But is that really how creativity works? Does innovation strike like lightning? And are the best ideas even original?
The answer is no. What we think of as creative inspiration is really a creative process that often involves lateral thinking. What appears to be novelty is actually recombination. The geniuses who advance society are, in fact, brilliant remixers. And, most importantly, it is a skill that can be learned.
It seems counterintuitive, but the best ideas are creative recombinations and their originators are masters of cut and paste. What better example than the most radically transformative piece of technology of the last century—the computer?
The earliest computer can be traced back to the industrial era, to an eccentric British tinkerer named Charles Babbage. In the 1820s he worked obsessively on something he called the “Difference Engine,” a machine he assembled in a former stable behind his house (an uncanny precursor to the Silicon Valley garage).
Capable of solving polynomial equations, the Difference Engine was a complex mechanism with vertical shafts and disks that had to be turned to input numbers. The machine was never finished, however, as Babbage became captivated with a new idea. The “Analytical Engine” was designed as a general-purpose machine that could be programmed to calculate almost anything—essentially, a computer.
How did he conceive of something as futuristic as programming? Well, he remixed it. At the time, the Industrial Revolution was in full tilt, spurred by inventions such as mechanical looms for weaving. Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French engineer, had recently transformed the textile industry with a mechanical loom that could be programmed to weave complex patterns using a punch card—like a set of instructions. Babbage saw an opportunity to use the same technology to feed numbers to the Analytical Engine.
Fast-forward a century, to idea-sharing hotbeds such as Xerox Parc and Bell Labs. Materials scientists worked side by side with electrical engineers and mathematicians. This was a fertile environment for ideas, where remixing, transposing, and aggregating led to breakthroughs such as the transistor and the microprocessor, both of which were milestones in the history of computing.
The greatest of all computer remixes (call it theft, inspiration, or opportunism) was, of course, Steve Jobs and the graphical user interface, or GUI. On a tour of Xerox Parc, Jobs was captivated by a side project he saw—a new way of interacting with computers by using a desktop, complete with folders and a pointer for navigating.
Jobs was electrified, reportedly shouting “You’re sitting on a gold mine. I can’t believe Xerox is not taking advantage of this!” He cleverly combined the idea of Xerox’s GUI with streamlined design and a customer-friendly user experience, and Apple took the world by storm.
In the words of Steve Jobs, “creativity is just connecting things”—but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial. Geniuses go through the difficult process of negotiating a jumble of ideas, possibilities, and inputs, spotting how they can be brought together into something new. Paula Scher, a prolific graphic designer, likens it to a slot machine. All your existing experiences, skills, ideas, and thoughts are tumbling around in your head, and creativity is pulling the lever to see what combines and matches with the project at hand. Sometimes you hit a jackpot.
“You’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward—in a new way—things you’ve already done,” says Scher.
Debunking the myth of original inspiration and replacing it with a process of clever recombination means creativity can be learned, and it depends on three interrelated factors:
1. Becoming a sponge. Great ideas depend on gathering rich and varied input. The key is to make absorption a habit. We encounter new things every day, but we often tune them out. Great innovators eagerly examine anything and everything they come across, even if it seems far outside their fields.
“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences,” said Steve Jobs in an interview with Wired. “So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
2. Jumping into vibrant environments and inhabiting places rife with the new and the unexpected. The world would be a different place if Babbage had not taken the time to visit a textile factory, if Bell Labs metallurgists did not have coffee with mathematicians, and if Steve Jobs had not spotted the quirky interface at Xerox.
Some environments have even been created for exactly this purpose. TED conferences, for example, bring ideas together in a vibrant nexus. (TED is a collection of tiny 15-minute fragments of people’s lifework that all mix and tumble together, perhaps sparking something new.) In his TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson comments on the experience, “If you look at the interactions of a human brain . . . intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. In fact, creativity . . . more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”
3. Connecting the dots. With a grab bag of inputs from a stimulating environment, great ideas are the remixes. Inspiration doesn’t come in a flash, nor is it a reliable and linear progression. True creative breakthroughs happen when unlikely things are unexpectedly linked by lateral thinking. Visionaries are simply people who are open to collecting and connecting ideas.
Einstein himself—the very symbol of inspired genius—called it combinatory play, saying: “It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play . . . But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”
Let’s all learn to play Einstein’s game.
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