The Nature of Creativity - Part One

by Heidi Kneller
Mechanical Engineer at The Payloads Concept Center, The Boeing Company


Water is always an invitation to immersion [for me], an immersion with a quality of totality, since it would accept all of me, as I am. Some primal urge invites me to return whence I came. . . There is some special delight in simply walking into a stream, stepping into a lake. The child’s delight in a puddle is my adult’s in the sea . . .” (Mathew Kelty, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit)

Scuba diving is space tourism for poor people; last year I went to Mars, and this spring I went to the Moon. Breathless and weightless, I have indeed been fortunate. In 2007, I spent a week in the Costa Rican coastal rain forest learning from The Biomimicry Guild how to attack technical challenges by looking to nature for inspiration and instruction. Last year I boarded a Russian icebreaker to scuba dive off the Antarctic Peninsula, and this spring I dove off Mexico’s Revillagigedo Islands and explored the waters around Clipperton Island, a remote atoll off the coast of Baja. These experiences have affected how I look at the world, and have challenged how I see my place in it. Along with being incredible journeys to far-flung locations, they have both forced successive re-examinations of self, and their memories will continue to provide creative fodder forever. Upon my return from the Clipperton trip a few weeks ago, Zach Kaplan of Inventables, a business associate and friend of mine who is well aware of my fantastical exploits and rave reviews upon returns to work, suggested that I share my personal experience, with a focus on “how exploring new experiences can help one be more creative.

My job is such that I have the opportunity to think and talk a lot about creativity. It is very easy to focus on how to try to make yourself and others be creative and how to measure, schedule, quantify, and monetize it rather than on creating an environment which allows one to take creative action. In short, many people much more qualified than I, are writing about creativity and innovation these days. Since I make no claim on the creativity bourgeoisie, I decided to tackle the assignment from a personal perspective. My responses come from lessons learned on my own journey and upon which I am continually iterating. I have found that regularly and deliberately feeding the creative part of myself is basic to a purposeful life, my survival, and my evolution. When I ignore its import, I become apathetic, less compassionate, less productive, and lose confidence.

In order to properly answer Zach’s query, I have to start at the beginning and share the things that I find allow creativity to breed in my life: wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, and joy. I found that only in the context of those ingredients could I find a definition for what creativity means to me, and how new experiences influence it. Finally, I will share ways that I have found to keep creativity alive and fund inspiration in my life on a daily basis, and things that I do to help maximize the benefits of the new experiences in which I invest so much.

My Cycle of Discovery

I have found that people who easily create are those whose neural pathways have more pot-holed dirt roads than freeways, because they invest in cognitive infrastructure differently. They are great pattern recognizers; if you cannot discern the pattern, how can you purposefully subvert it? These people make a habit of taking the thought-road less travelled at every opportunity and, to them, nothing is ordinary. Most of us have lost, or never had, the ability to bushwhack naturally and perpetually through life this way, but it is never too late to step off the pavement. Doing so opens ourselves up to new experiences, and our lives to depths of the human condition that the majority overlook in their fight to simply survive. Too many are so focused on not being dead that they forget to live.

If it really is survival of the fittest, what recourse is there for those of us who would prefer more? In order to thrive, you cannot expect to remain immaculate. You cannot be content to let the sweet juice of life simply flow over you. You have to purposefully wring every succulent morsel of rot and wonderfulness from it. You have to end up sticky. In that context, simple survival feels grotesquely over-rated.

It is impossible to attempt to define creativity without at least touching on inspiration. While many people believe inspiration is a requisite for creativity, the former is not required, nor does it unilaterally beget the latter. “We tend to think of awakening as a single, dramatic event, but it is experienced most often during the small moments when we remember the present and return to our actual nature of kindness and joy.” (Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself) Inspiration does not strike like lightning but rather, given the opportunity, it will stubbornly and perpetually pervade the patterns of our lives. Inspiration has been blamed and beaten, and its purported elusiveness pined after, since the first time man had enough to eat and energy to spare. Most seek continued absolution for its absence, use its supposed scarcity as an excuse for laziness, complacency and conformity, and hang on to its myth as a crutch on their inevitable path to a paralyzed personality. Inspiration is not a royal pardon handed out to a lucky few with money and homage to pay. It cannot be bought. It is earned by deliberate actions.

I have never believed those who speak of freak, sporadic instances of inspiration that send them into frantic moments of ecstasy and to new heights of creative satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from the peace of knowing that creativity is at your fingertips at every moment. This is a learned lifestyle that comes only with conscious practice, a heightened self-awareness, and a constant openness to risk being changed by the everyday world around us. Personal creativity does not exist in a vacuum, but is only a fraction of something much grander. As with all natural things, it is part of something that waxes and wanes with a cadence, and is only sustainable as part of a cycle nourished by the elusive ingredients of wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, joy, and finally laughter. Because the definitions of these Sprites of Creativity tend to be amorphous, each meaning something different to different people based upon their personal experiences, I felt it important to begin by providing cogent clarification of how I personally perceive each one.

Ingredients of Creativity


One of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson, has this to say about the power of wonder: “Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses) Wonder is the primordial soup of modern emotional and cognitive evolution. It is the expectation of awe because, as humans with our capacious cognitive function, it is our due. Franck ties generic wonder to its speculative core in his simple quote: “Curiosity is dissolved in Wonder.” (Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation). Wonder is the potential from which experimental change crawls out on new legs and our person evolves. It is the impetus for seeking out new experiences and exploring unfamiliar landscapes, both physical and emotional. It is a heads up, ears perked, muscles taut, speculative movement towards somewhere other than where we currently are. It is the power of fear-free risk.


Curious penguin in Antarctica Left: Curious penguin in Antarctica
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

In kinematic terms, awe is the instant when a moving mechanism passes through equilibrium and contains the most stored energy of position, or potential energy. In the arc of a movement, awe is the pinnacle. It is the instant of stillness weighted with the inevitability of movement. This small stillness of matter allows one to feel most deeply the potential of momentum, of opportunity. In the presence of awe, extraneous baggage disintegrates and history and possibility balance on the pivot of a breath, inhalation is impossible for the press of the cosmos in your chest, and there is an absence of fear in the face of the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the unexplainable. Awe is a reaction brought on by the assault of something outside current instinct; this is an unexpected reaction to a fresh perspective. It is amazement that requires recovery. Again Winterson says it best, “They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could you ever recover from . . . it?" (Jeanette Winterson, The Passion)

Awe is the drug of genius and optimists but, if allowed, can make addicts of us all. Einstein refers to awe this way: “One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.” Awe addicts are what adrenaline junkies become when they outlast the folly of youth.

Wonder and awe, although often confused, are distinctly different to me. Wonder is the mental gymnastics of questioning, challenging, being infatuated by, and vexed with the unexplained, while awe is the act of being at peace with exactly those same things for the same basic reasons wonder causes pause. Awe is basking in the unknown and the mysterious because it caused you to wonder. A healthy balance of both is required for sustainable growth and creative output.

That you should recognize creativity from its yield is essential. In the sentence of my life, creativity is the verb to the noun of awe - it is the action I involuntarily make, or am compelled to take, following true awe. True creativity is not static and it is difficult to hide. These response actions tend to provide great individual satisfaction and a personal value easily recognizable without metrics.


Peace is the ability to be awed by everything, but overwhelmed by nothing. It is a state where the frantic falls away, and reaction is not just a choice between fight or flight.

I often struggle with how to establish a datum for my life that is constantly being elevated and influenced by the beauty around. How do I acknowledge both the magic of the world in one moment, and share the corporeal pain of friends in another, in a genuine, profound way, while not breaking upon my own gallows? How do I bend just the right amount with a practical flexibility in the face of reality, while not whipping around in life’s turbulences and tearing myself and those around me to shreds?

This is a problem of practical impossibility; there exists little in the natural world that allows an explanation of how to fend off the harshness of reality without donning the armor of cynicism. While survival is about incremental improvement, conservatively risking more than the least, and less than the most, those who thrive are after the game-changing play and are willing to speculate. They invest in experiences outside the survivalist boundaries and live to tell about it. Maybe that is why we humans are special. Maybe that is why we have so many facets at our disposal - mechanisms of deliberate physical, mental, and spiritual exploration. We have the gifts of time and energy, and the luxury to explore beyond the basic practicalities of Maslow. Basic species survival simply requires sex and luck but not wonder, not awe, and certainly not peace.

Admittedly, the din of the world can so often be deafening. While some both physically and metaphorically dismember themselves, and others eke out a false sense of equilibrium, yet still others remain whole while writing symphonies, growing gardens, painting masterpieces, and curing cancer. The differentiator is the ability to filter, to make and find peace.

Gratitude and Joy

Gratitude is both a feeling and an action, with the latter generally following the former. The feeling requires preparation followed by simple acceptance, while the action is conscious. A feeling of gratitude cannot upwell through exhaustion or a cluttered mind. Gratitude starts when you take the opportunity to hibernate, meditate, and rejuvenate. Clutter is banished when energy is invested in daily post-processing and emotional housekeeping. As negative emotions are composted, an optimistic anticipation is allowed to build, and gratitude bursts forth, followed closely by joy. Action is inevitable.

Gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder . . .” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts of Solitude) Gratitude is non-dogma and non-entity specific worship, and joy is simply gratitude unfettered. Gratitude is your chance to gift wonder like buttercups decorating a fallow field, and peace like a mystic at the spring fair. In a world where children are taught that nothing worth having is free, the act of giving thanks allows us to make something from nothing and then give it away for free. Thanksgiving strips you of residual selfishness, and joy eclipses imperfections. Together they make laughter and are the most creative thing you will ever do.


Being silly in the joy of the momentLeft: Being silly in the joy of the moment atop Mt. Pilchuck
Photo Credit: Heidi Kneller

In the chemistry of creativity, laughter is the energy released by the exothermic reaction of gratitude and joy combined. A molecule of each, touched off by a catalytic smile, rival even fission’s chain reaction. We should all learn to be alchemists.

This mad science leaves no room for the use of the fake laugh. Ideally, the real thing should be always there, just under the surface, only held in check by a thread of silk to keep you from appearing completely insane. It should manage to escape often on its own, like water from a leaky faucet and, when you choose to loose it, the world will silence to feel its healing. This does not mean that you do not live in reality. It does not mean you are unbearably positive nor that you never cry. It does not mean you are immune to fear, depression, uncertainty, loneliness, low self-esteem, anger, or heartache. Or reality. It just means that you recognize that there are always going to be those things around you, and sometimes even in you, but you do not make space for them to stay long. You do not let them get comfortable. It just means they are only ever squatters in your hall of laughter. While there is very little about joy that involves control, true joy requires strength. That line between sanity and madness is so very thin. The trick is to dance on that line with as much gusto, joy, and abandon as is in you and to be strong enough to choose the time and the side of the line off which you will fling yourself. “Beneath the garments of the world is joy.” (Hugh Prather, Spiritual Thoughts to Myself)

Creativity Defined

Creativity is the verb to the noun of awe: it is the action I involuntarily make, or am compelled to take, following true awe. Creativity is that simple; it is a response action inspired by awe. What makes thinking about it so complex is that, for me to be creative, I require all those elusive ingredients of wonder, awe, peace, gratitude, joy, and laughter. When I am creative, the output takes so many forms that recognizing creativity almost requires one to be creative. It is not surprising the attention the subject is receiving these days. Circular logic seldom makes good science.

What’s Next?
Now that we have some basic definitions in place, tomorrow’s discussion will center on the practical ways I have discovered to increase my personal creativity level.


Michael said…
You opened with quite a hyperbolic line that immediately alienated this reader:

"Scuba diving is space tourism for poor people..." and then you spouted off a list of exotic locales at which you partook of that expensive leisure activity.

Uh, I guess it all depends on how elites like yourself define "poor" - but from my "average American" perspective, Scuba diving anywhere, let alone at those destinations, is as unlikely as taking a ride on a space shuttle. You may wish to try such a line in better economic times.

I'm sure the rest of the post was great . . . but the opening turned me off enough to pass on spending my time reading it.

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