How To Unlock Creativity

How To Unlock Creativity

Science April 02, 2013 / By Greg Satell
How To Unlock Creativity

Creativity comes from combining ordinary things in extraordinary ways.

Do you know this guy on the left? Of course you do! The man, and in particular that photo, are icons. They represent creativity itself.

Yet Einstein is both an inspiration and an intimidation. His legend, unfortunately, has obscured much his story’s true value. He was, in many ways, unexceptional, but nevertheless managed to see the world differently and led others to do so as well.

Although obviously intelligent, he showed no special early aptitude. He was neither rich nor poor. While not tremendously popular as a child, he was no loner either. His extraordinarily genius was very much the product of a method and it is one which we can all follow.

Intense Domain Knowledge

Many believe that in order to be creative you must eschew conventional ideas and Einstein is often held up as an example. He isn’t.

Despite apocryphal stories that he failed math class, Einstein was a good, if unruly, student. He studied physics intensely, worked towards a doctorate and sought out a job as an ordinary physics professor. It was his poor lecturing ability (and possibly his poor behavior towards a professor) that kept him from a more conventional academic career.

Moreover, even his legendary burst of creativity in 1905, during what is now called his miracle year, focused on topics widely discussed among physicists of the time. His discoveries utilized concepts such as Planck’s law and Maxwell’s equations, standard for physicists but impenetrable to laymen, even today.

So while it’s true that he was somewhat of an outsider to the ivory towers of the physics community, it wasn’t by choice. He was, in fact, struggling to gain acceptance (of both himself and his doctoral dissertation). In a similar vein, the most creative people I have known have all been avid students of their field.

It helps to know what the rules are before you set out to break them.

A Good Problem

When he was a boy, Einstein daydreamed about riding on a beam of light. As Maxwell’s equations proposed that the speed of light was constant, this created an interesting problem. What would he see while traveling on a light beam? Later Einstein would pose another question – What would it be to ride on an elevator in space?

Both of these seemingly simple queries led to breakthrough discoveries. From the first, Einstein inferred that if the speed of light is constant then time and space must be relative. From the second, he guessed that motion and gravity were similar phenomena. These insights are the essence of special and general relativity, respectively.

One of the most salient aspects of Einstein’s method was that his ability to frame problems was just as valuable, and as valued, when he was wrong. He came out on the losing end of his famous debates with Bohr, but the questions he posed helped shape physics for decades.

One of Einstein’s most famous mistakes, the EPR paradox, led to the successful teleportation of light photons at IBM labs in 1993. It was because of his ability to distill important concepts that Einstein’s failures were often more fruitful than most people’s successes.

Crossing Domains

We often get so wrapped up in our own area of expertise – its paradigms, practices and social networks – that we fail to look elsewhere for insights. That’s a mistake. Great creativity comes from breadth as much as depth.

As I wrote in an earlier post, breakthrough discoveries often come through synthesizing knowledge from disparate domains. Here are some examples:

Einstein and Hume: Although Einstein’s focus was on physics, he read philosophy extensively. He was particularly influenced by David Hume and his ideas about skepticism and the problem of induction.

While Hume argued strenuously for the primacy of empirical knowledge, he noted that that our reliance on past experience can lead us astray. He rightly pointed out that even our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is mainly a function of expediency and convenience.

This was a particularly useful insight for the problems that Einstein was working on. Although we experience time and space as constant and perceive gravity to be something completely different than motion, Einstein realized that the truth might be otherwise. That, along with his diligence in working out the math, is how he changed the world.

Picasso and African Art: At the turn of the century, Pablo Picasso was already a successful young artist in Paris. However, it was his encounter with African art that led him to pioneer cubism and marked a turning point in his career. His later work, combining aspects of both European and African style, changed the art world forever.

Picasso was the defining artist of the 20th century not simply because of his formidable technical skill, but through his talent for combination.

Watson and Crick: In the 1950’s there were a number of prominent scientists who were seeking to unlock the genetic code.

The legendary Linus Pauling was using the same model building approach that led him to discover the structure of other important molecules. Rosalind Franklin was attacking the problem through the new technique of X-ray diffraction and Erwin Chargaff had already uncovered the rules that define DNA’s structure.

However, it was none of these, but two relatively unknown researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick, that cracked the problem. Amazingly, they did it not by uncovering new information, but by combining the insights of those mentioned above.


No matter how smart you are, most of your ideas will be crap. There’s nothing wrong with that. Einstein himself struggled and was often (especially in his later career) proved wrong.

The early “miracle year” which catapulted him to the forefront of physics came after years of hardship, frustration and despair (as I described in an earlier post). Even after his initial insights into special relativity, he spent another ten years trying to unlock the secrets of general relativity, during which he traveled down a number of blind alleys.

Yet, he never gave up. While denied a PhD, he continued to study and work on physics in his spare time. When he lacked the mathematical background needed to solve the problem of general relativity he went back and studied non-Euclidean geometry and eventually beat David Hilbert, one of the great mathematicians of the age, to the prize.

Despite his cheerful countenance, Einstein was gutsy. Not just because he wasn’t afraid to voice unconventional ideas, but because he had the grit to endure years of privation in order to see them through.

Creativity Is Something Everyone Can Do

In a very real sense, we’ve all been conned. The guy pictured at the top of the page really wasn’t all that creative nor did he accomplish much.

In fact, he was so rigid in his thinking that he was unable to accept the quantum revolution that defines physics today.

The reality is that it was the guy to the left, the conservatively dressed low-level government clerk, rather than the icon we know today, who shocked the world.
Unfortunately, we have gotten used to sequestering creativity. Marketing agencies have creative teams and corporations often rely on strategic consultants for new ideas. Yet there’s no reason that insight and inventiveness should be defined by a job description.

As Robert Weisberg pointed out in his excellent book, Creativity: The Myth of Genius, great creative thinking arises out of rather ordinary thought processes. Genius is, of course, helpful, but not essential and many of those that are considered geniuses have fairly normal IQ’s.

So the secret to unlocking creativity is not grabbing for wild ideas or waiting for divine inspiration, but through knowing your field, defining good problems, taking useful ideas from separate domains and tenaciously seeking out effective solutions. That’s within the reach of all of us.

Creativity comes from combining ordinary things in extraordinary ways.

- Greg

This article originally appeared at DigitalTonto.

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