The crucial difference between imagination and creativity

“I’m not creative”.

Have you ever said this?  It’s a phrase you hear often, even from founders, which is funny when you think about it, because founders are by definition creative in the most concrete sense.

The thing is, for the most part when we say “I’m not creative”, we generally don’t actually mean that.  We mean something slightly different.

What we really mean is that we’re not imaginative.

This feels like the same thing but is actually quite different.

Perhaps it sounds like I’m dealing in semantics here.  Perhaps we might be inclined to say “meh, creativity, imagination, you know what I mean, it’s the same kind of stuff”.  But actually the gap between the two is not trivial – it’s huge.  And it has a real bearing on how we approach the task of bringing things into the world, whether that’s an idea, a business, a piece of art, whatever.

Indeed I would almost go so far as to say that highly imaginative people are often not, in a true sense, creative – and therefore we confuse these distinctions at our peril.

So today I wanted to outline the difference between imagination and creativity, and briefly explore what that means for the act of creating; something I think we are all invested in here.

Let’s begin with imagination.

Imagination can be best described as the ability to picture something that doesn’t exist.  When we call a child imaginative, say, it might be because they’ve drawn a picture of some mythical beast that bears no resemblance to any actual living animal.  That’s imagination.

So too is the ability generally displayed by advertising creatives (in some sense an inconvenient moniker for my purposes here, but no matter).  They are often able to conjure up fantastical and arresting scenarios, more or less out of thin air.  In a more prosaic sense designers are the same; they can picture lots of different ways a thing might look, and then are able to sketch that out, just like the child with its mythical beast.

When people say they aren’t creative, this is generally what they have in mind – that they can’t think of something “random”, and that they can’t write or draw skilfully enough to make that thing manifest.

That’s imagination.

It is of course a very good, useful skill.  But there is a problem with it, which prevents it being synonymous with creativity, and that is the problem of evolution.

You see, for things to exist healthily and harmoniously in the world, they cannot simply be dreamed up and “plonked” into their environment.  They must instead grow into it – engaging in a continuous game of give-and-take which shapes them and the world around them until you get to the final version.

If something fails to go through this evolutionary process, and instead is forced into the world in its original conceptual form, the end result will inevitably be “clunky”, “ugly”, “unhealthy”, or “unharmonious”.

As a result, imaginative creations which have been “imposed” on the world like this, based purely on the imaginer’s vision, will often be quite unpleasant and lifeless.  We can see this with certain examples of modern architecture, or art – all of which are undoubtedly imaginative, but equally often unappealing and inorganic, since they “assault” the world around them rather than harmonising with it.  By comparison traditional architecture – of any geographical stripe – is almost always appealing, since it has grown in situ, rather than being imposed.  It is unquestionably less imaginative than the ego trip of some hot new architect – but we can never say it is less creative, since it is this vibrant, living, breathing thing, which makes the imaginative creation appear relatively stale.

This then reveals the true definition of creativity.

It is not the ability to “dream something up” (valuable as that may be), but rather the ability to shepherd something into existence.  To manage its growth, and to allow it to become the most vibrant and life-filled version of what it could be.

Creativity in this sense could also be conceived of as “nurture”.  The complexity scientist Joe Norman put it beautifully when he defined creative people as “shepherds of the unfolding”.  That word “unfolding” is key, as it shows how things truly come into being, in a way that is somewhat at odds with imaginative principle.

A creative person then is someone who lets that happen – perhaps even without allowing their imagination to get in the way.

Can a person be imaginative and creative at the same time?  Of course.  In principle that is ideal.  You need a degree of imagination to produce the germ of an idea; the thing that is shepherded.  You may also need imagination to catalyse certain steps in the evolution of your creation.  But understand that the imagination we’re talking about here is quite humble, and I’d say pretty much on the level of an ordinary person, not a wildly imaginative one.

The truly imaginative will arguably have a much tougher time reining in their imagination, and its tendency to swamp the unfolding process (hence perhaps why we don’t see many highly artistic becoming effective founders).

(As an aside, if you’re into this kind of thing, it may help you to conceive if it archetypically, wherein the imaginative impulse is “masculine”, and the creative impulse is “feminine”.  In the creation of a person it is the man who quite literally “plants the seed”, aka the initial idea, and yet it is the mother who then brings the person into full existence – not though the imposition of will, but through the facilitating of their natural unfolding.  This idea was explored fascinatingly in Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother!, where an egotistical poet represented the masculine God, and his pregnant wife represented the feminine nature.  Through this relationship their conflicting methods of creation are explored, in a manner which very much mirrors the gap between imagination and creativity we are discussing here.)

I’ve spoken many times about the unpredictable unfolding of a business, and of the humble “leading from behind” approach it demands from us, and this, ultimately, is that.

This is true creativity, the creativity of “the mother”, the ability to nurture, the ability to give life.  It can be paired with imagination, but generally I’d say it isn’t.

And so if you don’t think you’re creative, well, that’s a pretty good indication that you just might be.

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