Many years ago, my wife and I took a trip to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As we were driving the back roads, near to a river that connected with the Chesapeake Bay, we came across a beautifully lettered wooden sign for a shipbuilder.
Beyond the sign, slightly rocking at the dock, was a beautiful sailboat in the final stages of completion. I was to learn later that the boat was called a “Skipjack,” a traditional fishing vessel that once plied the waters of the bay in search of fish and shellfish.
We were standing there in awe, when a man, well into his seventies – perhaps early eighties, cheerfully waved hello to us.
“You built this boat, sir?”
“Oh yes sir, indeed I did.”
He showed me the masts; he had fashioned by hand and some of the other components. In-between, he gently barked out orders to three apprentices who were painting, sanding and sweeping away the last bits of construction.
Then I said:
“This is the most creative piece of beauty I have ever seen, sir.”
He looked at me with a weathered face and laughed: “No, it isn’t. It is a Skipjack like my father and grandfather built. I can’t draw a straight line.”
What is Creativity?
Creativity is in the eye of the beholder; however, creativity is not quite what most of us think. The classic definition is “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of artistic work.”
What is an original idea, and how does it evolve? The more important question is, suppose we never truly learn who the creator is, is it still creative?
The shipbuilder who learned his craft from his father and grandfather probably isn’t consciously aware that his boat designs reflect just a bit of his creative touch. Maybe it was a small variation or a series of changes, but two generations later, the new model is decidedly different in hundreds of little ways from the original.
Did you know, that a famous American manufacturer of bathroom fixtures (fixtures are made of porcelain clay, you know) employs designers who are ceramic artists? When they are not designing toilets and the like, they are free to create almost anything they would like. It begs the question: what is more the result of creativity, the toilet bowl, or the ceramic candy dish? What of the master craftspeople who take the design and produce an actual product?
Let’s draw this out further. Custom tailors often take the ideas of their clients and transform those ideas using their skills. A fashion designer might then see that design and decide to add a few touches, and magically, the designer is a sensation? It begs yet another question: do we ever honestly know the force behind the original inspiration? We might know who took the idea and ran with it, but who supplied the initial spark?
Need another example? How about the lowly (yet delicious) avocado? The avocado is a staple in Mexican food. Again, walk into any Japanese restaurant here or in Japan, and there it is! In culinary circles the use of avocado with Japanese food has always been a stroke of culinary genius, but who had the idea to use it? The same question might also apply to pineapple on pizza or truffles in macaroni and cheese.
If we were to track down the original sprouting of the idea, the shipbuilder, toilet maker, tailor, or cook might scoff at the idea that they are creative powerhouses. This could also extend to the person who developed the first heart valve, the designer of the Slinky, the chemist who developed a low-cost way to turn Bauxite into aluminum or dare I say, the bookkeeper who realized that credits must always equal debits?
A Thousand Courses
There is any number of experts who offer classes, books, podcasts, and lectures on “creativity.” They invariably use art as a metaphor; a symbol of creativity. While Beethoven, Mary Cassatt, Duke Ellington or Maya Angelou might be held up as paragons of creativity, I would submit so is the man who sees an unusual opportunity to create a new app that enables people to see each other while on their phones or the woman who, working as an airline mechanic, finds a new way to boost the fuel economy of a 787.
Creativity and creative people are all around us, but it takes two important factors to appreciate it better. The first is that we must broaden our definition of who is creative, and more importantly, it is within every one of us. Imagination has no limit.