Scholars define creativity as the production of something both novel and appropriate. (That latter condition is important from a research perspective: "If anything new qualifies as creative, then the term loses its meaning," Kaufman says. "Suppose the person you hired to repave your driveway covered it with salami—that would be original, surely, but inappropriate." Similarly, an innovative design for a bridge would not pass muster if, once constructed, it collapsed.)
By this definition, almost any human endeavor has the potential to be creative. Which brings us to step one in claiming our creativity: becoming more expansive in our own definition of the term.
So many people operate under the default assumption that creativity is the sole province of the arts. I, it appears, am one of those people. Intellectually, I know it's wrong to think this way. I'm well aware of Einstein, Curie, Gates—not to mention Temple Grandin, James (Mr. vacuum cleaner) Dyson, and the creatively self-amputating guy James Franco played in 127 Hours. Heck, there's even Daisy and her baking-soda volcanoes.
In my defense, it's only recently—in the last century or so—that anyone acknowledged creativity extending beyond the arts. The Victorians applied the term primarily to painting; the ancient Greeks, to poetry. For all we know, future generations may consider our own parameters equally quaint. In the decade since advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to precisely track the way our brains process creative tasks, it's become clear, for example, that we were mistaken in thinking creativity resides in a single area of the brain. Brain scans of people engaged in different types of creative tasks—visual and verbal problem-solving, artistic performance involving music—reveal that many brain areas are involved. Moreover, domains such as the arts, science, and leadership appear to harness various types of creativity, each drawing on different sets of mental abilities. "It's a very optimistic finding," says Oshin Vartanian, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, "because we now see that creativity can be exhibited in many different ways."
So I will try to resist my fine-arts bias. While I'm at it—and this is step two, if you're counting—I'll try to let go of the notion that immortality is the one true measure of creative achievement. The Edisons and Picassos of the world are what Ron Beghetto, an associate professor of educational studies at the University of Oregon, calls Big-C creators: people whose ideas changed everything. If that's your standard for success, basically you're screwed. "You put yourself in the shadow of a giant," Beghetto says, "and it makes you think, Well, I'm not that and never could be." In which case, the only logical thing for you to do is quit.
Even the dream of making a living at your creative work, or simply reaching a professional level—what those in the field call Pro-C (and the rest of us call Etsy)—can be self-defeating. And unnecessary. Because it turns out that the creativity that enriches our life and confers all those feel-good benefits is something far humbler: everyday, or little-c creativity. We're not talking anything revolutionary here. Little-c is the school science project comparing frogs' responses to heavy metal music and show tunes. It's combining ingredients in a new way to surprise your dinner guests, or developing a new skills drill while coaching your kid's soccer team. Everyone, says Kaufman, has the capacity for little-c creativity. Rather than a rare gift, it's more akin to kindness or compassion—an innate human trait. It's something we're born with, and naturally draw upon, until something, somewhere, goes awry.
Next: Reclaiming the creative impulses we enjoyed as children.
We Hear You!