Suddenly, it comes to you. There it is, the solution to your problem, arising unbidden from the depths of your mind. In that moment, you feel like a creative genius, and perhaps you are.
But here’s the thing. This is not what creativity is.
The incident described above is the production of an idea. An idea is by definition something new, which makes it potentially creative. But is it creative? In that moment in which it arises, it might appear to be the ideal solution, but until you test it, and tweak it, and analyze it, and prototype it, and compare it to other solutions, etc. – it is just an idea.
As Dr. Gerard Puccio, head of the International Center for Studies in Creativity, says, “ideas are cheap.” And it’s true: ideas are abundant. When I facilitate a Creative Problem Solving session, the group generates lots of ideas – sometimes hundreds of ideas. So I’ll say it again: ideas are by definition new, which makes them potentially creative. But it cheapens creativity to give it the same status as ideas. The hard work of creativity is the entire process of developing something new and valuable. Here’s what creativity looks like:
Hard Work > Aha! > Hard Work
The hard work that comes first is the preparation one must do to be able to think creatively in a certain domain. Preparation includes acquiring the necessary knowledge and/or skills, developing problem awareness, understanding the current solutions, etc.
To be able to solve world hunger, you must become an expert in world hunger. (You can substitute any field of endeavor in that sentence: interior design, molecular biology, poetry, package design, or whatever it is you do.) This is why, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, that extraordinary accomplishment in a domain comes after about 10,000 hours of preparation.
The hard work that comes after the “aha!” is when you take the idea(s) and forge them into workable solutions. Together, these periods of hard work make up the 99% perspiration that Thomas Edison mentioned. Even the “aha!” might not be there: in a deliberate creative process, ideas are often the result of hard work, too:
Hard Work > Hard Work > Hard Work
Or, more to the point:
Hard Work (Preparation) > Hard Work (Generating Ideas) > Hard Work (Crafting Solutions)
Eureka moments exist. They are real. And sometimes, that idea from within is the real thing. But no idea becomes a solution without the hard work that surrounds it. And not doing the hard work – due to lack of motivation, lack of follow-through, lack of resources, or lack of whatever – is precisely why most ideas remain just that: ideas.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown.