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Do original thoughts exist? Who has them? What are they? Where do we get ideas? When do we get them and how? Are we ourselves just an idea? These questions may seem to belong in the realm of physicists and philosophers (see Max Tegmark The Mathematical Universe) or literary geniuses like Jorge Borges ( see The Library of Babel). But, the questions are relevant for everyone. At Think in the Morning we are required on a regular basis to come up with new ideas for our blogs. Where ideas come from and how we can get more of them is a practical concern for us. Creativity is a BIG subject. The innovations produced by creative minds like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein impact all our lives. We can only scratch the surface here but our hope is to inspire your creativity. Everyone can be creative.
Where do innovators come from? Every possible background. Just as it is impossible to predict what the next new idea will be, it’s impossible to know which corner of the globe it will come from. Inborn talent is not favored in some communities over others. Fifty years of creativity testing has found no difference in the results for economically deprived or minority children: they share the same spectrum of creative abilities as the affluent … It is critical to water the seeds in every neighborhood. David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt,The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
Our thoughts on the subject come from several sources: author/biographer Walter Isaacson, neuroscientist and author David Eagleman and his collaborator composer Anthony Brandt, media theorist Steven Johnson to name just a few. How can we nurture creativity in ourselves and in our children? Playful learning is something stressed by almost every source we consulted. Contrary to what many think, creativity is not just for the young. As Walter Isaacson said (see video at the bottom), we move out of our wonder years too quickly. “For their first two years we spend all our effort getting our children to stand up and talk. After that we spend all our time telling them to shut up and sit down.” Richard Scarry’s Busytown song says it all. People at all ages should be asking Who What When Where Why How. We are going to use a lot of videos in this post. Some are long but we think they are worth your time. Grab a cup of coffee or wine or whatever you prefer and watch, listen, enjoy. We hope you will learn something useful about creativity and maybe put some of what you learn to work in the years ahead.
People ask what the secret is, or what model you have to follow, and I would say that Steve Jobs was very different from Benjamin Franklin, but they were each geniuses in their own way. There is no one model or set of traits, and that is why we get to write biographies as opposed to books on the set of traits you need to be a good creative leader. I don’t like books that try to tell you, “Here are the seven secrets to success.” Walter Isaacson
There is no one size fits all and no list of seven secrets to becoming creative. There are many things to pick and choose from. Dr. Henning Beck is a neuroscientist. In a short Ted Talk (What is a Thought? How the Brain Creates New Ideas) he sets the stage for our discussion.
Beck does a good job of explaining why our brain is not only better than a computer at coming up with new ideas but also different in the way it processes data—analog rather than digital. He says our brains make mistakes, that they are “slow, irrational and imperfect” but that this is actually what makes them better at producing ideas and solving problems. TITM wrote about the importance of making mistakes HERE. He emphasizes the importance of taking breaks, stepping back and taking in the whole picture, and getting out of the “echo chamber” of similar ideas. He points out that new ideas often arise during routine tasks like showering, driving, or watching sporting events.
What I love about watching baseball is that I get a lot of ideas for fiction while doing it … Baseball is — I was just reading, actually, about how there’s this wish to speed up baseball — which I think is, I mean in my humble, very uneducated opinion, a terrible idea, because the whole point of baseball is that it’s slow. And it’s great people watching, watching baseball all over the country. Just watching the people who go to the games. It’s totally fascinating. Jennifer Egan
Getting out of the echo chamber means avoiding confirmation bias. We all like to hang out with friends who hold similar opinions. Facebook thrives on this as does Twitter and Russian election hacking. But, it is useful to provoke yourself from time to time to see things from the other side. Charles Darwin worked on this constantly. He even developed an orderly process to deal with evidence that conflicted with his prior beliefs.
Charles Darwin used to say that whenever he ran into something that contradicted a conclusion he cherished, he was obliged to write the new finding down within 30 minutes. Otherwise his mind would work to reject the discordant information, much as the body rejects transplants. Man’s natural inclination is to cling to his beliefs, particularly if they are reinforced by recent experience–a flaw in our makeup that bears on what happens during secular bull markets and extended periods of stagnation.
Ideas come from many places including all that we’ve seen and read and discussed with others. Ideas have some beginning but they don’t come out of the blue. They gestate for days, months, years before they come to fruition. There is no single approach to gaining inspiration. Instead there are many individual methods creative people use to come up with their ideas. The short clip below lists a few such methods. The folks at Freakonomics (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner) discuss several more in their fascinating podcast on Creativity.
I’ve learned that ideas come from life … When you see things you need to think more about how to make them better. Pei Yuechen
Steven Johnson wrote a book on the subject of ideas, innovation and creativity (Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation). Some of the key lessons are in his Ted Talk below. We at Think in the Morning are particularly pleased with Johnson’s emphasis on the role of social contact in places like The Coffee Shop. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir got many of their ideas at the famous Café de Flore. We like to think the Napkin Artists found inspiration at their table in the Sea Gull Cellar Bar while many locals tried out their new ideas in the Sea Gull Coffee Shop. The value of social contact in spurring creativity is discussed in The Strange Scientific Connection Between Coffee Shops and Creativity. Or in Do You Get Your Best Work Done in Coffee Shops … Here’s Why. There is even an app you can buy if you can’t visit a coffee shop (why on earth I don’t know how this could be) to mimic the sound and environment (see Coffitivity). Here is how Johnson frames his views on creativity.
Good ideas are not only useful but they often lead to new ideas. That’s one reason why creativity is, according to Eagleman and Brandt, increasing at a rapid rate. They claim in their book that just as we moved from a manufacturing economy into an information economy, we are now moving into a creativity economy.
I was one of those kids who just always wanted to know how the world worked. See the owner’s manual. How does this whole operation happen? … This is one of these really weird aspects, I think, of basic science, that almost every time we’ve learned something really deep about how the world works, it’s ended up not only providing us with a huge philosophical satisfaction, but somehow it makes us more capable. We seem to be able to do things differently as we learn these odd ways in which the world is actually built and constructed. Saul Perlmutter
I usually have a large — I mean, a particular question in mind. Maybe it isn’t, “What is the answer to this thing?” but: “Why do we do this to one another? Why is it so hard to really love another person — not just strangers but the people we love? Why is it so hard to keep loving them sometimes? Why is it so hard to love ourselves?” Those kinds of questions. You can’t get an answer to that, but it can certainly set you in motion. Tracy K. Smith
To keep this post at a manageable length, we will end with two long videos. The first is an interview with David Eagleman. The second is an interview with Walter Isaacson. Eagleman is a frenetic thinker who has no down time because he always has a stable of ideas circling around his head on something like a lazy susan. He emphasizes the unconscious in creativity: “Consciousness is the broom closet in the mansion of the brain.” He operates at a blazing pace requiring you to pay close attention. Isaacson is the consummate historian. In this clip he discusses Leonardo da Vinci the Renaissance Man, why he had so many fascinating ideas and how the environment that spawned him was necessary for his ideas to flourish.
You meet a lot of smart people and then you realize smart people are a dime a dozen. They don’t usually amount to much. It’s creative people … What is creativity and how do you achieve it? The essence of it is being able to love all disciplines when you stand at the intersection of all disciplines. Walter Isaacson
We’re not sure how to end this post most effectively. Like Walter Isaacson, We disdain lists. Inspirational and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins have never appealed to us. While they sometimes bring real benefits to the table they too often seem shallow and superficial. But a list as a starting point for discussion or thought can be useful. So, a list it is. Here in no particular order are some key concepts I wrote down while preparing this blog. Feel free to ignore them or to use them as you please.
Methods to get ideas
Get out of the echo chamber
Think while doing routine tasks
Avoid confirmation bias
Immerse yourself in social situations
Consider your environment: the adjacent possible (what is possible)
Ideas develop over time as slow hunches not sudden breakthroughs
Platforms, templates and patterns can help (many musicians, artists, and authors use them)
Large networks create connections
Collaboration as important as competition
Luck: (Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Seneca)
Serendipitous discoveries occur in shared spaces
Allow room for error: (In automated behavior, error is a failure; in creative thinking, it is a necessity. David Eagleman)
Reinvent or reuse the old in new ways (bending, breaking, blending: Eagleman)
Both exterior (the arts) and interior (technology) stimuli are required
Research and new technology open new possibilities
Weird incidents can shock the mind in creative ways
Problems in search of a solution lead to innovation
Novelty that works
Troublemakers shake up the mind
Analogy and metaphor blend things in new ways
Tolerate mistakes: (Theoretical physicist Andrew Loeb in Where Do Ideas Come From writes that ideas are “nurtured by informal dialogues in environments where mistakes are tolerated and critical thinking is encouraged.” He goes on to say: “Ideas originate from pregnant minds, just as babies emerge from the bellies of their mothers. What makes the mind fertile? For one thing, it is the freedom to venture without the confines of traditional thinking or the burden of practical concerns. If a quantum system is probed too often, it tends to stay in the same state.” Another thing, “too many interruptions (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TV, etc) corrupt the system.”)
Don’t give up (consider Edison, James Dyson, etc)
Ideas can occur when you sleep or wake up
Good Conversation always helps
Quiet and solitude can be useful within limits
Get moving, exercise is good for the brain
Even the most mundane activities provide opportunities
Water the seeds, you never know which will sprout
Creativity requires feeling free
Try everything and see what sticks
We all have an intrinsic urge for self expression
Some structure is ok but not too much
Much creative thinking occurs in the subconscious
Allow yourself to be out of control up to a point
Creativity follows a nonlinear path
Be willing to have your mind boggled
Allow a constant stream of what-ifs
Be cognitively flexible
Nurture both skills and imagination
Repetition suppression, familiarity breeds indifference, surprise can be disorienting: find the sweet spot between novelty and familiarity.
Memory plays an important role
Surprising combinations can provide unexpected results
Culture matters, open is better than closed
Time and place matter
Break the good (be willing to scrap your best ideas when they cease to be useful)
Don’t glue down the pieces, be accepting of change
Allow dead ends even if they are expensive
Tolerate risks prudently
Scout to different distances like ants or bees
Move further away from the source
Encourage creative risk taking, praise efforts not results
Engage and inspire
Make work meaningful
Have an audience
Be curious and observant
Science and art: (Have two majors, one in the humanities or arts and one in the hard sciences. Walter Isaacson)
Here’s to the misfits and the heretics, they encourage out of the box thinking
You don’t have to be born with it, everyone can be creative
Daydream, imagine, fantasize
Do not silo knowledge, see the patterns across nature
Time and place, the environment of creativity
Reality eventually catches up with your imagination
Don’t outgrow your wonder years, try to figure stuff out