Van Gogh may now be widely recognized as one of the most influential artists of all time, but he died alone and penniless. Why? Because 100 years ago, his canvases were seen as the hallucinatory original works of a sociopathic recluse. It wasn’t until years later when other artists and critics had defined new aesthetic criteria for art that his works were accepted as masterpieces. Real creativity is innovative. It’s disruptive. It challenges and changes the way we think about established ideas. Here are some criteria to keep in mind when it comes to creativity:
Creativity Needs Community: Psychologists tend to see creativity exclusively as a mental process, but creativity is as much more cultural and social. Therefore, what we call creativity is not the product of single individuals, but of social systems making judgments about individuals’ products. Your best ideas might come when you’re alone in the shower, but creativity itself presupposes a community of like-minded people who share ways of thinking and acting—who learn from each other and imitate each other’s actions.
Think of it like this: Your idea, whatever it is, can be unique and original in a domain, but without the validation of the field—your peers and the community at large—it isn’t really creative.
Think about the thrashing power chords and guttural screams of early punk. Sure, it may have seemed like an entirely new way of playing music, but it happened within the domain of music and was validated by the community of music listeners. Without some form of social valuation, it would be impossible to distinguish ideas that are simply bizarre from those that are genuinely creative.
It Doesn’t Matter Where You Work, But it Matters Who You Work With: So where do you find this group that will validate your idea?
This community is called a “scenius”—a group of creative individuals who make up an “ecology of talent.” Your scenius might be the people you work with or an online community like Product Hunt or Medium or even a group of friends or peers. Whatever it is, the one thing that needs to always be addressed isn’t really whom you share your ideas with. But when.
We let our ideas out into the world before they’re fully formed, risking contamination. In fact, most “domains” that encourage sharing—things like Medium for writing, YouTube for videos, Dribbble for design, and so on—include some way to gain mass feedback from your peers, be it through a thumbs up, heart, or like. And yes, we need validation, but being too involved in a community or group early on can lead to things like groupthink or self-censoring where your ideas—often in their infant stage—are forced to conform with current beliefs. We need to know the right time in the creative process to share our ideas—when they’ve grown past their corruptible stage and have enough of a shell to stand up to some outside criticism.
When to Ask for Feedback (and How to Take It): Feedback from your community, peers is an integral part of the creative process. But finding the right time to seek opinions can be a delicate balance. Here’s a look at a few different ways to engage your community and use them to enhance your idea further:
Using Feedback as a Collaborative Tool: If you’re working with a close-knit group of people, or have a good relationship with your scenius, it’s more common to get feedback on your idea earlier on. Despite the fragility of your thoughts, the group all has a similar goal. When the community you’re seeking validation from is aligned in its goals, it’s safe to let your ideas out earlier on.
Designing the Feedback Process: First, understand why you’re asking. Is it because you’re lost? Do you feel like something’s off and want to bring in an expert? Do you feel like you’re done and just want an objective opinion?
Then, seek out the right people in your community: trusted peers, mentors, or teachers who have your best interests in mind. The accountability on both sides will help elevate from “That’s nice!” to something you can actually use.
Lastly, know exactly what it is you’re after. Ask yourself these three questions:
What is your desired outcome?
What kind of feedback would best serve you? (Do you want micro-critiquing? Or is the big picture enough?)
How do you want the news? Written? Verbally?
The more structured a session is, the easier it is to take in, digest, and implement.
Seeking Validation: Too much attachment to an idea can blind you from the feedback that will take it to a place where you’ll be truly innovative. Be prepared, patient, and generous.
Prepared to tackle the comments and issues that come up by having a thorough understanding of what it is you’re making and why.
Patient with the community you’re looking for validation from (recognizing good work can take as much time as actually creating it—just look at Van Gogh!)
And generous with those giving you criticism. If you’re in your scenius or the community that you want to bring change to, know that deep down they all want that change to happen.
Creativity is the engine that drives cultural evolution.
But real creativity depends not just on you having an amazing idea (and actually acting on it!), but from making a change in the world. It’s not enough to simply create. You need to convince.