Of course, we believe that creativity is a universally great thing – thinking otherwise is like dismissing hope or truth! In his conversational, approachable book, New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning author Matt Richtel takes us on a guided tour of the many facets of creativity and offers the encouragement that creativity is innate to being human – it is in all of us.
Matt Richtel has woven together a mind-blowing series of stories, interviews and examples of the creative process at work across the ages and human endeavor. He’s going to be joining me by the fireside this Friday and we’ll be talking about many of them. Register here. In the meantime, some nuggets I found particularly interesting.
Creativity – inventing something new, original and valuable– can be terrifying!
Despite our cultural pro-creativity bias, Richtel’s work with researchers who study our actual feelings about creative solutions finds that for many, creative new solutions are scary and can carry negative connotations. This makes sense when viewed through the lens of stability versus change. After all, a truly meaningful creative new solution makes older ones obsolete. This reminded me of the effects of strategic inflection points that I write about – automobiles made buggy whip manufacturers obsolete; digital GPS and mapping systems made paper maps largely irrelevant, digital screens replace printed photos. Creativity isn’t good for everyone all the time.
Creativity is, however, the process by which new ideas and solutions come into being. It is fundamental to human progress.
Creativity requires multitudes
Breakthrough creations are often symbolically associated with a single person. Steve Jobs with Apple products. Reed Hastings and Netflix. Elon Musk with electric vehicles. Richter finds that, absolutely, when a tipping point for a new idea is ripe, the world-changing innovation that takes hold is often channeled through an individual or group. It builds, however, on decades of what he calls “mini C” – — “little C”– “Pro C” creations before the world-changing “Big C” emerges.
Further, it is almost always impossible to predict exactly when the conditions will come together to allow a “Big C” idea to take root. After all, the idea for something we would today recognize as an iPhone was anticipated well before the actual product came to be. That was in 1994, when a company called General Magic clearly “saw” the concept of a high end smart phone long before it was technologically feasible or the ecosystem surrounding it was mature.
Like biological variation, creativity is innate to us all
Evolution in biology goes through predictable processes. Variation, in which mutations are introduced into the gene pool. Most of them won’t make it, as they are culled by a process called selection. Those few that do make an organism a better fit with its environment are retained and become part of the characteristics of that population.
So too with ideas. Humans are ingenious at coming up with new ideas all the time – but the vast majority of them will go exactly nowhere. One of the reasons why being innovative is so daunting is that failure is the norm, and success the exception. Nonetheless, the continual offering of new ideas is what allows development and progress to occur.
Most truly new ideas are deeply unloved
Making a similar point that Safi Bahcall makes in his terrific book “Loonshots”, ideas that depart from the orthodoxy of the day are often dismissed, their inventors ridiculed and their potential mis-understood. This is because they divert from the norms of what is possible under a previous understanding of the world.
All new ideas have unintended consequences
An interesting theme in the book, to me, is how a creative idea is developed to deal with one set of problems, which it may well do successfully. It often, however, leads to the emergence of a whole new set of problems, that themselves require a creative response. I found this picture of lurching through problem – solution – new problem – new solution as part of the creative process to be a great way of summing up the path-dependent nature of progress.
A relevant feature of this characteristic of the creative process is that regulatory institutions always lag the reality of what creative minds have brought into the world. For instance, it is taking years for regulators and policymakers to wake up to the fact that what Shoshona Zuboff calls “Surveillance Capitalism” is a really dangerous thing. The notion that we could be tracked to highly sensitive places such as abortion clinics and drug treatment centers, that every aspect of our lives can be sold and that people are unaware of how deeply invasive the tracking is has the potential for great harm, especially if the information falls into the wrong hands.
Only history can judge the importance of an idea – it takes time for the evolutionary process to play out.
Imagination is more important than knowledge
As Einstein famously said, “you can never solve a problem at the level it was created.” In the various stories and illustrations in the book, Richtel shows how skills that have nothing to do with raw intelligence or training foster creativity.
Creative people, for example, “see” more material in the world around them. They pay attention and are curious. They seek to have existing ideas challenged (not easy!).
Further they generate many ideas – it’s quantity over quality – because you never know which mutation will make it. As he says, “perfection is the public enemy of creativity.”
Creativity can be cultivated
While not a self-help book along the lines of “you can be the next Picasso!” Richtel offers several ideas on how you can foster your own creative talents. Being open to new ideas and curious about them is a great place to start. Recognize that no one else in the world has the unique experiences and understanding that you do. Giving yourself time to let your mind wander helps. Providing a psychologically safe way to explore the ‘edges’ of what you believe to be true is useful.
And finally, then you find a spark, you can’t help yourself from taking a leap. This is when creativity becomes joyful, expressive and all-absorbing.
But, as Richtel cautions, “don’t quit your day job.” Earning a living on a continuous flow of creative ideas is no easy task. I rather liked this point about creativity being helpful for enriching your life and adding color to it, without imposing on yourself the need to be insanely creative every waking moment!
Definitely worth a read.