Creativity: Does Size Matter?

For some reason, we've been taught that for creativity and innovation to count they need to have a magnitude the size of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

As you may recall, earthquakes are measured on something called the Richter scale. According to the American Heritage Scientific Dictionary, the Richter scale is "a numerical scale for expressing the magnitude of an earthquake on the basis of seismograph oscillations." Simply put, the higher the number the more damage it does. The San Francisco earthquake was a monster, coming in at 6.9 on the Richter scale. But does that mean that the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that hit Puerto Rico in January 2020 didn't count? Whether a quake is a magnitude 9.0 (total devastation) or a magnitude 2.4 (barely felt), an earthquake is still an earthquake.

The same is true for innovation and creativity. Inventing a life-saving drug therapy is a bigger innovation than inventing a new doorbell that tells knock-knock jokes, but both are still considered to be innovative. My most recent jazz composition pales in artistic quality compared to Miles Davis's historic Kind of Blue album, but both are, in fact, creative.

Creativity researchers Dr. James C. Kaufman and Dr. Ronald Beghetto developed a clever structure called the 4C model. Think of it as the Richter scale of creativity. Their model begins with "mini-c," which are the baby steps of creativity. When my five-year-old daughter Tallia shows me what she just made with finger paint, we can all agree this isn't going to be featured in the Louvre. This mini-c was still made with care, but it lacks the objective artistic value of a work by Joan Miro. That said, if Tallia is to become a famous artist, she'll develop her skills one mini-c at a time.

Next up is "little-c," Kaufman and Beghetto explain. Here, a creative work has perceived value beyond its creator. Three years from now, if Tallia's paintings are featured in the school news- paper and subsequently win a local award, she'll have graduated to little-c status. At this point, her work won't fetch $175,000 at auction, but hey…it's progress.

Moving on, we land on "Pro-c." Imagine Tallia earns her master's degree in artistic composition and, with a little commercial success, is able to stop waiting tables and pursue her art full-time. Clearly, the quality and value of her work has crossed into a professional level since she can now afford her 550-square-foot studio apartment and an occasional two-topping pizza.

Finally, we reach "Big-C," which is history-making. Rembrandt, Kahlo, Picasso. The artistic works that are the stuff of legends. The vast majority of highly talented professionals never reach this point, but it doesn't mean their work lacks value. Tallia could earn a wonderful living and have a meaningful artistic career despite never painting a Big-C masterpiece. Big-Cs are spectacular, to be sure, but too often this is the bar we set to consider something creative or not. If the reference point is the master work of Vincent van Gogh, no wonder most of us don't feel like we're creative.

The thing is, Georgia O'Keefe and Paul Cezanne didn't pop out of the womb as the masters they became. They ascended to Big-C in the same way every other artist, inventor, and musician did: they started with mini-c and worked their way up through practice. Da Vinci's first painting wasn't the Mona Lisa; da Vinci first had to learn to paint. The fact that every artist progresses from step to step should feel liberating. We can each grow into our full creative potential, one bad painting at a time.

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