Last Sunday’s panel on creativity was part of the programming for the Tacoma Reads book, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The panel was very good: how creative people worked, why they worked, what they got out of it, etc.

What was lacking is that which I think lacks from most discussions of creativity: a real investigation into the spark of creativity. It lacks because it’s so hard to quantify, and it’s so situational.

So, I think I’m going to turn this into Creativity Week here, and try to get a post a day up about it. I’ll talk about books, post videos, and more.

Who is Creative?

I’m reading a book right now called What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly, and part of the book is about simultaneous invention: a shocking number of things have been invented almost simultaneously. The idea is that these things are just in the air, waiting to be discovered.

Kelly uses the lightbulb as an example. Maybe 10,000 people had thought, “What if we could use electricity for lighting?” Of those, 1,000 maybe thought, “I bet an incandescent filament inside a bulb would do the trick.” Of those maybe 100 actually tried to follow it through. Of those, 10 might actually get it to work (and about 10 people had invented working lightbulbs in the 1800s). But only 1 of those get it to work in such a way that it was adopted by the culture: Edison. Kelly says this order of magnitude winnowing is very common for inventions and ideas.

My question is, at which point in this process can we call someone creative? Are the 10,000 people who thought of using electricity for light “creative?” Are the 1,000 people who realized how it might be done “creative?” The 100 people who actually attempted it?

Traditionally, we only pay attention to the final 10 people who actually got the thing to work, and usually just the one who got it fully adopted: Edison.

I think there’s a case to be made that all these people are engaged in some form of creativity. I’ve thought of a bunch of ideas for novels that I’ll never write, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t creative work.

That said, my interest in this question of the creative spark is in the jump from the 1,000 people who think about how something could be done to the 100 people who actually attempt it. 

If 1,000 people really had the idea on how a lightbulb would work, why wouldn’t 900 of them even attempt it?

Resources is the most obvious answer. Time is another, although I think that’s a subset of resources (more resources at your disposal mean you can spend more time on things that may or may not pay off, like tinkering with lightbulbs).

But for the subset of people who had resources and time, and yet still didn’t tinker with a bulb … I think fear is the most likely answer. Fear of looking like an idiot if you were wrong, fear of letting yourself down, of wasting time, maybe even fear of success.


In my own experience, certainly, fear is what stands as the biggest roadblock to creativity.

For the last two, maybe three years, I’ve had an idea in my head for a science fiction novel, maybe even a trilogy. Standing in my way has been a lot of doubt and fear. What if it’s terrible? What business do I have writing a sci-fi novel? Stick to what you know, Hanberg.

I recently read the book Do the Work, a short manifesto about moving from thinking to doing as it relates to writing and other creative pursuits. I was inspired to start the idea I’d been toying with but had been scared to write.

And now that I’m into it, I think it’s going well. In fact, really well. I’m 35 pages into this thing, and it’s only been a couple weeks since I started. That’s an abnormally fast past for me, but I’m trying not to question it too much.

One of the reasons I think it has gone as well as it has is because I have gotten better at practicing creativity. I’ve been trying to write every morning, before I do anything else. It hasn’t gone totally smoothly, since morning meetings and other things sometimes get in the way. But it’s gone well enough that I have 8,800 words on the page that I didn’t before.

Reading the blog The 99% has given me some good food for thought on practicing creativity too. Going with the Edison’s theory that 1% of work is inspiration and the other 99% is perspiration, the blog offers some good ideas on doing the 99% after being struck by the inspiration.