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1 - Basic Concepts of Creativity

from Part I - Core Concepts of Lifespan Creativity Development

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 November 2021

Sandra W. Russ
Case Western Reserve University, Ohio
Jessica D. Hoffmann
Yale University, Connecticut
James C. Kaufman
University of Connecticut


In this chapter, we provide an overview of the basic concepts associated with creativity. This includes definitions as well as classic and contemporary models. Our approach to examining creativity theories is in line with the developmental theme of this book. We move through the progressive Four Cs model (mini, little, Pro, and Big) by elucidating each using appropriate theoretical conceptions. The Four Cs model and its representation of the creative trajectory over time, skill, practice, and expertise is crucial to our understanding of creativity across the lifespan. We conclude with placing creativity into a larger perspective that emerges from individual mental processes but thrives within overarching systems.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

1.1 Basic Concepts of Creativity

What does it mean to be creative? How can creativity be quantified, if at all? How important is creativity to personal and professional life in the modern world? What is the developmental trajectory of creativity? Questions like these are often posed by researchers studying creativity and could potentially be of interest to laypersons as well. The primary difference may be that researchers use scientific means to answer such questions, whereas they may represent mere random musings for the general public. Like any discipline, creativity science has its set of conceptual models and thematic emphases that have developed the field over time. For instance, researchers do have a fairly good idea about how to quantify creativity and how to foster it in different contexts. Similarly, researchers have proposed models delineating how creativity develops over the lifespan, and this book is evidence of the same. Thus, in order to provide a general background of creativity, this chapter outlines its basic concepts, including definitions, models, theories, and categorizations with a developmental focus.

But first, how did creativity research come to be? Detailed historical accounts of creativity can be found elsewhere (e.g., Glǎveanu, Reference Glǎveanu2019; Glăveanu & Kaufman, Reference Glăveanu, Kaufman, Kaufman and Sternberg2019), though arguably one of the most pivotal events to bring creativity into the foreground of scientific investigation was J. P. Guilford’s presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1950. He elucidated the neglect of research on creativity, originality, imagination, and associated constructs, presenting a compelling case for a rigorous examination of creativity (Guilford, Reference Guilford1950). He went on to propose ideas and themes for future hypotheses to facilitate such research, such as suggesting tests to assess creative thinking in novel ways. For example, “one might name common household appliances, such as a toaster, or articles of clothing, such as trousers, and ask the examinee to list things that he thinks are wrong or could be improved” (p. 452); although he did not develop this specific test, the item highlighted a core tenet of creativity assessments: that multiple answers were sought. In addition to fluency (number of ideas), Guilford also described originality (statistically infrequent or uncommon responses) and flexibility (ease with which response categories or sets are changed) as being vital to understanding creativity. Since these early beginnings, creativity science has advanced tremendously with an equal measure of debate and consensus across the field.

1.1.1 Definitions, Four Ps, and Five As

Although creativity may be considered an esoteric discipline, in part due to the seeming difficulty of describing it, researchers and academics agree on two components that make an act creative: originality and effectiveness (Barron, Reference Barron1955; Plucker & Beghetto, Reference Plucker, Beghetto, Sternberg, Grigorenko and Singer2004). Originality or newness represents the novelty of the outcome, by virtue either of no one having thought about the idea before or of it being an infrequent, non-obvious response (Boden, Reference Boden2004; Simonton, Reference Simonton2016). Effectiveness or utility of a response suggests that originality alone is insufficient to make an idea creative; the idea also needs to have value, worth, or use in a given context. Together, these two properties serve to make an act creative; however, the act in question also needs to be judged as such. Stein (Reference Stein1953) proposed that all creative acts required social evaluation or acceptance at a group level for them to be considered truly creative. This element of social consensus also features in how researchers measure and assess creative outcomes in studies (e.g., the Consensual Assessment Technique; Amabile, Reference Amabile1982). The definition of creativity has stood the test of time, with few (if any) modifications being suggested over the years (see also Kampylis & Valtanen, Reference Kampylis and Valtanen2010).

Another aspect of creativity that is similarly perennial is an overarching framework within which it is examined. Mel Rhodes (Reference Rhodes1961) developed the Four Ps model of creativity – a model that lends a strong scaffolding to classic and contemporary studies in the domain to date. The Four Ps are person, process, product, and press. The person represents the individual who is creative, including their personality characteristics, attitudes, and temperament. For instance, research has consistently shown that the trait of Openness to Experience, one of the Big Five, has strong and positive associations with creative thinking and abilities (Batey & Furnham, Reference Batey and Furnham2006; Feist, Reference Feist1998; Kaufman, Reference Kaufman, Chamorro-Premuzic, von Stumm and Furnham2011). This and similar research represent an investigation into the person P of creativity. The process P refers to the cognitive, motivational, socioemotional, and neuroscientific processes that underlie creative expression. When researchers ask participants to come up with ideas while their brains are being scanned or when electrodes are strapped onto their scalps, the creative process is being examined (e.g., Fink et al., Reference Fink, Grabner, Benedek, Reishofer, Hauswirth, Fally and Neubauer2009; Yoruk & Runco, Reference Yoruk and Runco2014).

The third P, product, includes all the tangible and intangible outcomes of the creative process. These can be ephemeral ideas, marketable innovations, or just creations with no immediately discernible value. Nearly all creativity research that requires participants to generate novel responses assesses the products of ideation. Last, the press P includes the environmental and contextual factors within which the person uses the creative process to generate a creative product. Time pressure, autonomy, and encouragement all have different effects on fostering or dampening creative endeavors (e.g., M. Baer & Oldham, Reference Baer and Oldham2006). Taken together, the Four Ps encapsulate a large proportion of prominent research themes within creativity research (Williams, Runco, & Berlow, Reference Williams, Runco and Berlow2016).

Whereas Rhodes argued that the Four Ps are not mutually exclusive components within creativity and that each feeds into and off the others, they did come to represent disjointed, almost silo-like entities within subsequent investigations. If researchers were determined to uncover the personality traits associated with creative production, they often ignored the broader environmental contexts within which the acts were being generated. The person–situation or interactionist perspective (Woodman, Sawyer, & Griffin, Reference Woodman, Sawyer and Griffin1993; Woodman & Schoenfeldt, Reference Woodman and Schoenfeldt1990) began to highlight the complexity of creative behavior by making initial linkages. Against such a background, the Five As of creativity were proposed, stressing that creativity was a deeply embedded sociocultural phenomenon with interrelationships and bidirectional pathways between its facets (Glăveanu, Reference Glăveanu2013, Reference Glăveanu2015).

The Five As (actor, action, artifact, audience, affordances) not only changed the nomenclature of the original Four Ps model but did so with the aim of integrating the building blocks of creativity, so to speak. The model also moved from a static conception of creativity and its components to a more dynamic and active one, as facilitated through the language used. The actor (person) is the individual whose past socialization and social history is accounted for when understanding personal attributes that prompt creativity. The actor is not an isolated being but an entity embedded in and shaped by societal contexts within which creativity emerges. The action (process) extends the internal cognitive dimension to include external implementation by focusing on the interplay between actors using actions to create novel outcomes. These artifacts (products) move beyond tangible outputs to notional and conceptual ones as well, with the word itself drawing from sociocultural and anthropological terminologies.

Glăveanu’s (Reference Glăveanu2013) model bifurcates the fourth P, press, into two sub-components – audience and affordances – to further direct our attention to the unshakeable interdependence between social and material contexts in the conceptualization of creativity. Social presses as represented by the audience comprise other participants in the family, community, or society at large that lend credence to the creative action (Glăveanu, Reference Glăveanu2013, Reference Glăveanu2015; Stein, Reference Stein1953). The audience includes not only critics and contemporaries, but also other creators and colleagues who offer a wider context within which actions are applauded or dismissed. The physical materials with which creations are formed make up affordances – quite literally the material environment that actors can shape into creative artifacts. Awareness of available affordances also lends the opportunity to manipulate them in ways to attain the actor’s goals. In fact, Glăveanu (Reference Glăveanu2013) suggests that identifying and successfully utilizing affordances represents a course by which creativity develops: “first becoming able to observe and make use of affordances in the surrounding environment and then mastering this use and altering affordances, adapting what already exists and creating new artifacts with new affordances” (p. 76). Glăveanu’s Five As shifted the focus toward a more interconnected study of creativity – one that requires and indeed thrives when contextual influences are taken into account – in an action-oriented conceptualization of the term (see also Glăveanu et al., Reference Glăveanu, Hanchett Hanson, Baer, Barbot, Clapp, Corazza and Sternberg2020).

1.1.2 The Four Cs

Another number–letter model of creativity is the Four C model (Beghetto & Kaufman, Reference Beghetto and Kaufman2007; Kaufman & Beghetto, Reference Kaufman and Beghetto2009) that categorizes the gradations of creativity based on developmental, hierarchical progression. Often, systematic investigations of creativity take one of two routes: little-c, or the type of everyday creativity that everyone engages in, and Big-C, or eminent creative genius. Kaufman and Beghetto (Reference Kaufman and Beghetto2009) appended two categories to this classification: mini-c, which encompasses personal insights at the genesis of creativity, and Pro-c, or expert-level creativity. Such a disaggregation facilitated the categorization of the units of analyses of creativity research, that is, whether they are members of the general population or renowned creators. For instance, Big-C creativity is rarer, less frequently encountered, and often examined via case studies or historical data. On the other hand, little-c is often studied through psychometric tools and is easier to sample (Kaufman & Beghetto, Reference Kaufman and Beghetto2009).

The model also represents a sequence of the development of creative skills (from mini to Big), although it does not commit to being a purely linear model where each preceding stage must be achieved before progressing to the next. However, typically individuals begin by exploring mini-c activities early in childhood (making home videos), and may move on to the domain of little-c, if they are duly encouraged and supported (progressing to refining their videos through basic video and audio editing and showing their work to others). Within little-c, some may stagnate, remaining content with this level of creative expression, whereas some may flourish (most likely) within a particular domain and advance to the Pro-c stage (making documentaries that are screened at the local film festival circuit). Professional-level contributions that have not yet attained the status of eminence are included here, and some may achieve local or national acclaim for their creativity. Finally, whether or not Pro-c creators make it to Big-C status is a matter of time and/or social recognition, but the model emphasizes the importance of distinguishing the continuum of prior creativity stages (winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature). Approaching the study of creativity in this developmentally salient manner sheds light not only on the conventional classifications of creative acts (everyday and eminent) but also on the creativity displayed by young children and by budding professionals in their fields.

The Four C model and its representation of the creative trajectory over time, skill, practice, and expertise is crucial to our understanding of creativity across the lifespan. Another way to characterize the Four Cs would be to overlap them with theoretical conceptions of creativity. Although others (Kozbelt, Beghetto, & Runco, Reference Kozbelt, Beghetto, Runco, Kaufman and Sternberg2010) have also undertaken a similar analysis (in that case, mapping the Four Cs and other concepts across 10 different theoretical foundations), our chapter serves to highlight one key theory that we believe best embodies each C. Another difference from Kozbelt et al.’s earlier analysis is that the dominant theory chosen for each C not only represents that C but also applies to subsequent ones. This route is also taken in the absence of a grand unifying theory of creativity to tie together its various facets (J. Baer, Reference Baer2011). Given that we also recognize that a holistic approach to creativity does not necessarily translate to mutually exclusive categories, we illustrate the development of creativity via theories appropriate to the Four Cs. Although we focus on one theory or model per C, we will refer to and briefly discuss other relevant theoretical scholarship when relevant.

1.1.3 The Mini-c Stage and Creative Cognitive Processes

Let’s start at the very beginning – creativity emerges from mental processes underlying original thought. In this vein, stage theories or process theories of creativity are salient and are tied to the genesis of creative ideation, that is, the mini-c phase. To reiterate, mini-c is personally meaningful, less contextually dependent, and more process focused (Kaufman & Beghetto, Reference Kaufman and Beghetto2009). Some of the earliest theorizations of creativity were characterized through stages. Wallas (Reference Wallas1926) in his book The Art of Thought presented what can be considered the first model of the cognitive process of creativity, based on an analysis of a speech given by physicist Hermann Helmholtz. In the first stage, preparation, the individual understands the setting of a problem, thereby consciously recognizing it. Next, in incubation, the problem recedes to the background, out of conscious awareness, though the mind continues to work on it involuntarily. If this stage is successful, the individual moves to intimation – a step often left out in modern retellings of Wallas’s model, but one that represents an incremental link between stages and also between levels of conscious acknowledgment of the problem and solution (Sadler-Smith, Reference Sadler-Smith2015). Intimation is when the person realizes that a solution is forthcoming and close to realization. This moment is followed by illumination, where the solution appears to the person in an “aha” burst of insight. Last comes verification, where the individual consciously and effortfully applies the solution. These stages are likely recursive and non-linear, where an individual can go back and forth through these processes, particularly if a sub-optimal solution is reached (e.g., Kozbelt et al., Reference Kozbelt, Beghetto, Runco, Kaufman and Sternberg2010; Sawyer, Reference Sawyer2012).

Although Wallas’s stages were a good starting point, subsequent researchers realized the need to separate creative thinking into its components or sub-processes. Efforts to identify the processes underlying the stage of incubation as well as antecedent and consequent mental operations were of particular interest (Guilford, Reference Guilford1950). These may include problem construction, problem identification, problem definition and redefinition, divergent thinking, synthesis, analysis, evaluation, and monitoring (Guilford, Reference Guilford1950, Reference Guilford1967; Lubart, Reference Lubart2001; Mumford, Reference Mumford2001; Mumford, Mobley, Reiter-Palmon, Uhlman, & Doares, Reference Mumford, Mobley, Reiter-Palmon, Uhlman and Doares1991; Sawyer, Reference Sawyer2012; Smith, Ward, & Finke, Reference Smith, Ward and Finke1995). An important model that predates this process orientation in creativity is Guilford’s Structure of Intellect (SOI) model (Guilford, Reference Guilford1950, Reference Guilford1967), which was actually a theory of intelligence. Guilford distinguished between two kinds of mental processes: convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking entailed using mental operations to converge toward a single answer, possibly the most conventional one, whereas divergent thinking (DT) occurred when one could think in several directions, yielding novel combinations and associations. Both types of thinking are involved in creativity, particularly when we come up with several solutions (divergent) but then have to narrow them down to a few that we may choose to implement (convergent). Readers interested in this balance between divergent and convergent processes, particularly in creative problem solving, are referred to Mumford et al. (Reference Mumford, Mobley, Reiter-Palmon, Uhlman and Doares1991), Osborn (Reference Osborn1963), and Lubart (Reference Lubart2001).

Creative cognition, then, relies on numerous interconnected and intertwined non-linear processes that yield novel outcomes. Finke, Ward, and Smith (Reference Finke, Ward and Smith1992) narrowed these down to two higher-order processes of generation and exploration, which subsumed other sub-processes within creative ideation. In their geneplore (generate + explore) model (Finke et al., Reference Finke, Ward and Smith1992; Smith et al., Reference Smith, Ward and Finke1995), it was proposed that the individual first uses generative processes, like association and memory retrieval, to form mental representations of a potential solution; these were called preinventive structures. In the second exploration phase, the problem solver evaluates the fit of these mental representations to the problem at hand, and may return to the generative phase if the desired solution is not yet obtained. This cyclical model of generating ideas and exploring their effects clearly falls within the larger gamut of stage-based creative schema.

Thus, we argue that mini-c exemplifies process- and stage-based models of creativity. To illustrate this further, consider a young creator trying to find ways to spend time over the summer by themselves. An initial step in the creativity process will be to recognize that spending time alone may lead to boredom, something that they’d like to avoid. After constructing and identifying the problem herein, the person may decide to define the issue at hand by describing it: I have six weeks of no activities planned in the summer and need to think of something to keep me occupied without my friends. They may take additional information into consideration and redefine the problem as being: I actually have four weeks of no activities planned, because I’ll be away at Summer Camp for two weeks. This restructuring and reorganizing of the problem often occurs when new information becomes known to the actor. In the next general phase, they might come up with several ways to kill time – get a hobby or a summer job, go away to stay with grandparents or extended family, try to convince their parents to take them to Disneyland, decide to accompany their parents to their workplace, and so on. The person may then use convergent thought processes to shortlist the most feasible options, synthesize them into one solution (perhaps not settling on one activity for the duration of four weeks but moving between them), and finally implementing and applying the solution. Midway through the summer, they may realize that the initial solution needs to be tweaked, and they move through the phases again, zigzagging between the ones they need to readdress and the ones they need to overlook. The processes and sub-processes of creative cognition are in a way the building blocks of creativity, akin to how mini-c is foundational to the development of subsequent creative expression.

1.1.4 The Little-c Stage and Componential Theory

A natural progression from stage and process theories is toward the dynamic componential theory of creativity proposed by Amabile and Pratt (Reference Amabile and Pratt2016); this is an updated version of the componential theory introduced earlier by Amabile (Reference Amabile, Staw and Cummings1988, Reference Amabile1996). The term “componential” refers to components within creativity, not a far cry from the sub-processes outlined earlier. Thus, we conceptualize little-c as falling within this theoretical realm and outline its application (see also Kaufman & Beghetto, Reference Kaufman and Beghetto2009). Little-c encompasses everyday creative acts by non-experts and builds on personal creative insights learned from mini-c. We argue that the componential theory best embodies little-c due to its focus on micro-level individual differences in skills, knowledge, motivation, and more recently affect and work orientation that lead to creative and innovative behaviors. It is important to note that the original and updated componential theory explains individual and organizational creativity; however, for the purposes of this chapter, we will focus on the former in the context of little-c.

Amabile’s componential theory (Reference Amabile1983, Reference Amabile, Staw and Cummings1988, Reference Amabile1996) outlines three interlinked facets that contribute to creativity. Domain-relevant skills include technical know-how, specialized skills, and knowledge relevant to the domain, which could be as diverse as aerospace engineering or the culinary arts. The second component is creativity-relevant skills: The person is required to be generally proficient in thinking about and applying creative solutions. Examples can include a lower need for cognitive closure, persistence in problem solving, a reasonable level of risk taking, and tolerance of ambiguity. For instance, individuals with an adequate level of domain-relevant skills are unlikely to be able to generate novel solutions unless propelled by creativity-relevant skills; thus, the former may be a necessary, but not sufficient, component. Intrinsic task motivation – where individuals are driven to create because of positive attitudes toward the activity or their commitment to the task as opposed to extrinsic factors like praise or money – is the third element in the theory. These components are layered over five stages of the model: task presentation (influenced by what motivated you to undertake the task), preparation (influenced by how skilled you were in that specific domain), generation of ideas (influenced by both task motivation and creativity-relevant skills), evaluation (influenced by domain-relevant skills), and finally assessment. The initial model ends at the last phase, with no feedback loop to inform the next sequence of ideation.

However, the dynamic componential model (Amabile & Pratt, Reference Amabile and Pratt2016) refines this and three other features of the theory. The notion of the progress loop (Amabile & Kramer, Reference Amabile and Kramer2011) allows the model to repeat, funneling knowledge from one iteration to the next and emphasizing the importance of making progress, even if incremental, in creative ideation. Intrinsic motivation is supplemented by synergistic extrinsic motivation, where under certain circumstances extrinsic motivators like incentives or deadlines can prompt creativity. Third, positive affect – and to some degree negative and ambivalent affect – facilitates the creative process, especially through its interaction with assessing the final outcome; for instance, successes foster positive affect that may in turn foster future creativity. The last revision to the theory includes the importance of meaning making in the work undertaken; work orientation or how one perceives the tasks one chooses to perform can impact motivation and hence have a cascading effect on how the creative process unfolds. The theory provides a framework of prerequisite skills, predispositions, and motivators within which creativity among laypersons is most likely to flourish.

Suppose an individual wants to undertake by themselves a home-improvement project comprising redecorating, repainting, and landscaping. They would first need to have the technical skills and knowledge pertaining to each of these domains to be able to accomplish the tasks. Creativity-related skills required may include persistence, comfort with evaluating multiple options to choose the most appropriate, or even risk taking. The third core element of task motivation requires the individual to be encouraged by their passion for the project, maybe even more than the prospective praise that they would receive from others upon completion (though the latter would not hurt at all). The person would prepare, gather necessary materials and resources, think about ways in which they can implement their designs, and eventually evaluate their efficacy in meeting their set goals. The assessment of their endeavor could deem it a success, a failure, or a work in progress, all of which can feed into a progress loop and jump right to the start of the process again. If the person considers the task to be a chore or something that just has to be done, perhaps to avoid conflict, the likelihood of them deriving joy from the project is reduced, thereby reducing their motivation to continue or complete the task. On the other hand, if the individual derives personal meaning from the project and if their work is recognized, they may experience positive affect that can influence their motivation to work even harder. The dynamic componential model continues to operate within a stage-based structure, while highlighting the skills (pertaining to expertise and creativity) and the contexts (pertaining to motivators and work orientations) that are preconditions for novel expression.

1.1.5 The Pro-c Stage and the Investment Theory

If an individual is moving in a linear path toward creative eminence, which may not always or even often be the case, the next stop is at Pro-c or professional creativity. This category is meant for those who have not yet attained all-around fame for their originality but are nonetheless not amateurs in their domains. Pro-c situates creative actors who have achieved reasonable distinction in their field, though they may not be regarded as geniuses just yet. The Investment Theory of creativity by Sternberg and Lubart (Reference Sternberg and Lubart1992) is suggested to offer an appropriate transition from the smaller cs (mini, little) to the larger Cs (Pro, Big). The theory uses an investment metaphor to analogize that creators are like investors in the stock market, where, instead of shares, ideas are traded. Specifically, a creative person invests time and resources in contrarian ideas, buying them low, and convinces others of their potential worth and growth, selling them high. Further, like any good financial investor, the creative individual diversifies risk by championing some risky ideas along with less risky options. After having “sold” the idea to stakeholders (the community at large, interested social groups, etc.), creative individuals move on to their next project. This process involves defying the crowd; Sternberg’s subsequent Triangular theory (Reference Sternberg2018) also discussed defying one’s self and the existing zeitgeist.

Further, Sternberg and Lubart (Reference Sternberg and Lubart1995) proposed six resources that underlie creativity in their theory: intelligence, knowledge, intellectual style, personality, motivation, and environmental context. These components are similar to, yet distinct from, those in Amabile’s (Reference Amabile, Staw and Cummings1988) original componential theory.

There are vast bodies of studies on how each of these constructs relates to creative potential and performance across domains. Within the literature on these constructs, some patterns emerge. For intelligence, creativity has been associated with the ability to solve problems that use novel stimuli (Sligh, Conners, & Roskos-Ewoldsen, Reference Sligh, Conners and Roskos-Ewoldsen2005) and to retrieve information from long-term memory (Avitia & Kaufman, Reference Avitia and Kaufman2014). Domain-relevant knowledge is considered to be needed for creativity (e.g., Kaufman & Baer, Reference Kaufman and Baer2002), at least to a certain extent (Ward, Reference Ward2008). Creative people are often more likely to be open to new experiences (Feist, Reference Feist1998), to gravitate toward a more self-directed thinking style (Davis, Kaufman, & McClure, Reference Davis, Kaufman and McClure2011), and to be intrinsically motivated (Hennessey, Reference Hennessey, Kaufman and Sternberg2019).

Finally, the theory posits that the environmental context within which creativity is situated can be just as important as individual differences in multiple ways: Contexts that support and encourage creative outlooks differ substantially from those that quash ideas; the press (Rhodes, Reference Rhodes1961) or audience and affordances (Glăveanu, Reference Glăveanu2013) can inspire new creations, and social presses also evaluate ideas as ultimately being creative or not. A confluence of these internal and external resources, in different proportions based on the project itself, is crucial for creative endeavors.

In the professional realm, creators often have to market themselves and their ideas in an appealing way to accumulate attention, support, goodwill, and the like from social agents. Thus, Pro-c lends itself well to the Investment Theory, where ideas and creations are competitively traded after financial, intellectual, and other resources have been invested in them. Consider an architect who graduated with top honors and whose portfolio is filled with innovative designs for revamping public spaces. For instance, one design proposes building an elegant treehouse for children in a park; another suggests redesigning trashcans to prompt a bing sound of encouragement every time someone deposits litter. The architect displays intellectual abilities in coming up with these designs, after having sifted through numerous others that did not make the cut to the portfolio. They display adequate knowledge in their domain of expertise and an intellectual style that focuses on coming up with novel ideas for improving civic experiences. The ideas proposed are unusual for the community they live in, and it is a risk to pitch them to local authorities who have advertised for the position. Nonetheless, this architect has the personality characteristics of someone who is confident in their ability to persuade others to buy into their ideas. Their professors encouraged their creativity while in school, building an environment where ideas can grow, and they are motivated to upgrade architectural structures in their community. This architect has the uphill task of convincing their prospective employers about the worth of their designs, their potential for positive impact, and the scope for setting precedents of better design in other public areas. They’ve already invested in their ideas; now they need to persuade others to do the same. If they are lucky, they will land the job! It may not be that this architect achieves international or even national fame for their work, thereby moving to the Big-C category, but within Pro-c they’ve had to use a confluence of resources to be able to buy low and sell high.

1.1.6 The Big-C Stage and the Systems Model

This brings us to the last category in the developmental gradation of creative achievements: Big-C creativity encompasses geniuses, both men and women, who have attained a renowned standing in their fields owing to original contributions. One would categorize famous artists (Rembrandt), scientists (Marie Curie), novelists (Mark Twain), leaders (Winston Churchill), and the like as having achieved a Big-C level of creative renown. However, these personalities attained glory at a certain time in history within specific social conditions. To understand how these individuals rose to prominence, as compared to lesser known contemporaries, we use Csikszentmihalyi’s (Reference Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi1988, Reference Csikszentmihalyi and Sternberg1999) Systems Model of creativity. This theory proposes that creativity results from an interaction between the domain, the field, and the individual. The domain represents the cultural and symbolic background against which the individual creates; domains could be broad or narrow, and their inherent features would relate to how easy or difficult it is to make original contributions therein.

For example, it might be easier to identify originality in mathematics (by solving Fermat’s last theorem) as compared to novelty in the visual arts. The latter brings us to what constitutes the field, or the “gatekeepers” of domains; these are individuals in society who determine and recognize the creativity of others. In mathematics, these may be professors and scientists; in the more fluid art world, these can be critics, contemporaries, brokers, and collectors. The more numerous and diverse the field is, the more difficult it may be to determine what is truly original. Finally, the individual should be the most well-understood factor by now – they are the persons, actors, creators who engage in originality.

The domain, the field, and the person interact in a temporally and evolutionarily significant way. The individual produces variations within the field and domain, akin to Picasso abandoning the singular perspective and founding Cubism. The field then selects variations that should be preserved; Picasso’s contemporaries, critics, and even patrons helped in legitimizing this style by acknowledging its value. The larger cultural domain preserved this style and transmitted it to generations of painters who came after. This cycle of variation, selection, and transmission is analogous to phases within biological evolution (e.g., Campbell, Reference Campbell1960; Simonton, Reference Simonton2011) and highlights the necessity of positioning a creative action within a broader sociocultural and historical context. If Picasso’s environment had been hostile toward his experimentation and deviation from the dominant style of the era, the art movement might not have gained momentum. Csikszentmihalyi’s model (Reference Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi1988, Reference Csikszentmihalyi and Sternberg1999), therefore, appreciates that the when and where of creativity is just as important as the what. The field and domain evolve over time, and newness is relative – if someone propounded Freudian ideas in today’s society, it is much less likely that they would be hailed a genius.

Hennessey and Amabile (Reference Hennessey and Amabile2010) also outlined a systems approach to understanding creativity, in line with a holistic lens to view the entire creative enterprise. Their focus was on an interdisciplinary investigation of creativity and identified six major levels at which creativity forces operate. Beginning with internal systems like neurological, cognitive, personality, and individual differences, the levels expanded outward to groups, social environments, and the broader culture and society. Locating creativity within this multi-system, multi-disciplinary approach was aimed at stimulating research and analysis that considered several layers of novelty. Big-C is often the crescendo of moving through the stages, components, investments, and eventually systems within which we can reasonably understand creativity. Genius emerges from a confluence of internal and external resources and forces, being at the right place at the right time, with the right idea.

1.2 Conclusion

Creativity is a nuanced topic with many manifestations. We have chosen to take a perspective focused on the Four Cs as an organizing structure, but there are numerous other approaches that could have been chosen. It is important to note that for all of the different ways that creativity can be conceived of or studied, there are also many points of agreement. For the last seven decades, there has been general consensus on the main components for a definition. Similarly, although there are many places where opinions diverge, the core concepts of the Four Ps and the expanded/adapted Five As have been consistently reinforced over many years of scholarship.

As we move from the intricacies of mini-c to the scope of Big-C, relevant theories also shift from the moment of here-and-now to the larger easel of a historical lens. Similarly, as we ascend the developmental trajectory, the role of other people becomes more crucial. Personal creativity cannot exist in a vacuum – we are influenced by others, even in our internal monologues – but the response of an audience is not required. The componential model examines the individual in the context of their environment (as in little-c). The Investment Theory, paired with Pro-c, has the individual’s interaction with others as a key part of success. Finally, the Systems Model, which we discuss with Big-C, has the creativity of an object shift as the field and domain shift through time.


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