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‘Creativity’ has become a buzzword. When paired with its mates ‘unleash’ and ‘unlock’, they suggest that a great swell of inherent potential is about to swamp us. I’ve been an advocate for creative thinking and leadership for decades. It’s how I butter my bread. But a recent article by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker raised an interesting question: how did we come to care so much about creativity?

Its origins in the ancient world were based around the concept of a less exalted form of the imagination and a poor substitute for reality. Amazing. It then transformed into a slightly more elevated concept of ‘the creative imagination’, and then into the notion of ‘creativity’ that we all hold so dear to our hearts today.

The first step on that path was in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Romantics such as Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imagination, we transform them. Hence, the ‘creative imagination’. He was clearly onto something. Coleridge went further by making a distinction between two types of imagination: the first type understands the world, while the second type cares about it and brings it to life.

And then somewhere along the way we started to think of creativity as a way of doing. We talk about ‘creative processes’ as a means to test people’s creative abilities. We measure creativity through the production of ideas, not the quality.

Sadly, we’ve moved away from the Romantic idea of creativity. We’ve confused the production of things with the living of a creative life. So next time you’re trying to be creative, or you’re trying to ‘start the flow’, take a moment to think about the origins of creativity. It’s simple. Live, observe, think and feel. Creativity will follow.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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