How Creative Acts Are Different


Creative acts are not all the same. They vary by magnitude, originality, influence and intention. The following are types of creativity and novelty as described by psychologist Stephen Smith.[i]

Types of Creativity and Novelty

  • Individual versus social definitions of creativity
  • Deliberate versus non-intentional creations
  • Goal-defined creativity
  • Subjective sense of novelty
  • Degrees of novelty
  • Continuousverses discontinuous problem solving

Individual versus Social Definitions of Creativity:

Every quarter students make new discoveries. They have moments of enlightenment that dramatically change their understanding of the world. These breakthroughs don’t change the world, but they do change the person. During my time teaching high school, a student described his discovery in the field of mathematics.  While doing his math homework the night before, he had invented a new way of solving his equations. Slump shouldered later in the day, he told me how his math teacher explained it was centuries old. His discovery was creative non-the-less. It didn’t change the domain of mathematics in any way. But it did change his understanding of the subject. This is an example of individual creativity: particular to the individual.


So a particular act “may be novel for all of humanity, for a specific social-cultural unit, or for an individual.”

Deliberate versus non-intentional creations:

Often times, inventors consciously work toward their inventions as lifelong pursuits. However, many times they are not deliberate. Take, for example, party conversations. Informal conversations go in any number of directions that are not premeditated. They just flow. Each participant in the conversation freely and effortlessly adds to the progression of thought. Since the conversation is novel it is creative. In these creative acts, it is not the intention of each participant to be original. Therefore, they are not deliberate. Maybe the best example of non-intentional creativity is the verbal development of a young child. Kids experience an amazing rate of development as they learn to talk.

Goal-Defined Creativity:

Being deliberate implies working toward a goal. One sets a goal and then works to achieve it. Problem solving situations are goal oriented and they involve creative acts. Searches for solutions are novel because the problems to be solved are novel. If the problem weren’t’ in some way new, it wouldn’t be a problem. As each incremental discovery is made on the path to solving a problem, the nature of the problem changes and therefore new creative acts emerge. All problem solving situations have some relevance to past experiences and require the transformation of that past knowledge so that it may be applied to the present task.

For example, when Amy Windom was restrained during a home invasion in Atlanta, she needed a novel way to free herself. Her solution was to “toe-type” an instant message call for help. Obviously, this was an unusual experience for her. The perpetrator tied her up and had taken her digital camera, phone, iPad, and car. The thief didn’t take her laptop because she was able to convince him it was outfitted with a tracking device. After several hours, she said in an interview with The TODAY Show, she decide to use her feet to open her bag: “I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll give this a shot, and I pulled the laptop over and propped it up on top of the down comforter at such an angle I could see both the keys and the screen.” She gripped the end of the power cord with her feet and started tapping the keys. Eventually, she was able to communicate with her boyfriend to call the police.[ii]

In this situation, creative problem solving led her down a goal- oriented path (to get free) that culminated in a solution that was new to her. Each stage of advancement led to a new problem solving situation. Her laptop was not outfitted with a tracking device; she told him that so he would leave it. Even though the cord is not used for typing, she associated its properties as similar to something that could.

Subjective Sense of Novelty:

The novelty of our acts is not always as apparent as you might think. Going back to the party conversations, each conversation, or more specifically, each phrase, is a creative act. No one in the conversation has experienced that exact situation before, nor will they again. Therefore, each phrase is new—novel. Trying to “get the phrase just right” is more deliberate. By consciously constructing phrases or arguments, we become aware of the process and the novelty of the act. An even more deliberate approach would be to plan a speech or presentation. And the scale goes up from there in intentionality. Frequently, we are more of aware of the novelty produced by others than ourselves.

Degrees of Novelty:

Creativity is mostly associated with “truly novel” acts. But the less revolutionary acts that make up our day to day existence can also be creative. It could be said that in some way, everything we do is novel to a degree. Each day is different and we react to new situations as they arise. Disparities between strikingly creative acts like inventions are easy to differentiate. Differences in more habitual acts like getting ready for work in the morning are more difficult to distinguish. Both big and small creative acts, however, are creative.

Continuous verses Discontinuous Problem Solving:

Some problem solving instances require that a continuous series of problems be solved until the final goal is achieved. The lady toeing her way to freedom on her laptop is an example. She was literally “bound” and determined to get free.

Other times, a period of rest or incubation occurs once or several times before a final solution is found. Epiphanies in the shower relate to ongoing problems we have yet to solve. During the day we take in new information. Having a problem at work or with a girlfriend, or more commonly now, Facebook, that doesn’t seem to have a good solution is considered off-and-on throughout the day. During the relaxing environment of the shower, attention is taken away from the problem. This period of rest allows the subconscious to organize the data and decide on a novel solution.

Creativity is in everything we do. In its smallest form, it helps us get through the day. In larger applications, it makes the world a better place. But the best thing about creativity is that it is teachable. Anyone can do it better. I know, I teach it to students all the time. With the new understanding of creativity that researchers are bringing to light, it is no longer such a mystery. It is a process for improvement.

[i] Smith, Steven M. The Creative Cognition Approach. MIT Press, 1995.

[ii] Rothman, Wilson. “Tied-up woman uses toes to IM for help.” MSNBC, August 4, 2010.




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