Are you a business type or a creative type? Professor Jonathan S. Feinstein argues that creativity is not a point of division between sectors, but rather a point of convergence common to many endeavors. “I think about creativity and innovation very broadly,” says Feinstein, a professor of economics at Yale SOM. “I think you can learn about an artist, and an inventor, and a scientist, and a businessperson, and you can see that they all fit within a framework and are following certain patterns.”
Feinstein has been studying the topic of creativity for more than a decade. He teaches a popular course on the subject, The Practice and Management of Creativity and Innovation, and he recently published a book titled, The Nature of Creative Development.
As Feinstein explains it, his interest in creativity may be inexhaustible because the subject is both universal and irreducibly individual. While much of his work has been directed at exhuming the common logic of creative activity, this logic can only be observed in individual expression. And individual creativity has endless permutations. “You can go into a field — whether it’s an industry, or a field of business, or a field of science, or whatever it might be — and every single person has a different creative interest.”
Feinstein first ventured into the study of creativity by trying to better understand how individual efforts accumulate and shape society. He says, “I’m interested in how every individual comes to make a distinctive contribution. To me, that’s kind of like watching culture create itself.” He realized that creativity was an essential part of this process.
Feinstein initially approached the question of how creativity works with an economist’s toolset and tried to model the process. But he reached a breakthrough, with a moment of creative inspiration, when he decided to interview a number of scholars engaged in creative pursuits. He noticed early on that each person had a distinctive area of creative interest. “I don’t think that they understood, necessarily, how distinctive [their interest] was to them, because they’re just one person,” says Feinstein. “But when I could line up 30 of them in a row, I could see how every single person had a different thing that interested them that they wanted to go out and do.”
This was the beginning of the theory of creative development that Feinstein outlines in his book. He sees creativity as a two-step process. First, individuals form creative interests -- fields or self-defined topics that they wish to explore. The formation of the interest can come years or even decades before the final creative output. The next step is creative development, in which individuals generate and pursue ideas and projects that are related to their conceptions of their creative interests. Feinstein outlines phases in the process, such as what he calls “creative response,” in which someone encounters a stimulus that resonates with his or her interest.
As he honed his theories, Feinstein studied a number of creative luminaries. He devoured biographies, he perused the complete writings of John Maynard Keynes, he dissected the autobiography of Alexander Calder, and he boned up on enough physics to understand Einstein’s contributions to the field. He discusses approximately 70 different people in his book, illustrating his ideas with examples from their lives.
Feinstein notes that a lot of writing about creativity focuses on the dramatic moment at the end of the creative process, when a problem is solved or an invention created. “I’m more interested in the whole process,” says Feinstein. “How did they even come to focus on a topic that was distinctive to them? That’s interesting to me. And then, how do they eventually, through a winding path, come around to make a contribution, which might be what they first thought it would be or might be quite different?”
As Feinstein studied creative contributions in business, art, music, and science, he harvested his insights and delivered them to the classroom. He has taught a course on creativity for the last several years. In addition to learning about the creative process, students in Feinstein’s class engage in group creativity exercises and study topics such as the obstacles to creativity, brainstorming, and the nature of creativity in teams and organizations. Feinstein also teaches a series of cases about the management of creativity.
In his course, Feinstein aims to teach both sides of the creativity and innovation equation. One side is how to tap one’s own creativity. “I think students get excited about that,” says Feinstein. “It gives them access to that sense of, ‘I can be creative. There are processes that I can understand and that I can go through. I can make my own creative contribution.’” The other side is how to manage the creativity of others within an organization. “The more you see the different case studies, the more you begin to get a feeling for creativity itself and how it works, which is very useful if you’re going to manage people in creative activities.”
Feinstein emphasizes that his studies of creative types (defined broadly) have a very practical side. “Creativity is often the source of value in business. It’s the thing that gives you a distinctive product or service… Companies today recognize that.” Feinstein also throws in an argument for academic rigor: “You have to understand the creative process. That’s where good management starts: You understand what these people are doing, and how they go about it.”