Unleashing Creative Development

Unleashing creative potential and innovation is the key to cultural and economic development. Values and education that empower people to recognize and pursue their own creative paths are vital.

Prof. McCloskey argues that the shift in values that empowered the bourgeoisie to recognize the value of their creativity — in the economic sphere especially — was crucial to unleashing the forces of economic growth in the past two centuries. We agree. But whereas McCloskey seems to think everything is hunky-dory, we think there is still a long way to go: The voices of creative expression in our society are too often limited, both by our misunderstanding of how creativity happens, and by values that we believe are still not fully aligned with creative potential. McCloskey, like most economists, doesn’t have a well-formed model of the creative process in mind. We do and will sketch it and how it informs this discussion.

Creativity is held back by a misunderstanding of the nature of the creative process. The most common image of creativity in our society is a light bulb turning on — an image linked in the popular mind to Thomas Edison, inventor par excellence.

We tell people to be creative through 30 minute brainstorming sessions or in the midst of long showers or even longer runs. Natural scientists and computer scientists tell us that human creativity is like evolution in nature or follows some simple algorithm. Just follow the random trial-and-error algorithm and sooner or later you’ll hit on something, with no need to think too deeply. This advice, however well intentioned, is misguided. There are sudden, dramatic moments of creativity — indeed these stand out in our minds and our cultural lore precisely because they are so dramatic. But this is a just part of a much larger story.

Think of creativity as a holistic activity, a pattern of life, emerging out of a rich process of development — what we call “creative development.” This kind of creative development has been going on for centuries — it is the path that Petrarch followed, that Coleridge, Matisse and Faulkner followed, that Newton, Darwin and Einstein followed, that Edison and Ray Kroc and countless other inventors and entrepreneurs have followed. But it is not widely appreciated and, partly as a result, most of us don’t realize what we must do to unleash our creative potential.

In its simplest form creative development can be thought of as a two-step process. Step one is defining a creative interest — a topic or domain or larger issue we want to explore and learn about and that we think intuitively we can develop creatively. Creative interests are organic, they form naturally in the course of living, being curious and engaged, desiring to explore and experiment. But the process can be helped along: Ask yourself to define a creative interest you would like to explore; as a teacher ask your students to define creative interests; as a manager encourage those around you to define and explore their own personal creative interests. Discuss your creative interests with those around you and invite others to discuss incipient creative interests they have. The most productive creative interests are intermediate in size: not so big or vague as say “politics” or “economics” nor so narrow as one particular article or piece of data, but rather of intermediate size, for example “exploring bourgeois values in the eighteenth century in relation to economic development” or, more generally, exploring the relationship between two topics that have not commonly been connected, such as bringing a new conceptual frame to a topic that has traditionally been studied using other methods. One of the fascinating things about creative interests is that everyone forms their own — no two are identical, and in being distinctive they are the root of much creativity.

Step two is exploring a creative interest: learning, gathering elements in the domain of the interest. Out of this potpourri creativity emerges. In some cases the creativity is sudden, a response sparked when a person encounters some element that intersects in an interesting, productive way with her interest. In other cases the creativity happens when an individual pieces together elements she has gathered exploring her interest, combining and connecting them to fashion a novel idea. When we examine the historical record of how people create we find that both pathways occur as the source of creativity. Further, both pathways are accessible to all of us, once we free ourselves to pursue the creative interests that excite and motivate us.

A great deal of creativity can be unleashed in our world if individuals learn to embrace creative development and our society encourages everyone to engage in their own personal process of creative development. Each of us has a unique set of experiences, and can define distinctive creative interests. By developing these each of us can make a creative contribution of some kind. Cultural and economic development is the sum product of all of our contributions. We envision a scenario in which individuals are taught the process of creative development and are encouraged to embark on their own paths of discovery and development. This can happen in the classroom, the workplace, or the open spaces of personal time.

It can also happen in the context of social issues and debates. Individuals could be encouraged not just to write 30-second comments on articles they read, which often contain just a modicum of sense and a large dose of intemperance, but rather to define and explore their own creative take on these issues, taking the time to explore their interests in their own idiosyncratic ways, pursuing the paths of creative development that open up before them, which ultimately sparks their creativity. Then they could post these insights and ideas putting forth their own take on the issue. How much more would all of us get out of this use of our vast array of media outlets?

The valuation of creativity and innovation is an ongoing historical process that we believe can go a good deal further. This belief perhaps helps sharpen the difference between us and McCloskey. In his “Oration on the Dignity of Man” Pico della Mirandola argued that what makes man special is his freedom to choose his own way of life — to create his own identity in postmodern parlance. His statement was a part of the tide of Renaissance values that emphasized human agency and creativity. As this tide of cultural change rolled on over the succeeding centuries, the role and importance of the bourgeoisie gained ascendancy.

This was part of a larger, unfolding story of the growth in recognition of individual human dignity and creativity, including the abolition of slavery, extension of the franchise and education, civil rights, and countless forms of self-expression. Now, in the twenty-first century, our views on human creative potential need to be developed even further.

Jonathan Feinstein is the author of The Nature of Creative Development (Stanford University Press, 2006). He is the John G. Searle Professor of Economics and Management at the Yale School of Management. Visit his website. Images provided by Sean Kelley.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Deirdre McCloskey summarizes the argument of her forthcoming book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. She argues that while the modern world rode an economic tide, the tide did not have economic causes. Changes in thinking and, yes, in rhetoric did the real work. Neither thrift, nor greed, nor the Protestant ethos are at the heart of this transformation, which brought material prosperity to whole classes that had never before known it. A variety of possible causes must be dismissed, she argues, from foreign trade, to legal institutions, to coal. The dignity and liberty of the bourgeoisie are the keys to economic transformation.


  • Gregory Clark argues that cultural or intellectual developments, like the rise of the bourgeois virtues, ultimately can’t explain the modern world. Not only were such virtues around long before the Industrial Revolution, but they have come and gone throughout many different societies over thousands of years. Why, then, did the Industrial Revolution only happen so recently, and only once? Worse, if we accept that cultural changes brought modern prosperity, we face the prospect that future changes in intellectual fashion may rob us of prosperity as easily as it was bestowed. This he finds both unfortunate and, thankfully, unlikely.

  • Matt Ridley makes two connected points: First, surges in creativity and innovation are far from unique. They can be observed throughout history, and they are usually connected to increases in trade and specialization. In this sense, Britain during the eighteenth century was not exceptional.

    Second, however, Britain was exceptional in another respect — it had large reserves of coal, and it began putting them to use. Cheap energy helped ensure that the boom in innovation didn’t die out. Entrepreneurs won out against plunderers in part because they had this resource at their disposal, and because they could make the case for the benefits of innovation so easily. It was only after the switch to a coal-driven economy that wages finally began to rise for the typical British worker. They continue to do so today thanks to coal and to other sources of cheap energy that have since been discovered and exploited.

  • Jonathan Feinstein suggests that the revolution in human creativity is still underway, and that we have not yet fully recognized what it means to be creative. The science of creativity, he argues, is key here, as the creative process is very different from what most people imagine it to be.