Thoughts of creative pioneers and neuroscientists, including Rem Koolhass, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, and more.
If you consider yourself a creative type it’s likely that at one point or another you’ve found yourself working through a creative process. When inspiration strikes, you embrace it, and imaginative minds know that the most ordinary of days can suddenly be filled with extraordinary ideas. There’s no limit to creativity or what our minds are capable of dreaming up, but how do we define the process of creativity? Whether it’s an emotional piece of writing, a colorful, vivid painting, or a fashion-forward new trend, creativity is all around us, even when we may not realize it.
The word creativity, much like the pieces and inventions it represents, has no one definition; it’s a fluid, ever-changing process that artists and thinkers have continued to capture in their work. And as these creativity quotes demonstrate some of history’s most well-regarded minds have continually worked to understand and define this most curious action. When it comes to truly understanding how creativity is formed or found, it would seem that there is no shortage of creative answers.
WHAT CREATIVITY IS TO CULTURAL ICONS
For those beginning something creative, YouTube creator Casey Nesitat has a quote that encourages quick action.
“There’s no process. You just start. The only way to get there is to just start. Overthinking the process will kill any career in the creative space. You just have to do, not think.”
However, architect Rem Koolhass disagrees with the idea of completely avoiding contemplation, and instead welcomed mental stimulation.
"I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you're going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big."
"Continuity of thinking in whatever form, around whatever subject, is the real ambition"
The author Ernest Hemingway though, believed that for writers, one should always start anew.
“For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”
However you respond to a surge of creative inspiration remains up to you, but Albert Einstein thought that any creative process should be in response to a personal quest for knowledge:
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day."
Pablo Picasso further explored the idea of finding daily inspiration for our creative works. He believed that our daily surroundings potentially held the key to new ideas.
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web...We must pick out what is good for us where we can find it.
Despite the unlimited creative possibilities the world around us may present, Coco Chanel stressed the importance of a sense of practically during the creative process.
“Don't spend time beating on a wall hoping to transform it into a door.”
"Innovation! One cannot be forever innovating. I want to create classics" (Photo: Matchbook Magazine)
Architect Zaha Hadid expanded on this idea bit further. Her definition of creativity doesn’t involve transformation, but she did encourage thinkers to go beyond what’s expected.
"There are 360 degrees, why stick to one"
When it comes to pursuing all your many new ideas, Dieter Rams discovered that sometimes one does have to discard what’s unessential.
“One of the most significant design principles is to omit the unimportant in order to emphasize the importance.”
For fashion designer Phoebe Philo, deciding what inventions or ideas to pursue was a matter of achieving a personal goal.
"After my break, it felt better for me to work on an idea of a wardrobe than too much trend. I worked hard to create things that stand the test of time.”
Whatever trends or imaginative ideas you end up choosing to bring to life, Kathryn Bigelow believed in the importance of keeping innovation in mind.
“Something becomes personal when it deviates from the norm.”
Meanwhile, Virgil Abloh's touched on the surprising trait that he deemed necessary in today's creative culture.
"Irony is a tool for modern creativity. There’s a reason why we all probably look at 60 memes a day.”
Taking a break to enjoy humor may work for some creatives, but Honore de Balzac thought success was a matter of self-reliance.
“There is no such thing as a great talent without great willpower.”
J.K. Rowling further explored this idea of remaining dedicated to creative pursuits, believing there’s nothing quite like accomplishing a goal.
“The discipline involved in finishing a piece of creative work is something on which you can truly pride yourself.”
"You've got to work. It's about structure. It's about discipline. It's all these deadly things that your schoolteacher told you you needed... You need it" (Photo: The Telegraph)
No matter which creative trait you possess, whether humor or dedication, diving into something unknown can possibly seem daunting. Artist Georgia O'Keefe warned against letting that worry get in the way.
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted.”
The beginning is only half of the creative process and Elon Musk thought it was important to welcome whatever successes or failures came your way.
"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."
As these creative minds have demonstrated, there’s no right or wrong way to approach the creative process. Kendrick Lamar explained that he prefers to avoid any outside influence.
“I never share my album while I’m creating...But me creating music, I never really play music for anybody, even people inside the camp because it can almost sway your creative process 100 percent. So along with that, I cut off everything on the radio; I really just duck off from music. Because I’m gonna be influenced and I don’t want to be. That has always been my process. I just feel like, it’s really the only prized possession that I actually can control, you know? It’s selfishness for sure, but it’s my selfishness and I own it.”
"I learned, when I look in the mirror and tell my story, that I should be myself and not peep what everybody else is doing" (Photo: Rap Up)
Virginia Woolf also relied on a sort of creative isolation to help inspire her work.
“[A] novelist’s chief desire is to be as unconscious as possible. He has to induce in himself a state of perpetual lethargy. He wants life to proceed with the utmost quiet and regularity [...] so that nothing may break the illusion in which he is living — so that nothing may disturb or disquiet the mysterious nosings about, feelings round, darts, dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive spirit, the imagination.”
If you find yourself questioning what you’re working on or if you feel unhappy with the results, Steve Jobs thought it best to listen to quiet your mind and instead listen to your heart.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
WHAT NEUROSCIENTISTS THINK CREATIVITY IS
What about the creativity happening behind the scenes? Is there a science to how we arrive at our best ideas? Some neuroscientist are trying to find out, and have worked to better understand the inner workings of our imagination. Their research remains ongoing, but based on their work it would seem that landing on your next great idea may all come down to science.
According to Anna Abraham, there’s a very real emotional feeling that stems from being creative.
“Our ability to think creatively is one of the factors that generate excitement in our lives as it introduces novelty and opens up new possibilities to our awareness which in turn lead to developments in a variety of fields from science and technology to art and culture.”
Rex Jung expanded on the benefits of creativity and noted that along with generating excitement, creativity can also provide us with purpose.
“This work with creativity is important because I think it is a uniquely human characteristic that provides meaning in one's life — whether it's spiritual, personal, familial — it really hits all those buttons.”
Creativity can provide our lives with meaning, but research from Jeremy Gray notes that great ideas can take time.
“Innovation doesn’t just come for free – nobody learns their ABCs in kindergarten and suddenly writes a great novel or poem, for example. People need to master their craft before they can start to be creative in interesting ways.”
One of the ways you can “master” creativity begins with checking in on your mental state. As John Kounious demonstrated with his research, creativity is often dependent on how we’re feeling.
“Insight is like a cat. You can’t order it to appear. You can coax it. But you can’t command it. Creativity and insight flows from a particular brain state. And if you can put yourself in this brain state, you will be more likely to have these creative insights.When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more sensitive to picking up these weakly activated, unconscious ideas and, when it’s detected, your attention can switch to it, and it can pop into the head as an insight. If you’re in a bad mood, and the anterior cingulate is not activated, it just goes with what’s strongest, which is usually the most straightforward.”
Further research on creativity and the brain from Mark Beeman backs this theory. In a study, published in 2016, Beeman found that some of our best designs are a result of a good mood. He believed that those with higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for a rush of feel-good emotions, were more likely to feel creative.
“Our findings support the idea that dopamine levels in multiple brain areas affect human creativity. “
A study from researcher Hikaru Takeuchi examined a different part of the human brain in their quest to understand creativity. In a study of 55 people, Takeuchi and his team found that those with white matter in their brain were more likely to be creative. Their research even determined some attributes of thinking believed to be essential in creativity.
“Creativity is a complex cognitive function that requires diverse cognitive abilities, such as working memory, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility, and fluency in the generation of ideas and in the judgment of propriety.”
Other research has theorized that creativity is fluid, and the success is dependent on the person. Researcher Adam Green discovered that creativity could technically be defined as two things.
“Creativity is a trait because some people are more creative than others. But creativity is also a state because creative people are not always being creative, and generally uncreative people sometimes have creative ideas.”
Kalin Christoff took the idea of creativity being a mental state a bit further. Her research argues the case that anyone can be creative, and a lack or surplus of creativity could be attributed to how often we daydream.
“We propose that mind-wandering isn’t an odd quirk of the mind. “Rather, it’s something that the mind does when it enters into a spontaneous mode. Without this spontaneous mode, we couldn’t do things like dream or think creatively.”
Just like the creative minds quoted above, these neuroscientists are also split on how best to understand and define creativity. But as their research has demonstrated, it’s possible that one day we may truly understand and unlock the key to the history and future of creativity.
Whether you believe creativity is a science or a mysterious process we may never fully understand, there’s one quote from Maya Angelou that’s sure to instill hope in the hearts of dreamers and creatives everywhere.
“You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”