Creativity involves apparently making something out of nothing. 'Apparently' is an important word here, because there has to be background to everything that is done or created - ideas, solutions, new ways of doing things, do not come from an entirely blank slate. But what actually happens when someone writes a novel, makes a work of art, finds a new way to bowl a cricket ball, makes a scientific discovery, or develops a new way to harness power?

One way to look at this is to take people who are known for their creativity and to ask them questions about the process that they typically go through when they are 'being creative'. This is an obvious thing to do but is, nevertheless, relatively clumsy. If you ask someone about their creative moments after the event, can they remember it as it really was? If you interrupt them during the creative process, will this ruin the process? In spite of these awkwardnesses, there are some surprisingly consistent patterns that have been observed.

The creative process appears to have four major steps that usually occur in the same order. They are:

1 Preparation. This involves the setting of the scene, the identification of the problem and the gathering of information that might be relevant to it.

2 Incubation. This is, perhaps, the most unusual part of creative activity because it involves apparently doing nothing. It is as if no conscious effort is being put into the problem. The problem is ignored and the person does other things or, perhaps, just does very little.

3 Illumination. This is the moment at which there comes a sudden creative idea. This is the 'aha' or the 'eureka' experience, something that is very like the moment of insight mentioned earlier. It usually involves a sudden recasting of the problem in a new way that leads to a solution. This moment at which illumination occurs is not predictable and little is known about how the breakthrough occurs or where the idea comes from. This is not to say that it is mystical but merely that nothing is yet known about how and why an idea seems to just bubble up into consciousness.

4 Verification. This final phase of creativity involves the evaluation, checking, testing and possible revision of the ideas produced at the moment of illumination. This is the rounding off of the creative process and will involve logical thought and the type of reasoning described earlier. The result may, of course, be that the new ideas are rejected. Ideas might be new and creative but they might not always be practical, for example.

Another way to look at creativity is to consider the characteristics of creative persons. Do they have anything in common and, perhaps, more importantly, can people become more creative if they practise? Characteristics shared by creative people include:

1 A strong independence of thought and action.

2 A keen sense of humour - perhaps this is not surprising since much of humour is based on seeing familiar things in new ways.

3 A strong interest in the novel and the complex rather than the familiar and the simple.

4 An ability to tolerate ambiguity, that is, not minding shades of grey.

5 Self-confidence.

6 A disregard for the conventional.

7 Finally, and most importantly, perseverance. This last characteristic is the most significant of all, something without which creativity is very unlikely to occur. All creative people who have been studied show great perseverance. They hang onto problems and keep worrying away at them, not obsessionally, but simply with great application.

Creativity is not simply a matter of having certain personal characteristics, however. Also important is context and having a great deal of knowledge and intellectual prowess and motivation. If this all sounds impossible, then take heart. There are a number of steps that can be taken to increase your own creativity. The following list comes from Sternberg (1986) who has done more than anyone in recent years to study intelligence and creativity. If you wish to improve your creativity, try the following:

1 Concentrate on an area that you really like and enjoy - don't choose to try to improve creativity in an area that bores you or makes you restless.

2 Follow your own path. Naturally, it might be useful to listen to advice and feedback, but evaluate these in your own terms and make your own decisions about the way to go.

3 Be self-critical but, nevertheless, hold to a strong belief in what you are doing. Do not be put off by what others say if they regard it as less than worthwhile.

4 A crucial part of creativity is choosing the appropriate problem and defining it carefully. Make sure that the choice is not only a sensible choice but also one that appeals to your own sense of values. It does not matter what others think, but only your own sense of what is important.

5 Use every type of thinking that you can to feed into your creativity. You might want to think laterally or divergently, to keep creating analogies and metaphors, but also find a place for more traditional ways of thinking. Anything might help.

6 Get help from those around you by choosing people who are likely to be encouraging and supportive of your attempts.

7 Make yourself an expert in the field, that is, gain as much knowledge as you can and then try to go outside it or beyond it or to stretch it.

8 Be committed. That is, persevere; keep at it.

As should be obvious, these ways of improving creativity all hinge on a huge independence of thought. Such independence is not sufficient in itself. You will not become more creative simply by going off in some direction that is different from everyone else. You also need to take into account the details mentioned.

But, like everything else, it takes work.

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