Creativity is a hard concept to define. Indeed, many argue that it is entirely indefinable, including Wellesley College’s Beth Hennessey and Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, who ask in their psychological study of creativity: “Even if this mysterious phenomenon can be isolated, quantified, and dissected, why bother? Wouldn’t it make more sense to revel in the mystery and wonder of it all?”

It’s an interesting question, but one that entrepreneurs and artists alike would respond to by arguing that defining and understanding creativity does matter. Creativity is the root of progress, so to know what it takes to be a creative individual means unlocking your full potential.

Computational scientist Anna Jordanous of Kent University and linguist Bill Keller of Sussex University realised this to be the case, and after substantial research, released a study entitled Modelling Creativity: Identifying Key Components through a Corpus-Based Approach.

Extensively analysing 90 papers regarding creativity that date back to 1950, the pair extracted common key terms to produce a list of 14 components crucial to the creative mind:

  1. Active involvement and persistence.
  2. Dealing with uncertainty.
  3. Domain competence.
  4. General intellect.
  5. Generating results.
  6. Independence and freedom.
  7. Innovation and emotional involvement.
  8. Originality.
  9. Progression and development.
  10. Social interaction and communication.
  11. Spontaneity and subconscious process.
  12. Thinking and evaluation.
  13. Value.
  14. Variety, divergence, and experimentation.

The list highlights a range of attributes, skills, and attitude-related factors that inform the process, yet there is one glaring absence: happiness.

Why is happiness counter-intuitive to creativity? A positive mind, a content mind, is not a challenged mind. It’s only when we are confronted by problems that threaten to overwhelm us that we start looking for solutions. The more we focus on the problem, the more persistent we become, and that’s when the list above comes into play.

Of course, that doesn’t mean creatives need to be unhappy. The mythos may paint a picture of the isolated, tortured creative genius toiling over their next great achievement, but it is the devotion to the enigma that will reveal itself as their new work, rather than their shroud of pain, that makes them excellent.

Though the research does not define how creativity works, it serves to provide a structure for what it takes to be truly innovative, and for followers to potentially determine where they may be lacking.

Interestingly, Jordanus and Keller also believe such a well-defined list could help overcome “the Achilles’ heel of AI research on creativity”. By teaching automated systems how to judge these components, they hypothesise that AI may one day be able to gauge the creative quality of whatever is put before it. Whether a computer will be able to succeed where the human mind has failed in this matter is a question for another time.

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