What is creativity and innovation, and who is creative or innovative in their work? (hint: it’s more than just artists, and creativity isn’t just about the final product)

A colleague of mine from the UF Innovation Academy paid me a high compliment, noting me as an innovative and interdisciplinary thinker (full disclosure: my immediate reaction was, who, moi?). She asked me to share any thoughts I had on “how we can better get faculty to think of themselves as innovative.” As I started writing an email response, I figured I might as well put the words on a blog post for someone perhaps to make more use of.

My thoughts went to something I’ve struggled to recognize in myself (as noted above): just what innovation is. To me, I think it’s ultimately creativity about any number of things, whether it be products or processes. If you read my biography, I do like to explore and push on new methods and models of public engagement, aka innovate, whether it be incrementally, as when I see a program I like and adapt it for new audiences or new locations, or whether I come up with something brand new (which realistically is probably an incremental version of a lot of stuff I’ve been inspired by but my subconscious put together and didn’t tell me about).

So, I think one thing that might be of use for faculty (and anyone) to recognize their own creativity is for them to think about just what creativity is. I remember the phrase someone told me about getting a PhD is that it’s 90% perspiration and only 10% inspiration – even here, I’ve been creative, as the original aphorism often attributed to Thomas Edison has many forms, but puts the ratio closer to genius as 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration (see this page for a fun discussion of the history and variations on the phrase). Regardless of the actual ratio, I feel like people (including me) often get that flipped – seeing works of art (or almost anything that’s in a “final” stage) as if it’s just sort of born from Zeus in final form, as creativity that just springs forth. As in, you can get a PhD by just coming up with a fabulous idea (you can’t), and that if you don’t have a fabulous, revolutionary idea, you can’t get a PhD (you absolutely can). Reminding ourselves that any innovator, writer, painter, researcher, has to show up and make a little progress every day, and that some things that we start get detoured, set aside, or scrapped altogether, may help us see our creativity not only in coming up with projects in the first place, but actually at navigating barriers to get those projects done. “Typical” creatives – such as writers, painters, musicians, dancers – put in thousands of hours of practice, drafts, and trials in the same way. They don’t call it “work” for nothing; some of us are just fortunate to enjoy the type of practice and perspiration that we do. Even then, many of us have put ourselves in these positions of fulfillment through lots of other perspiration.

I tell a lot of my new undergrad researchers to remember that how we learn to do things in school is different than how research (and in fact, probably much of the world) works. In research, what gets published is likely the 20th draft (or more!) of a work that represents a project over multiple years. Those 20 drafts have incorporated feedback from others in a research group, perhaps grant reviewers, conference presentation attendees, and then journal reviewers. At that point, they are still not perfect in the authors’ minds. In school, we often write papers that are for only a semester’s worth of work, and generally we write one version, turn it in, and get it graded. We might get feedback, but we have to apply that feedback to future projects and don’t often get to revise our school projects. As for our real-world drafting, those drafts are often invisible to the rest of the world. No one sees all the edits I’ve already done on this post (I wrote the end of this paragraph after the next one). However, a few notable examples of drafts in art can be seen when there are single-artist museums or exhibitions. Right now at the Harn museum (through August 5, 2018), for example, the exhibit on American labor artist Jacob Lawrence shows a particular series of drafts of his painting The Builders Suite: Ten Builders (1996).

Sure, as we get more experienced, we may go through fewer drafts of our works, but we may also be working on more incremental or more related projects than when we first started out. I would encourage everyone to take a long view of creativity – it’s not a single act, but a repetitive practice, often deliberate but with flashes of inspiration mixed in. To get to the flashes, however, you have to do a lot of groundwork. What groundwork are you laying today?

[also, UF/IFAS photos has no entries for perspiration or inspiration, and just 1 each for creativity and creative, but 557 for work. Maybe we should change that, but here’s the entry for creative:]

Dog in costume
A HOWL-o-ween costume contest winner displays creativity as a final product. UF/IFAS Photo

(Draft 3.8)


Posted: June 6, 2018

Category: Professional Development, UF/IFAS Research

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