note that there are related discussions about improvisation (see Colin M. Fisher and Teresa Amabile, “Creativity, Improvisation and Organizations,” in The Routledge Companion to Creativity, ed. Tudor Rickards, Mark A. Runco, and Susan Moger, 13–24 (Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2009), but we see improvisation as a particular type of creativity, the nuances of which are beyond what we will cover in this book.

11. All quotes in this section are taken from Kazunori Kobayashi, FS Biomimicry Interview Series No. 6: “‘Shinkansen Technology Learned from an Owl?’ The story of Eiji Nakatsu,” Japan for Sustainability Newsletter No. 31 (March 2005), Available for use under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License:

12. John Seabrook, “The Song Machine: The Hitmakers Behind Rihanna,” The New Yorker, March 26, 2012,

13. Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (New York: Random House, 2014), 196.

14. Jennifer S. Mueller, Creative Change (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). Other work has found that novices use stereotypical markers for evaluating creativity with respect to the product; for example, see J. C. Kaufman, J. Baer, D. H. Cropley, R. Reiter-Palmon, and S. Nienhauser, “Furious Activity vs. Understanding: How Much Expertise Is Needed to Evaluate Creative Work? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 7, no. 4 (2013): 332.

15. James C. Kaufman and Ronald A. Beghetto, “Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity,” Review of General Psychology 13, no. 1 (2009): 4. The two sentences that follow are also drawn from this paper. Note also, by the way, that Cavalcade has since been released on blu-ray disc.

16. Dean Keith Simonton, “Foresight in Insight? A Darwinian Answer,” in The Nature of Insight, ed. R. J. Sternberg and J. E. Davidson, 465–494 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

17. Jeanne M. Brett, Negotiating Globally: How to Negotiate Deals, Resolve Disputes, and Make Decisions Across Cultural Boundaries, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 145.

18. Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.)

19. Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017), 230.

20. Neil Anderson, Kristina Potočnik, and Jing Zhou, “Innovation and Creativity in Organizations: A State-of-the-Science Review, Prospective Commentary, and Guiding Framework,” Journal of Management 40, no. 5 (2014): 1318.

21. Amy C. Edmondson and Stacy E. McManus, “Methodological Fit in Management Field Research,” Academy of Management Review 32, no. 4 (2007): 1246–1264.

22. We used a grounded interview technique; see Kathleen M. Eisenhardt and Melissa E. Graebner, “Theory Building from Cases: Opportunities and Challenges,” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 1 (2007): 25.

23. Of particular inspiration to us was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).

24. Teresa M. Amabile, Creativity in Context: Update to “The Social Psychology of Creativity” (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).

25. Jack A. Goncalo and Michelle M. Duguid, “Follow the Crowd in a New Direction: When Conformity Pressure Facilitates Group Creativity (and When It Does Not),” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 118, no. 1 (May 2012): 14–23; Ginamarie Scott, Lyle E. Leritz, and Michael D. Mumford, “The Effectiveness of Creativity Training: A Quantitative Review,” Creativity Research Journal 16, no. 4 (2004): 361–388; Aaron Kozbelt, “Longitudinal Hit Ratios of Classical Composers: Reconciling ‘Darwinian’ and Expertise Acquisition Perspectives on Lifespan Creativity,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 2, no. 4 (2008): 221–235; Christina Shalley and Jill Perry-Smith, “Effects of Social-Psychological Factors on Creative Performance: The Role of Informational and Controlling Expected Evaluation and Modeling Experience,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 84, no. 2001: 1–22.