Every culture elects some central virtues, and creativity is one of ours. In fact, right now, we’re living through a creativity boom. Few qualities are more sought after, few skills more envied. Everyone wants to be more creative—how else, we think, can we become fully realized people?
Creativity is now a literary genre unto itself: every year, more and more creativity books promise to teach creativity to the uncreative. A tower of them has risen on my desk—Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s “Creativity, Inc.”; Philip Petit’s “Creativity: The Perfect Crime”—each aiming to “unleash,” “unblock,” or “start the flow” of creativity at home, in the arts, or at work. Work-based creativity, especially, is a growth area. In “Creativity on Demand,” one of the business-minded books, the creativity guru Michael Gelb reports on a 2010 survey conducted by I.B.M.’s Institute for Business Values, which asked fifteen hundred chief executives what they valued in their employees. “Although ‘execution’ and ‘engagement’ continue to be highly valued,” Gelb reports, “the CEOs had a new number-one priority: creativity,” which is now seen as “the key to successful leadership in an increasingly complex world.” Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Julia Cameron’s best-selling “The Artist’s Way” proposes creativity as a path to personal, even spiritual fulfillment: “The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union,” Cameron writes. “The heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity.” It’s a measure of creativity’s appeal that we look to it to solve such a wide range of problems. Creativity has become, for many of us, the missing piece in a life that seems routinized, claustrophobic, and frivolous.
How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so; people didn’t always care so much about, or even think in terms of, creativity.