So, you want to be a creative genius?

September 13, 2013, 5:32 PM UTC

(TheMIX) — Is everyone creative? Sure they are, but in very different ways and to varying degrees. There is a big difference between the folksong you wrote for your college sweetheart and a Beethoven symphony.

Our democratic longing to make everyone and everything equal has lead us to make creative greatness indistinguishable from an act of personal expression. What is lacking is meaningful appreciation of the different levels of creativity and how we can use them as steps for increasing our own potential.

Here are five levels and types of creativity, from the easiest to the most difficult to master.

Mimetic Creativity

Mimesis is a term passed down to us from the Ancient Greeks meaning to imitate or mimic. This is the most rudimentary form of creativity. Animals from Caledonian crows to orangutans have the ability to create tools simply by observing other creatures. Watch a mother and child together and it becomes clear that we do the same. It is the foundation of the learning process.

An often-overlooked form of creativity is simply taking an idea from one area or discipline and applying it to another. For example, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who wants to improve the patient experience may pay a visit to a Ritz-Carlton, which is known for its customer service.

The late Apple (AAPL) co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs saw this ability to move across boundaries to adapt ideas as the key to useful creativity: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Bisociative Creativity

“Bisociative” is a term coined by the novelist Arthur Koestler in his celebrated book The Act of Creation to describe how our conscious mind can connect rational with intuitive thoughts to produce so-called Eureka moments. In the Zen tradition, this act of communion is called Satori, meaning sudden enlightenment. Bisociative creativity occurs when a familiar idea is connected to an unfamiliar one to produce a novel hybrid.

Though connecting ideas is often done through more contemplative means, it can be stimulated by bombarding the mind with a barrage of random thoughts to see what catches. The general description for this type of activity is called brainstorming. For example, in 1994, while coming out of a near bankruptcy experience and working on Toy Story, four of the original Pixar directors had lunch at a diner and brainstormed ideas about movies they wanted make. Building on each other’s concepts, from this one informal meeting came A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E. Hollywood outsiders changed the motion picture industry in an afternoon of throwing ideas together.

Bisociative creativity builds on the electrifying dynamics of the three F’s:

  • Fluency – It is more productive to have lots of unpolished ideas than a few “good” ones because the greater the diversity of ideas, the wider the range of possible solutions
  • Flexibility – Often we have the “right” idea but we’ve put it in the “wrong” place so we have to move them around to see where they best fit to meet our challenges
  • Flow – We aren’t creative on demand. We need to be both simulated and relaxed to draw out the energy required to create. Ideas pour out smoothly when we get into a groove

Analogical Creativity

Great innovators, from Archimedes in his bathtub to Einstein riding his elevator of relativity, have used analogies to solve complex problems. We use analogies to transfer information that we believe we understand in one domain (the source) to help resolve a challenge in an unfamiliar area (the target). For example, vacuum cleaner design was largely unchanged for nearly a century when inventor James Dyson used a different analogue — cyclones — to separate particles through the spinning force of a centrifuge.

Analogies can be used to disrupt habitual thinking to make way for new ideas. In the same way that an analogy helps us make sense of our experiences by assimilating what we don’t know into what we do know, the process also works in reverse. That is, we can take something we believe we know and use an analogy to make it unknown. Artists call this defamilarization. Albert Camus frequently narrated his stories from the point of view of a housefly. Consider what your strategy development process would look like if it were done from the point of view of your children instead of your shareholders or customers.

Narrative Creativity

Have you ever heard a child try to get a story straight? Or maybe you have a dear friend who always blows the punch line of a good joke. Both are examples of how hard it is to tell a coherent, meaningful and compelling tale.

Stories are a complex mash up of characters, actions, plots, description, and grammar. Most importantly, they have a narrative voice — our voice — authentic or personified. How we tell the tale can either energize the most mundane anecdote or dampen even the most rousing spellbinder.

Narrative is a story communicated in sequence. It is how the tale is told. Stories can be readily deconstructed and reconstructed to make different versions or new concoctions. For example, many American’s first drank Dos Equis beer in the 1970s during their college years while on winter break in California or Mexico. It wasn’t exactly a premium brand. Then the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery, which had been in business since 1900, changed the story of the product with an advertising campaign about “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” This character was a combination of James Bond and Ernest Hemmingway and the commercials chronicled his manly feats of derring-do. By changing the narrative, Dos Equis experienced explosive growth in a shrinking market.

Intuitive Creativity

This is where creativity becomes bigger and possibly beyond us. Intuition is about receiving ideas as much as generating them. There are several methods for freeing and emptying the mind — meditation, yoga, and chanting to name a few. The basic idea is to distract and relax the mind to create a flow state of consciousness where ideas come easily. Disciples are typically apprenticed by acknowledged gurus and often take years to master these techniques.

Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate, developed some meditative practices specifically to enhance personal creativity, as did Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf education system. The approaches to intuitive creativity are too numerous to chronicle here. They range from autonomic writing to taking mind altering drugs (not recommended).

You may not be a Shakespeare, Rembrandt, or Leonardo, but you can always work to increase your own creative capacity. All of these approaches are within your power — you just have to keep trying new things. Remember, a creative life means you make it up as you go along.

Jeff DeGraff
is a professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of organizations. You can follow Jeff at