Question The Root Of Creativity
I realized that I’ve been thinking about creativity all wrong. You might be too. The definition of creativity goes like this:
“The use of imagination or original ideas to solve a problem.”
That definition puts stress and pressure on you to create. You must invent something from thin air. You will solve a problem that no one else could solve.
I don’t think that definition is right. I’ve been happier and more creative when I think about the process of creativity as an import-export business.
Before I get to how to use that system to your advantage, let me explain why the use of imagination and original ideas is overrated and impractical.
Imagination Implies A State Of Mind
“Come on! Use your imagination!” we’re told. “Think outside the box!”
It’s commonplace to believe that imagination is something that you turn “on”. We search for a muse and hope that they join us. Once they arrive, once creativity is “on,” we tell ourselves — we’ll have all the answers.
Marketing guru Seth Godin said,
“I don’t believe in the muse at all. I don’t think there’s any outside force….”
After all, how is telling someone to use their imagination different from telling them to use their brain?
No Such Thing As Original
Everything that’s being done has already been done.
Kobe Bryant is quoted saying,
“there isn’t a move — that’s a new move”
Mark Twain generations before said,
“There’s no such thing as a new idea. It’s impossible.”
With no new ideas, no new moves, what’s going on? Is history repeating itself?
University of Northwestern Professor, Brian Uzzi, in the book, “Better, Faster, Stronger” by Charles Duhigg,
“A lot of people we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen. They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries and groups.”
So if we throw out the definition of creativity, what, as creatives are we suppose to do? How do we justify our work and explain what is happening?
The Art Of Connection
Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs said,
“New ideas are formed by combining old ideas.”
Charlie Munger calls the process of collecting ideas, “building your latticework.” The framework you can hang key concepts across and link through a variety of situations and domains.
To finish quoting Mark Twain,
“We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Creativity is an import-export business. We collect our data, we build our latticework, we collect pieces of colored glass to find new combinations that solve our problems.
So how do you do that?
Austin Kleon, in his book, “Steal Like an Artist” talks about climbing your family tree. Study everything you can about a particular thinker or maker. Then figure out who inspired and taught them. Study those people. And so on and so on.
As you climb the tree, take notes. A method that I’ve been using the longest was inspired by writer, Ryan Holiday. Notecards in recipe boxes. A blurb here, a concept, or a quote there. Make a card and categorize it accordingly.
If you look at people who lead with expertise it’s easy to see how they’ve climbed the trees of their idols and constantly turn the mental kaleidoscope. NFL head coach Bill Belichick is quoted saying,
“I’ve forgotten more about football than you’ve ever learned.”
That’s what a human sounds like when they have confidence in their import system.
Now that you have you’ve imported it’s up to you to recontextualize, remix, and substitute the parts to fit your situation.
Famed design studio IDEO has a method they like to use called analogous thinking. By shifting your focus to a new context, you might make a connection you didn’t see before.
What might a NASCAR pit crew have in common with a surgical team in an operating room? What do Google maps, Gardening, and Sports Coaches have in common? How might that inform the new mentor program we’d like at our organization?
US Air Force fighter pilot, John Boyd called this exercise Destruction and Creation. Imagine a skier on a slope, a speed boat, a bike, and a tank. Could you take the skis from the skier, the motor from the boat, the handlebars from the bike, and part of the track from the tank to make a snowmobile?
Connect The Dots
“We can only connect the dots looking backward…” - Steve Jobs
But in an import-export business when you know more dots, it helps you understand and pick the best path forward.
It’s not about thinking outside the box, it’s about knowing all the possible boxes and then comparing them to one other.
It takes all the pressure out of the moment and makes it about the work you’ve put in already and your collective experience.
Knowing all the metaphorical boxes, the dots, recycling the glass in the kaleidoscope, you’ll get to the right place with your project. If you don’t feel good, rather than getting creative, work on your import-export.