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What Exactly is Creativity?

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.


Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World


When I was researching Mindfulness for Creativity it proved to be surprisingly difficult to pin down a workable definition of creativity. It’s one of those things that we all know when we see it but is difficult to describe in words. After a while I decided that trying to pin it down was the antithesis of creativity itself. It’s like trying to describe a beautiful picture, a breathtaking view, or a song that moves the soul… You can do so but only at immense cost to the underlying whole.

Nevertheless, this is what I settled on: Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena and to generate solutions. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.1

Creative people tend to be more open and enquiring, while being less constrained by existing categories and boundaries. They are generally more autonomous and value curiosity and exploration as ends in themselves. They have flexible minds and ideas are their currency. They value expertise and enjoy pushing their own boundaries and those of others. They love ideas for their own sake and will happily tinker with existing ones or use them as building blocks for entirely new ones. Creative people are not only artists, writers and academics, but are also to be found in science, engineering, business, finance and the law. In fact, creativity is so important – and so innately human – that there is no aspect of life that it can’t play a part in.

There are two broad styles of thinking associated with creativity:


Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking is normally logical, rational, deductive and focused. It aims to produce the single best answer to a problem with little or no ambiguity.2 It emphasises speed, accuracy and logic and concentrates on recognising the familiar, reapplying techniques and accumulating stored information. It is most effective in situations where an answer readily exists and simply needs to be either recalled or worked out using decision-making strategies. The solution that is derived at the end of convergent thinking is generally the best possible answer the majority of the time.

Convergent thinking is linked to knowledge as it involves manipulating existing information or wisdom using standard procedures. Knowledge can be an important aspect of creativity. It is a source of ideas, suggests pathways to solutions and provides criteria for effectiveness and novelty. When you use convergent thinking to solve a problem you will often consciously use standards or probabilities to make judgments. (This contrasts with divergent thinking, where judgment is deferred while looking for and accepting many possible solutions.)

It is an aspect of the mind’s Doing mode (see page 35 of Mindfulness for Creativity).


Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is spontaneous and free-flowing. It lies behind the ‘purest’ forms of creativity and in many ways is true creativity. Divergent thinking generates ideas by exploring many possible solutions, often in parallel. Ideas may arise in an emergent cognitive fashion as epiphanies or ‘Aha!’ moments. Many possible solutions are explored and unexpected connections are drawn. A high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, traits that promote this style of thinking are more important, and it is commonly found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, courage, persistence and resilience.

Divergent thinking is cultivated by the mind’s Being mode (see page 39 of Mindfulness for Creativity) and arises most often when the body’s soothing-and- contentment system is ticking over (see page 23).

Creative thought often involves both convergent and divergent thinking. Neither is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other, and each has its own qualities. The most creative solutions or ideas, be they in art, science or business, often involve multiple phases and iterations of convergent and divergent thinking. So although the finished idea will often arise in an ‘Aha!’ moment, divergent thinking shouldn’t take all of the credit; convergent thinking might have accumulated the knowledge, wisdom and ideas necessary for divergent thinking do to its unconscious work.

Experiments have shown that mindfulness boosts creativity largely by enhancing divergent thinking, but many of the qualities associated with convergent thinking are also enhanced by mindfulness. Such things as working memory, clarity of thought and mental fortitude, resilience and courage are all boosted by mindfulness and are important features of convergent thinking. Happiness also increases both convergent and divergent thinking. Mindfulness enhances happiness and dissolves anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of exhaustion. It is through this additional route that mindfulness also boosts creativity.


You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

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1 See

2 See; Cropley, A. (2006), ‘In praise of convergent thinking’, Creativity Research 
Journal, 18(3), pp. 391–404.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a great post, and its fascinating to read the associations between creativity and mindfulness.

    I like what you wrote about trying to define creativity as being like trying to describe a beautiful picture or song, in that it comes at a cost to the whole. It reminds me of the famous quote about dissecting comedy and how it is akin to dissecting a frog – you just end up killing the thing!

    I like the two styles of thinking in terms of creativity, but to be honest I much prefer the Divergent style. As a writer, actor and comedian, I find this resembles my own process, especially the notion of finding unexpected connections. I think this is at the heart of a lot of creativity – certainly in terms of comedy anyway.

    I have been interviewing creative people on my website for some time now, with a view to finding out what their processes are and how they approach their relevant disciplines – be it directing, comedy, writing, music, and so on. I have certainly found that each person has a very different process. You may find it interesting to take a look at these interviews, as well as footage of a talk I gave about creativity in London a while back. (I won’t include a link in case it’s not allowed, but you can find this on the Creative Minds section of my website).

    Thanks again for posting this, it’s a really interesting piece of writing and I’ll definitely take a look at Mindfulness for Creativity.

    July 12, 2018
  2. Ajay Talati #

    Creativity & compassion – what else do you need?

    Highly recommend “Mindfulness for Creativity”, it goes great with Mathieu Richard’s “Altruism”. Share them both with your friends and family, they’ll really enjoy them. Practice together, and see the happiness grow 🙂

    October 6, 2015

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