What is a Creative?

My mind has returned to the above question this week after getting feedback on my Monday post, “Creatives in Love.” I had noted that some creatives I know choose fellow creatives as mates. But what does it mean to be a “creative”? And if we all have an inherent creativity within us, isn’t everybody a “creative”?

I took this photo in Minnesota while on my cross-country road trip. Can you imagine a greater creative challenge than producing a film about the romance of processed luncheon meat?

As some readers know, my connection to the creative community is through the arts; covering it as a reporter, researching it as a fellow at a think tank, organizing creatives in an advocacy network. Not surprisingly the artists I crossed paths with, including those I interviewed on my cross-country U.S. road trip,  all personified creativity.

There are of course as many expressions of one’s creativity as there are individuals. Einstein was a creative. Bill Gates and Paul Allen are creatives. My wife is a talented writer, but she applies her creativity to the task of maximizing the creative output of teams she manages in a Fortune 500 company.

I channel my creativity through writing, but I can’t speak with any knowledge on the Theory of Relativity, I haven’t the foggiest idea what is involved in a computer operating system, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to motivate and inspire dozens of individuals with differing skill sets and goals.

And yet…

There are many, many ways to express creativity. And everyone is inherently creative. But please do not try to tell me that everyone is a “creative.”

Being a creative is hard. It means never accepting the status quo. It means constantly working to improve yourself. It means recognizing what talents you have that can be maximized, and finding ways to compensate in areas where your talent may seem deficient. It means encountering skepticism from peers, from friends, from family members. It means facing repeated rejection. It means risking failure, and channeling that failure into new attempts at success.

It means embracing a commitment to creativity.

I’m hardly alone in this opinion that creatives are a subset of the total population. Researchers such as Eric Maisel and Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi have dedicated their lives to understanding the way creatives think and act. Creatives are unorthodox in problem solving. They embrace play and reflection. They observe what others overlook.

They are different.

I’m a pretty positive person. I want everyone to act creatively, even if it means trying feta cheese on a burger instead of the usual cheddar. But let’s give the creativity-committed the respect they deserve, and give them their own term. I like “creative.”

Am I completely off base here?

40 thoughts on “What is a Creative?

  1. Patrick,
    This kind of goes back to my “authenticity” post. Creatives only know “their” truth and they share it with the world and allow the world to judge it, mock it, or love it. I don’t see many bloggers as creatives because their focus is not always on truth but on clicks. Or their limited to certain content because that’s what their audience “expects” from them.

    Authenticity and transparency are not just buzzwords but a way of life for the artist. That’s freedom, yes?

    Nicely done.


    1. Hi Dan,

      You’re right, I was probably channeling your post while writing this. Folks, it’s worth a read: http://southfloridafilmmaker.com/authenticity-transparency-hypocrisy-an-observation

      I like your observation on blogging. I blogged from 2004 to 2010 for two organization’s blogs. My primary goal was to advance the organizations’ causes. I believed in those causes so I was authentic in that way, and I did try to share a bit of myself, but I was constrained by what the audience expected of me. On this blog I hope to provide value, but ultimately the expectations I aim to meet are mine.


    2. Hello Dan! Interesting take on blogging. I think what you are saying may be the case for some bloggers, but not for all. For instance: The only thing I do on my blog to meet reader’s expectations is do my best to show up with a blog entry once a week. I do narrow my focus to art, creativity and my take on the world through those lenses, but that is more for my personal sanity than anything. Having the scope to write about anything you want week after week can actually be a little daunting to me. And, my highest levels of expertise really lie in the areas I’m writing about.

      Just another thought/perspective from the bloggosphere! 😉


  2. A “creative” is someone who uses their creativity. Whether it be in their work or art, in their relationships, or in their everyday life.

    If we had to get down to the nitty gritty, I would dare say that a creative is someone who simply creates.

    But maybe that’s being too definitive?


    1. Hi, Tanner. My Webster’s Ninth doesn’t list “creative” as a noun, but its advective definition is “marked by the ability or power to create,” so that fits well with your straightforward definition!


  3. Suzanne

    Thanks, Patrick! No, everyone is not creative, but I suspect that, like “having a sense of humor,” everyone thinks they are/have it. I meant to comment on your last post about creatives hooking up with other creatives. My experience has been that creative-types are generally married to less-creative-types, as in “opposites attract.” Did you not find that at all?


    1. Hi Suzanne, you’re so right on the sense-of-humor point! I’d add to that the notion that, like with humor, one person may perceive somebody else as a creative, whereas another person might look at what they produce and dismiss the notion. Ah, subjectivity.

      I certainly have artist friends who have more grounded partners. I didn’t see that as much on the road trip, but that may be because those artists didn’t have cause to introduce me to their significant others. Just a theory.


  4. As a creative, I actually don’t think I’m fundamentally different from other people, because I think everyone has the potential to be as focused and creative in their lives if they find their passion and choose to persue it.

    I think there is something a bit dangerous in purposely presenting ourselves as something “other” than the norm (whatever *the norm* is?). I recently read results of a study done in the United States not that long ago. I can’t remember the exact stats but something like 97% of those surveyed said they valued art … less than 40% said they valued *artists*.

    At least in U.S. art market, presenting ourselves as “other” has been an alienating factor that has lead to less funding (individual funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, anyone?), distrust by a portion of the population and a poorer view of artists overall. United States artists have been shown to be the least venerated, the least funded and perhaps the least appreciated of artists in any developed nation. I attribute that to our insistence to find ways to declare ourselves as separate from people in other professions, rather than looking at ways to relate.

    So yes, I want people to know that we work very hard, that we focus intently. That we look at the big picture and the tiny details. That we can be some of the hardest working individuals they know, but at the same time know the intrinsic value of play and how critical it is to our creative success. But I don’t want them to think of us as “different”. Make sense?


  5. E

    I want in on this. I believe that every person that puts to use their thinking faculties is creative.
    We don’t all have to be rocket scientists to merit this title. Take for an example an autistic child. While he/she may not conform to society’s standard of acceptable behavior, they can express their creativity thru music, thru art.
    They can be defined as creative. In short, I believe everyone is creative whether aware if it or not.. It’s the human brain that makes us all creatives!


    1. Hi E! I could be wrong, but I believe that Patrick is using the terms “a creative” and “creatives” in the terms that people within the artistic community use it. That is, as a term to define someone who has multiple creative talents and uses them in their daily lives, most often in some professional context. That term is much simpler than saying, “I am a painter, writer and flautist”. While I used to hate the term for some reason, I’m getting over that. 🙂

      I personally don’t doubt that everyone is creative. As far as the term “a creative”, as used in the artistic (including writing, dancing, etc.) community … not everyone fits that particular definition.

      I don’t know that it was made clear in the post what he was referring to, so I thought I would clear it up. Patrick, if I’m off base, feel free to tell me so! 🙂


    2. Hi E, glad you jumped in! You support a point I made in my post, that “everyone is inherently creative.”

      Amy is correct in noting what I am trying to parse here, a distinction between being inherently creative and being “a creative.” And by your description, that autistic child would absolutely be a creative by my definition, because he/she creates.

      I’m open to other descriptions for someone who dedicates themselves to a creative art, craft or lifestyle!


  6. Interesting conversation.

    I dislike “creative” as a noun but I see value in it for collectively describing people who actively use their creativity beyond the narrow realm of the arts.

    Thanks, Patrick, for raising this up for discussion.


  7. In addition to being a creativity coach, I am also a gifted education teacher, and we run into similar dilemmas about the word “gifted.” Yes, everyone has gifts. Everyone is a gift. But not everyone is gifted.

    It’s the same way with creativity. When I think of “creatives,” I think of people whose creativity is more fully actualized than the average person and for whom creative expression is a central focus of their lives.

    Thanks for all the thought-provoking posts, Patrick!


    1. Sue, I suspect you are also a gifted teacher!

      With your discussion of “gifted,” you’ve touched another third rail I will likely blog on at some point, the notion of “talent.” I’m a firm promoter of the notion that some people have more talent in some areas than others, but I’ve gotten pushback on that too, being told it’s more an Outliers thing, good fortune, early exposure, proper mentors, etc. I don’t see why both can’t exist.

      I’m glad you find those posts thought-provoking!


      1. Yes, that’s my take on it, too.

        I do know from working in economically disadvantaged schools for 15 years of my career that there are many gifted/talented kids who had no early opportunity or good fortune, and I know many who have had all kinds of instruction, exposure and mentoring but are still really just technicians, not artists or creatives. No inspiration there.

        Joseph Renzulli says that when above average ability, motivation and creativity come together in a certain domain, that results in gifted *behavior*. He doesn’t label people as gifted, but rather the behavior. This definition allows for anyone who has at least a little innate advantage to produce work at a gifted level if they are inspired to do so. This has always been my favorite approach to thinking about gifted and talented.

        I would argue that it could be the same basis for calling someone a “creative.”


  8. The think I like about your post is that it pulls “creative” out of advertising and marketing and into a more generic yet human focus.

    One phrase that I keep repeating over and over: “creativity isn’t just about arts and crafts.”

    Excellent post, I’ve linked to it from my Facebook page.


  9. Patrick, I really, really appreciated this post. I like what you say here:
    “Being a creative is hard. It means never accepting the status quo. It means constantly working to improve yourself…It means facing repeated rejection.”

    I would add that some ‘creatives’ – try as they sometimes might to fit in, be conventional – *can’t* help but constantly question/challenge the status quo,just by being themselves, just in the way they think and act and see the world. It seems so strong, such a natural tendency, in creatives to feel different from the norm. Because they really are, aren’t they?


    1. What a fantastic corollary, Carole Jane!

      Reflecting on that, I see it in artists, of course, but also entrepreneurs, management innovators, inventors. You could say influential creatives so shock the system that they disrupt the culture, and are sometimes reviled for it, but as years pass the revulsion fades because the status quo has shifted by absorbing their vision.


  10. I’ve been using “artist” in a similar fashion. And with a similar debate about how to use it without being overly exclusive. (And yes, Kate, I noticed your comment about using “creative” as a noun.)

    When I teach or take classes in InterPlay, we often talk about participants claiming their artist self. So, there is a sense in which I want everyone to be able to “be an artist”. And I also get that there are some — including me — who have a particular commitment (or calling) to artistry/creativity. So, I appreciate your grand contribution to the debate — both on the web and in my own mind!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Patrick!



  11. Patrick – I think you might be interested in Howard Gardner’s work dealing with creativity. His 1994 book Creating Minds is probably a good place to start. Gardner stresses that for creative people, creativity is a way of life, but that they channel their creative efforts into specific domains (not surprising, considering Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory).

    I think Gardner would say that for people to be truly creative in a domain (be it writing or music), they first need to attain a level of expertise in it. This obviously takes a lot of work. But he also says that “creatives” differ from experts, as they are not content mastering a domain…they want to innovate it. And along the way, they get used to a rhythm of success and failure. Ultimately they come to see failure as a normal part of the process, rather than a reason to quit like most other people do.

    By the way, I’m jealous of all the great comments you’ve gotten from your readers here! Perhaps in an unconscious attempt to steal a page from your playbook, my latest post addressed creativity in my field of music, specifically improvisation. Hopefully it will generate the same kind of interest! 🙂


    1. Hiya Bob,
      So cool that you brought up Howard Gardner! I believe his Multiple Intelligences Theory should be the bedrock of all school curriculum guidelines. I haven’t read Creating Minds but will check that out.


    2. Hi Bob, welcome back! I feel deficient in not being familiar with Gardner, I will check out Creating Minds.

      His thesis makes a lot of sense. Of the two creativity gurus I mentioned above, Csikszentmihalyi talks about a creative mastering a domain, but also seeking to transform it; I wrote about that recently regarding Stieg Larsson (that post didn’t get as many comments!): https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/are-you-original/ And the other author, Maisel, distinguishes creatives as being “art-committed,” a phrase I love and use in my bio.

      I’ll check out your post.


  12. Hi Patrick,

    I agree that everyone is not a creative, but I do sincerely believe we all have the potential to become one. Most parents I speak with, former students, my peers, all tell me they wish to connect with the arts in someway and someday they will write their novel or start that painting class. I worry our culture promotes a nature where people have to jump through lots of hoops before they feel themselves “Creative.” It makes me wonder if we have systemically created a niche of people that choose this path?

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.



    1. Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Carrie. Like Bob above, you’re an arts instructor (he music, you visual arts) so it’s helpful to hear your thoughts. I wish for everyone to feel themselves “creative,” and there are infinite ways to express that creativity in your life.

      My daughter aspires to go to art school and be a professional artist, and told me yesterday how she was surprised to learn several talented, skilled and dedicated students in her 10th grade art class aspire to other things, like medicine or business. I said it was great that they had another passion they could apply themselves to, that not everyone passionate about art needs to pursue a career in art like she wishes to. I also said it was great because that would be fewer artists competing for art-school slots! 🙂


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  20. Creativity makes me happy. It’s what makes my soul sing. Thank you for your posts. They are an affirmation of something that isn’t in high regard today in the business world yet in history, art and creativity loomed large in high society and was well compensated. Keep talking …


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