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Cultivating creativity as a key habit for transforming society


Some of my strongest early childhood memories are of sitting on our living room carpet drawing some silly image in my head, writing childish poems or randomly reading the dictionary or encyclopaedia. I have always loved learning new information and I have always loved figuring out novel ways to communicate what I’m thinking about and learning.

These days I do it through writing and photography. But regardless of the varied ways of communicating, the consistent thing is that all my life I’ve been told that I am “such a creative person.” I have been called “unconventional” and “free-spirited,” and told countless times that I have my head in the clouds. I have always found it interesting the way people imagine the creative spirit as something undisciplined and flighty, unreliable and somewhat charmingly unstructured.

People laughingly saying, “Oh, she’s the artistic type,” as if possessing a pulsating creative drive automatically makes one indifferent to disciplined intention, cultivated intellectual pursuit, and logical, calculated planning and goal setting. Rarely do we associate the creative spirit as not only a cultivated and disciplined way of life, but also a vital drive for exploration and discovery that can, and often does, lead to world changing innovations and improved social systems and economies.

In 2011, Business Insider published an article ranking the 16 most creative countries in the world. Sweden ranked 1st and Germany ranked 16th on the list. The Martin Prosperity Institute, a global think tank that measures sub national factors in global economic prosperity, conducted the study. In the original study, 82 countries were measured. Countries were ranked on a Global Creative Index based on 3 factors: technology (how savvy they were), talent (workforce capability) and tolerance (how open to new ideas). These three factors are believed to shape long-term economic prosperity. Though countries with higher levels of talent and technology also had high levels of economic prosperity, the overall findings suggested that counties with higher levels of GCI had higher levels of economic equality amongst residents. Greater creativity could be said to lead to more just and well-rounded societies.

“Well not everyone is a creative,” some might say, again relegating creativity to the chance luck of an eccentric few. Granted not everyone has the same inclination or levels of curiosity and desire for discovery but creativity can be practiced and harnessed. Cognitive scientist, Scott Barry Kaufmann in his book, “Wired to Create,” says that, “Openness to experience—the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds—is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement… and the act of exploring often provides the raw material for great artistic and scientific innovations.”

At the root of creativity is having an openness to learning, and to seeing and engaging the world in new ways. This requires practice and consistency like any new habit one desires to form. The more photographs you take or art you engage with, the more you are training your mind and your eye to perceive in novel ways. The more varied pieces of literature you read or engaging rich conversations you have the more you are opening your mind to conceive of things in new ways.

But cultural background can also play a role in how people express themselves creatively. A 2016 study out of Columbia University found that people from collectivist cultures, (cultures that place a high emphasis on familial, communal and group relationships and perceptions over individual desires and wants) are less likely to express creativity that veers away from cultural norms or expectations. Whereas those from more individualistic cultures are more likely to not only express more ideas that go against the grain but also more likely to dismiss the ideas of others. The findings fall in line with results from a 2014 study by Psychologist Robert Sternberg published in Fast Company, that claims, “Creativity is an act of bravery. [People must] have the courage to defy the crowd and to stand up for their own beliefs.”

What could it mean to rethink some of our societal issues from more creative perspectives, if we began to associate the word creativity with words like economics, justice, culture, courage, innovation, solutions, discipline, practice, habit, training, talent, technology and tolerance? How might we engage more artists (in the big sense of the word,) into areas like policy making and social development programs? How much more room might we give people in the more traditional occupations to think outside the box and experiment with new solutions and ways of doing things? The creative spirit is not flighty or fanciful. It is vital and essential.

In this article:
Enuma Okoro
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