Creation and creativity

There's something I've been thinking about in terms of producing creative work. It's quite confusing that we use the same word to mean two different things. I think it's meaningful, even necessary, to distinguish between creation, the act of making things, and creativity, the quality of a thing being imaginative, novel, or eye-opening. I should note that I already said "creative work" at the start of this paragraph without specifying which I meant. They're easy to conflate!

Creation, that is, making things exist that didn't exist before, is often a fairly uncreative act. For example, writing a story is considered to be a creative endeavour, but actually most of the real creativity happens early on, coming up with all the great plot and character ideas. However, to actually make a story, you just need to spend a lot of time writing. What do you write? The craziest, most original, most creative words you can think of? No. You write what the plot, situation and characters need. In fact, you often have to be less creative in your words if your story is really out there, just so there's a chance people will understand it.

Creativity, on the other hand, I consider to have a very particular meaning. Just because you come up with something doesn't mean it's creative, and some things are more creative than others. The measurement is a bit tricky to pin down. For example, I would say creativity is novel and unpredictable, but so are randomly generated numbers. To me, the key factor is that exercising or experiencing creativity usually means thinking something you wouldn't otherwise think. It's this element of intellectual surprise that I think makes creativity unique.

It is possible to be creative without creating anything. Perhaps my favourite example of this is computer security, whose practitioners are nearly indistinguishable from wizards. Security is, at its best, a ratchet that only ever gets more secure. Every time a new exploit is discovered, everyone learns about it and it stops being an exploit. What that means is that to come up with new exploits requires thinking in a way that nobody has thought before. My favourite example: I once saw some researchers break an otherwise impregnable server by messing with the voltage going into it. They even extracted the secret key. All by messing with the power supply! Who even thinks of that?

I don't mean to suggest that you should strive to be creative all the time, or that all creation should be creative. Quite the opposite; I think maintaining that level of creativity on a constant basis would be impossible, or at least extraordinarily tiring. And, as in the story example, creation often involves a lot of fairly uncreative work. I think that is perfectly fine. In fact, it's important to develop those non-creative abilities so as to make the best use of your creativity.

That relationship is the main thing I'd like to emphasise. Creation and creativity are different, but they often go together, and the balance between them matters a great deal. Some people create without creativity, which is a shame because it leads to uninteresting work. However, a great many more are creative without creating, and that often means their creativity amounts to very little.