The combinatorial nature of creativity
When ideas fit together like LEGO bricks
‘Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. 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.’
~ Steve Jobs, Wired, February, 1996
‘The mind, at its best, is a pattern-making machine, engaged in a perpetual attempt to impose order on to chaos; making links between disparate entities or ideas in order to better understand either or both. It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person (or teacher) who is truly creative.’
~ Phil Beadle, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity, 2011
‘The first (principle is) that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.
(…) The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.
(…) Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.’
~ James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, 1939
‘When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you merely take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden political machinery behind the scenes.’
~ David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 2012
How to Find Creative Work
Those of us who aspire to work in a creative field often end up despairing that such roles seem so few and far between. Yet the search is less hopeless than it looks: we simply need to think more deeply about what ‘creativity’ really means.
The surprising, liberating side in analysing your search for a job by what pleasures you seek is that it reveals that it can never be a particular industry sector that’s the key to finding a job we can love. Because when properly understood, a creative pleasure is thankfully generic and can therefore truly turn up in many different and initially unexpected places. Careful knowledge of what we love sets us free to love more widely.
A lovely video from The School of Life.
A 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas
Since we mention in the first part of the newsletter the book of James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, first published in 1939, maybe it is of interest that we write a bit more about it.
James Webb Young was an advertising man by profession but also a deeply curious and cross-disciplinary thinker at heart. In his book he lays out the five steps necessary in his opinion for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes and so on.
In short, the five steps he describes are:
Gathering raw material
Young talks about the importance of building a rich pool of ‘raw material’ — mental resources from which to build new combinations: Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.
Digesting the material
What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.
It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.
When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
The ‘a-ha!’ moment
Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.
Idea meets reality
It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.
When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
We recommend the book, it’s short and to the point and the steps can be applied in all domains of work, not just the ‘creative’ ones.
*By the way, you can watch live footage of the Beatles Abbey Road zebra crossing. The camera was set up in 2010 by the Abbey Road Studios and has been running ever since.