Great article from this weekends WSJ!
We tend to assume that experts are the creative geniuses in their own fields. But big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders. For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of expertise.
Although we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine—this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.
And this is why relaxation helps: It isn’t until we’re soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we’re able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain’s right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer.
As Einstein once declared, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”
Of course, not every creative challenge requires an epiphany; a relaxing shower won’t solve every problem. Sometimes, we just need to keep on working, resisting the temptation of a beer-fueled nap.
There is nothing fun about this kind of creativity, which consists mostly of sweat and failure. It’s the red pen on the page and the discarded sketch, the trashed prototype and the failed first draft. Nietzsche referred to this as the “rejecting process,” noting that while creators like to brag about their big epiphanies, their everyday reality was much less romantic. “All great artists and thinkers are great workers,” he wrote.
But this raises an obvious question: If different kinds of creative problems benefit from different kinds of creative thinking, how can we ensure that we’re thinking in the right way at the right time? When should we daydream and go for a relaxing stroll, and when should we keep on sketching and toying with possibilities?
The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions “feelings of knowing,” and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we’re getting “warmer” or not, without knowing the solution.
If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.
Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.”
Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.
How can people get better at making these kinds of connections? Mr. Jobs argued that the best inventors seek out “diverse experiences,” collecting lots of dots that they later link together. Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.
Such solutions are known as “mental restructurings,” since the problem is only solved after someone asks a completely new kind of question. What’s interesting is that expertise can inhibit such restructurings, making it harder to find the breakthrough. That’s why it’s important not just to bring new ideas back to your own field, but to actually try to solve problems in other fields—where your status as an outsider, and ability to ask naive questions, can be a tremendous advantage.
For the first time in human history, it’s becoming possible to see how to throw off more sparks and how to make sure that more of them catch fire. And yet, we must also be honest: The creative process will never be easy, no matter how much we learn about it. Our inventions will always be shadowed by uncertainty, by the serendipity of brain cells making a new connection.
Every creative story is different. And yet every creative story is the same: There was nothing, now there is something. It’s almost like magic.
Books I added to my wishlist:
- The Creative Time of Day (saintleoinkblot.com)