What is creativity?

Researchers usually define creativity as being both new and task-appropriate.

Being different is not enough! Let’s say I ask you to solve a mathematical proof in a creative way and you write “Fish are happy.” This response is new. It is different. It is unusual. It’s a little weird. But it’s not creative.

For something to be creative, it must also answer the right question.

There are other things that people think are part of creativity. Some say it should also be surprising. Others say that it should be of high quality. Still others say that there should be some level of public agreement.

Another conceptualization is that there are four ways that creativity can be studied (often called the Four P’s): Process, Product, Person, and Place. In other words, when we talk about creativity we might be talking about how to be creative (the process), what’s creative (the product), who’s creative (the person), and where and when we are creative (the place).

For a fuller discussion, see Creativity 101.


Kaufman, J. C. (2009). Creativity 101. New York: Springer.

What are some theories of creativity?

There are many, many theories about how to conceptualize creativity. I will highlight some of the ones by me and my colleagues.

The Four-C Model of Creativity

Created with Dr. Ron Beghetto.

The Four-C Model of Creativity looks at creativity as a developmental process.

Most conceptions of creativity tend to take one of two approaches: Big-C and little-c.

Big-C is creative genius. When you think of a classical composer, you probably think of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, or someone similar. They are all at the Big-C level.

little-c is everyday creativity. It is the creativity inherent in everyday life. It might be someone who writes music for fun.

What Ron and I argue is that this basic distinction omits two key levels:

mini-c is the creativity that happens in the learning process. It could be a child learning to write a song.

Pro-c is expert-level creativity. It might be someone who’s composed music that is currently popular.

The life of a creative writer, for example, might progress through these stages as follows:

At a young age, Sally learns about writing poetry and tries many different forms. She writes a sonnet, a Haiku, and free verse. These poems may not be particularly good, but they are meaningful to her. This is mini c.

As she advances, she gets better. Maybe she reads some poetry at a coffee house and gets some poems published in her college literary magazine. Other people see some value in her poetry. This is little-c (we sometimes call this “county fair creativity”).

Sally keeps improving. She gets an MFA and teaches poetry at a liberal arts college. She regularly publishes her work in respected journals. This is Pro-c.

If she is very talented and very lucky, Sally may eventually be considered a truly great poet. Even after she has died, her writing may be studied and enjoyed by generations to come. This is Big-C.

All of us have mini-c, and most of us can reach little-c. Many of us can attain Pro-c with enough work and training. Few of us will reach Big-C – which is okay. All levels and types of creativity are valuable.


Beghetto, R. A., & Kaufman, J. C. (2007). Toward a broader conception of creativity: A case for “mini-c” creativityPsychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 13-79.

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The Four C Model   of CreativityReview of General Psychology, 13, 1-12.