You Say “Creativity.” I Say “Imagination."

In a piece for The Huffington Post called “Creativity in the 21stCentury, Harvard research psychologist Shelley Carson writes about the urgent need for creativity in the globalized, technological, rapidly changing world of the 21st century. The starting point of her discussion is: “In order to attract investors, nations need to provide ‘an environment that promotes creativity.’”

She goes on to talk about the role of creativity in different areas of life, including the search for a job during an economic downturn, the quest for a mate in a new social landscape epitomized by Facebook, a parent’s task of instilling values in increasingly media-saturated children, and the modern struggle to manage one’s time and maintain one’s sense of balance. Carson asserts that creative thinking is crucial to success in each of these cases.

Reading the Carson’s arguments, I couldn’t help but think that these scenarios are inextricably bound up with imagination as well as with creativity. The two terms are, after all, often used interchangeably in contemporary discourse. Carson concludes with a “creative tip” for all of us: read about a variety of topics and increase your interests, because “[t]he essence of creativity is the ability to combine disparate bits of information in novel and original ways to form new ideas.”

Whether we choose to think in terms of “imagination” or in terms of “creativity,” we must remember that what’s really at stake here is a way of life characterized by courageous openness to possibility.

The Creativity Paradox

Many people fear creativity and also have trouble recognizing it, whether or not they realize this.

The Cornell Chronicle reported on the study, “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas." The authors, Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania, Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Jack Goncalo of Cornell University, started with a perplexing question: “How is it that people say they want creativity but in reality often reject it?”

Two experiments conducted with over 200 subjects at Penn in 2010 led to fascinating findings. Among them: The novelty of creative ideas produces uncertain feelings that discomfort most people. We tend to lend our support to safe, tried ideas rather than creative ones. Using a subtle measuring technique, the researchers also found that anti-creativity bias is often so insidious as to be practically unconscious, preventing us from perceiving something creative when faced with it.

Most interesting of all: These very subjects, afraid of creativity as they proved to be, nevertheless claimed to desire creative ideas.

So what do the study’s paradoxical results mean for the future? The authors write, “The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

Replace “creativity” with “imagination” and you have one of the points of the 2009 book Scott co-wrote with Eric Liu, Imagination First (see pp. 32-39, in particular). As is the case with creativity, too many still fear imagination. The best way to combat that, we think, is to institutionalize imagination — to aim for the seemingly (but not really) self-contradictory goal of making it routine, everyday, a constant.