5 Principles of Creativity

5 Principles of Creativity

Create February 10, 2013 / By Greg Satell
5 Principles of Creativity

"Creative geniuses tend to be less the ones with the quickest answers and more the ones who keep working till they get it right."

Back in the 1880’s, Frederick Winslow Taylor was able to make dramatic gains in efficiency by timing workers performing rote tasks.  His efforts spawned the idea and practice of scientific management.

Alas, these days routine jobs, even white collar ones such as bookkeeping, legal research and basic medical diagnoses are increasingly being automated by computer. Others fall prey to globalization and are outsourced.
So to compete in today’s marketplace, you have to be able to create. That’s much different than just working faster or harder or longer.  The good news is that, while we can’t all be a Picasso or a Mozart, there are some simple principles we can follow that will enhance our ability originate ideas that are truly new and important.


1. Define and Distill The Problem

Einstein once said that “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.” It’s important to build in constraints that will frame a possible solution and, as Robert Weisberg points out in his book Creativity, brainstorming often fails for exactly this reason

Moreover, as I pointed out in an earlier post about technology, the things we create are not monolithic, but combinations of components.  So if your are searching for creative solutions, it’s important that you frame and target an area ripe for innovation.

Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is only valuable in service of some goal, whether that is a particular idea to be expressed in a painting or a poem, value created by a new business model or the brand to be promoted in a marketing campaign.  Simply throwing around crazy ideas never accomplishes anything.

2. Learn The Rules Before You Set Out To Break Them

While we commonly view creativity as the product of brilliant flashes, the reality is exactly the opposite.  This paper details a wealth of research that suggests that creativity comes only after years of preparation.  Harvard’s Howard Gardner reported similar results in his study chronicling seven of histories greatest geniuses, Creating Minds.

And it’s not only a matter of putting in your time.  As Anders Ericsson describes in his highly cited, decades long study, it takes deliberate practice, which involves working on weak areas, seeking out feedback and continual improvement.  No day at the beach!

There are, of course, stories of brilliant innovations coming from seemingly instant insights.  However, as this article shows, in reality either the innovator in question had been working on the problem for a long time or that they had intense knowledge of the subject matter that alerted them to the significance of a happy accident.

The evidence on this point couldn’t be clearer.  Successful creative people spend years learning their fields before they begin to change them.  So if you want to create something truly new and different, your best bet is to start by learning your field extremely well.

3. Cross Domains

While deep knowledge of a specific field is important, it is not enough  In fact, research suggests that many professionals actually get worse over time.  Just as familiarity breeds contempt, constant exposure to similar fact patterns produces lazy thinking.

As I’ve written before, breakthrough innovation happens when ideas are synthesized from more than one domain.  Pick any important discovery, whether it is Darwin and natural selection, Picasso and cubism, Einstein and relativity and invariably they used concepts from two or more fields.

Increasingly, real world innovation is reflecting this reality.  Some of the world’s most exciting research is happening now at the Sante Fe Institute, which was set up specifically for interdisciplinary investigation.  In a similar vein, most software today is developed using Agile and Scrum methods, both of which emphasize cross-functional teams.

If you’re looking for answers to hard questions, it always helps to broaden your search.

4. Hedge Your Bets

We often see great innovators as big dreamers, who through caution to the wind and bet everything on one big idea.  The reality is much more complicated than that.

Probably the greatest burst of creativity the world has ever seen was Einstein’s miracle year in which he unleashed three papers which changed the world.  In one, he proved the existence of the atom by explaining Brownian motion.  In another, he described the photoelectric effect and proposed the existence of light quanta.  The third was his famous paper of special relativity.

The impact of these papers was almost unimaginable.  They spawned innovations such as nuclear power, lasers, i-Pods, GPS devices, and much more.  However, there was a fourth, often forgotten paper that described how to determine the number of molecules in a liquid.  It was an important paper for the time, but in context it hardly seems worth the effort.

Why did he bother?  Because he still hadn’t earned his doctorate and needed a more conventional idea for his dissertation.  After all, his primary objective wasn’t to change history, but to get a job as a university professor!

5. Keep At It

Creativity is not something that comes easy, even to geniuses.  Immanuel Kant toiled in obscurity for most of his life when reading David Hume “awakened him from his slumbers.” Hume himself saw his first book, A Treatise on Human Nature  flop before he gained fame decades later (and today his Treatise is considered a masterwork)..

At the age of 35,the poet  Charles Bukowski lay penniless and near death in a charity ward from a bleeding ulcer that was caused by more than a decade of heavy drinking, tawdry rooming houses and questionable women.  Later, after he gained fame and fortune, a reporter asked him to what he owed his enormous success.  “Endurance,” he said.

And the evidence is not just anecdotal.  A study of musicians found that the number of masterpieces produced is highly correlated to overall productivity.  The more work you do, the better your work gets.

Finally, any serious review of paradigm breaking creative accomplishment is sure to find a pattern of constant revision.  Creative geniuses tend to be less the ones with the quickest answers and more the ones who keep working till they get it right.

This article originally appeared at DigitalTonto.

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