What A Seemingly Silly Question Can Teach Us About Creative SuccessShare
Unlikely as it may seem, an absurd question about monkeys and typewriters has a lot to teach us about creativity.
There’s an old brainteaser that muses the following: If you gathered an infinite number of monkeys together and gave each a typewriter, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Before answering that question, ponder this one: Why do we even ask such questions?
True enough, anyone seemingly silly pondering like this can spur entertaining happy hour chatter. But taken together they represent something more. They remind us of who we are as creative beings and more importantly, how when it comes to creativity we too often veer towards monkey versus mastery.
At the simplest level, the monkeys and typewriters puzzle reflects two powerful and uniquely human capacities (at least as far as we know): our capacity for inquiry, and our ability to think about the future. Inquiry reveals our aptitudes for curiosity and investigation. But taken alone, such abilities don’t stand out. The proof is ample that other species pursue these things in their own ways. As human beings, it is our distinct ability to think about the future and things yet unknown that sets us apart as truly creative beings. Each of us has the capacity, even the inclination to wonder about “what could be”, and therefore the power not to be bound by “what is”. Thinking about monkeys typing? Why not? Wondering if they could produce 37 classic plays and 154 beautiful sonnets? Even if we have trouble seeing just how that would happen, it is in our nature to imagine and to inquire.
But the infinite monkey theorem, as it is sometimes called, reflects more than simply who we are. In 3 ways it helps humanize our tendency to hold back our creative selves.
The Fiction of Formula. When someone asks the typing monkeys question, the odds are solid that someone else will want to know the odds of it being possible precisely. Proving the point, mathematicians have actually worked out that the answer to the monkey mystery is yes – not theoretically, not in principal, just plain, simple, and unequivocally, yes. Because their answer comes with proofs, probabilities, and a mathematical seal of approval, for many this initially appears an infinitely satisfying answer. As much as we like to wonder, we like certainty too – so much so that even when it comes to creativity we hope for and want to believe there’s a formula. But there are no formulas for that which is truly new. So even when we can ‘do the numbers’, it is not the same as engaging in the unpredictable, often messy journey that has the highest odds of producing a truly creative result.
The Limits of the Lab. Though it alone won’t carry us into a bright, new, and creative future, the side of us that seeks a formula is valuable. We cannot ideate eternally. Inevitably we need to mine our imagination for the tangible. Beyond logical thought, we must also take action – even when it comes to “out there” questions about monkeys and human tools and tales. In 2003, a group of scientists at the University of Plymouth left a computer keyboard and six monkeys together in an enclosure for a month. The monkeys did produce – 5 pages to be exact, and mostly consisting of the letter ‘s’, not quite Shakespeare, or even Act I, line one, or word one of Romeo and Juliet. The lead male monkey also channeled the group to achieve what it did by modeling for the others beating the keyboard with a stone and occasionally to relieving themselves on it as well. Contrary to the mathematicians, the scientists concluded that the answer to the primate posit was, no. Either way, they pursued the question no further and in doing so, unintentionally revealed another limiting factor we humans too often impose on our creative selves: If we don’t get what we expect, we too quickly move on. As with seeking a formula, in certain circumstances moving on is not only acceptable but also wise. But creativity is different. When creating, a hunch is one thing. A hard and fast expectation of the outcome is something else. Creativity is an ongoing experimentation, one that must most often be entered into without a clear sense of where our questions, thoughts, and explorations will end up. The key is less the immediate result, and more the willingness to have come to our edges to see what might yet be.
What We’re Really After. Like many such posits, the typing monkeys one reflects larger themes and patterns – ones we’d be wise to stay tuned into when it comes to creativity and seeking to realize our fullest creative potential. And one of those themes matters most of all: To raise your odds of a truly creative outcome you have to know what you’re really after. Ultimately, the ape aptitude question is really about challenging one’s mind to consider something beyond the obvious. We don’t really need to know the precise answer. We ask it as a means of “going there”, that is somewhere beyond our realm to see what may lie there. It’s in our nature, and it’s key to creativity too. Creativity is less about the specific end result (something we simply cannot know in advance), and far more about the practice that leads us to what we really want –not to a single creative output, but many creative outputs, in countless applications, stretched over time. Trying to reduce creativity to something less than that is, well, just monkeying around.
Article Featured Image @Florian Klauter (Unsplash)
Larry Robertson is the author of two award-winning books: ‘The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity’ and ‘A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress’. He’s the founder of two ventures, one for-profit and one non, and a highly respected thought leader in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, advising individuals and organizations across a broad spectrum. Larry is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.