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VCU creativity expert Alex McKay discusses his philosophy on creativity — and explains why procrastination and creative thinking often don’t mix. (Getty Images)

What makes something creative? Do you know it when you see it?

A VCU creativity expert explains this equivocal concept — and why procrastination and creative thinking often don’t mix.

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After being derailed by a series of unfortunate events — working for a band (Skywind never quite hit the big time) and as a sponsored snowboarder (sidelined by a knee injury) — Alexander McKay, Ph.D., decided to go to school. He ended up at California State University San Bernardino, where he earned a master’s degree in experimental psychology and, more importantly, meet James Kaufman, Ph.D., a renowned psychologist known for his study of creativity.

“As soon as I met him, and I realized that [creativity] was something you could do, I became immediately fascinated by it and jumped on board and started doing it,” McKay said.

It was the right choice for McKay, the 2019 recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Frank X. Barron Award. The award, named for the notable creativity researcher, honors superior contributions to a psychology of aesthetics, creativity and the arts.

After McKay earned his Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from The Pennsylvania State University in 2018, he joined the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, where he teaches Creativity & Ideation. McKay’s research focuses on what makes someone innovative and what makes people evaluate someone or something as innovative.

He spoke with VCU News about his current research and what you should know about creativity.

What are some things you learned about creativity that were surprising and that a layperson would not know?

I still remember one of the first conversations I had with someone after I started pursuing the research of creativity. He was an artist, more amateur, but trying to become professional. I told him I was studying creativity and this person actually got frustrated with that idea, that you could study it and measure it, quantify it, sort of boil it down.

I’ve encountered that many times. Even last semester, I was teaching my class. At the start, I asked how many people think you can measure creativity. Very few people raised their hands. By the end [of the semester], that was completely changed. As you boil it down and talk about it, different things that influence whether you see it or don't see it [come out]. Even for me growing up, I had that mindset too: You can't study it, it’s not possible. I think learning that has been a big layperson [misconception] that persists even to this day.

How do you define creativity and is there an optimum definition of it?

It's still the more academic definition: Is it something that's both novel and useful? It's definitely hard to boil down exactly what that means sometimes, because when you see it, you know it. But at the same time, some things are just high in novelty and aren't really useful, and sometimes that can be confused with creativity. Those are all great things, but “is that really creativity” becomes the distinction in the conversation.

In terms of different views, a lot of it comes down to this agreement among experts within a domain. If they believe it's creative then it most likely is, because they [have] the knowledge of what's been previously done and what's actually a contribution that benefits the domain in which it's being created.

So is there a checklist of things? If it meets these five criteria, then it's creative.

I don't think you can just boil it down to a checklist. I think there's definitely subjectivity to it. I think you have to both welcome it, but have a healthy respect that it is still a subjective process. That's one reason I really prefer the view that it's basically an agreement among experts.

Independently making an assumption was developed by a big-time creativity researcher named Teresa Amabile, who just retired from Harvard Business School. She developed what's referred to as the consensual assessment technique for evaluating creativity. It's still very much a subjective process, but then if you have this independent agreement, it sort of boils down to, “Yeah, it's most likely creative.”

Are you working on any research now that you can share?

I'm working on some research looking at meta-analyses. They're basically a quantitative, systematic review of previous research that's been done. The ones that I have been doing focus more on training creativity and boiling down what about the training helps improve creativity. There've been so many different types of training that had been proposed for creativity. Some work better than others as has been shown. And so myself and a couple of colleagues are trying to boil down exactly what it is that impacts that.

The other thing I'm working on, which I'm just interpreting the results right now, is looking at what are called temporal individual differences and how that relates to creative achievement, and also engagement in creative activities. Temporal individual differences are how we work and interact with time in our daily lives and work. There's what is called time urgency. It's “do we feel that we have this internal pressure to get things done as quick as possible.” We get a task and we set these very short internal deadlines that really impact whether we're going to complete something.

Then there's pacing style. Let's say you get a task and there's a deadline that’s maybe two months out. Pacing style determines … how you approach the project with that deadline in mind. So right when you get the project, do you spend all of your energy trying to get it all done right away, which is called an early action pacing style, or are you more of a procrastinator where you wait until the last possible minute to get things done? Those are called the deadline action style.

Then you have a steady action style where you divvy up and split the requirements and the workload across the entire project timeline. Then there is also polychronicity, which is whether you have a preference for multitasking. The last one is temporal focus. That is whether you think or engage in thought that's more in the past or the future, or even in the present. How these relate to creative achievement is something I have been working on.

Are any of those groups that you named more creative than the others? For instance, if you're a procrastinator, is your work more creative?

Some of the work with procrastination indicates that it's generally negatively related to creativity. Primarily because, for the most part, creativity takes a lot of time and if you leave all of that work to the last minute, you're not going to necessarily see that same benefit. So that's one thing that's been shown — procrastination is generally not good. But at the same time, taking time to step back from what you're working on, doing some work and taking a break and coming back to it, even if nothing else, your brain is still working on the problem a little bit. … But if you wait to do it all at the last minute, then you can only produce the easy thing that's usually not very creative.