Deliberate Creativity: How Knowledge Inspires Innovation

To be creative is to draw on life experiences and knowledge, but then diverge in ways which are unexpected by other people. The experiences, the things we remember and know, are the fuel of creativity. Usually this blog is about effective learning techniques, but in this post I’m talking about the role of that knowledge in creating something new.

I don’t like talking about creativity much, to be honest. It’s too poorly-defined. The definition I used in order to begin this post is just one attempt among many. No true cannon of creativity has emerged in the scientific doctrine. This isn’t to say that great work has not been done. There are even a set of standardized psychological tests for assessing novel problem-solving abilities.

One such test involves recognizing that what appears to be two objects (a box of matches and a candle) are actually three (matches, a box, and a candle). Recognizing this distinction and formulating a solution to the problem (use the box as a holder for the candle) involves being able to see symbols (like matchboxes) in different ways, from different angles.


But is this creativity?

… and if so, where does it come from? In the Medici Effect, it is argued that the sort of creativity we’re interested in comes from the intersection of disparate sets of expertise and knowledge. Author Frans Johansson explains:

Intersectional innovations, on the other hand, change the world in leaps along new directions. They usually pave the way for a new field and therefore make it possible for the people who originated them to become the leaders in the fields they created. Intersectional innovations also do not require as much expertise as directional innovation and can therefore be executed by the people you least suspect.

Johansson ascribes this ability to low associative barriers. The idea is simple and profound: great innovators combine disciplines to create something greater than the sum of the parts.

Learning to be Creative

The more bits of knowledge and expertise you have, the more raw material you have to draw upon. The question could be raised: should you go broad or deep with your exploration?

On this site, I explore a broad array of topics: from learning music to foreign languages, computer programming, and any other skill that strikes my fancy. The connecting tissue of the site is that it’s all about investigating the process of learning itself. Clearly, I’ve chosen to go broad in my approach. For others, greater expertise in a smaller area may be the right approach.

Whichever you choose, you can’t just expect the creativity to flow outward from learning new things. You still need that “low associative barrier” thing Frans Johansson was talking about. Thankfully, it’s a skill that can be learned.

Deliberate Creativity

One value to the “broad” approach to learning is that it exposes the brain to stimuli which are more varied. It’s probably no surprise that unusual, interesting things tend to be better remembered. This is why the memory palace techniques often employ lewd or striking imagery. Recruiting these different networks of the brain engage different patterns of thought, allowing creativity to emerge from the interplay of these unusual connections.

An holy grail for some self-help gurus has been creativity on a whim. Brainstorming is perhaps one of the more famous examples of an attempt at creating deliberate creativity. In the decades since it was dreamt up, some of the initial principles have been refuted yet the dream remains: to systematize creativity.

Some would argue that this is impossible, that creativity is too ephemeral. Artists might argue that attempts at systemization are bound to strip the je n’sais quois which give creativity its emotional punch. In The Creative Habit, famed dance choreographer Twyla Tharp insists that creativity is a discipline. Some of the most prolific writers, such as Stephen King with his famous “4,000 words each day,” employ the same strategy of habit.

This trend extends outside the arts, as well. The Lean Startup has taken the entrepreneurial community by storm. The technique essentially systematizes the perceived creativity of starting a successful business. In it, a habit is created of looking at each step as a small problem to be hypothesized about, tested and solved. Over time, this habit leads to a successful company.

Habitual Practice

What all these techniques share is an emphasis on consistency and dedication, focusing on the process. The word “practice” is significant because it takes the emphasis off of the results. To practice is to tryperhaps to fail, but to improve. It’s with this attitude that creativity can be summoned deliberately.

I think that we should say I am practicing being an entrepreneur/artist/speaker of Chinese. The student is a good persona to embody because it can help to shed some of the egoistic tendencies of creativity. It’s the same reason that “multitracking” (working on more than one creative project at once) has been shown to yield better results than working on just one solution to a challenge at once. When you practice habitually, you derive value from the completion of the practice instead of from the outcome. Each session is just one amongst many which you do because it is the sort of person you are (this mindset of associating with a habit is explored more in the Power of Habit).

The Components of Creativity

We’ve talked about going broad or deep with learning in this post, but perhaps it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. I’ve talked about the idea of a “cornerstone skill” before, the notion that each person has one thing that they are better at than anything else. Usually this skill related to your work.

Hobbies are a totally different creature: they’re the things we do just for fun. They intentionally have no particular relationship with work. For some people, a hobby might actually be one of a few cornerstone skills.

There’s a third set of skills we all have, though: the things we dabble in. Dabbling, when done right, can actually have a lot of meaning. The simple fact is that you can learn more about a subject in 20 hours than most people on earth know about that topic. It’s really not hard at all to achieve this level of familiarity. 20 hours is one week at a part time job. In a year, you could learn 52 new skills to a level of proficiency above most people.

The question is: which skills?

Skilling Up

We have a tendency to think of creativity as happening all at once, like a flash of insight or an “ah-hah” moment. Instead, the book Where Good Ideas Come From argues that many of the most significant creative moments come as a result of “slow hunches.” These are ideas which formulate slowly over time in the background of our brains, almost without us realizing it. Slow hunches start off as an intuition and develop over time into something that can actually be explained and elaborated.

There are no shortcuts to a slow hunch. You can’t make them occur faster. The rumination that happens outside of conscious control is an integral, defining part of the process. That said, you can create the right conditions for a slow hunch, and this is what “skilling up” is about. The actual process of learning something new means resolving two sets of information: what you do know, and what you’re learning. It’s this learning process which generates a lot of the momentum for slow hunches.

For slow hunches to develop, there needs to be some sort of connection between your keystone skill (where you want to be creative) and the skills you’re learning. Sometimes creative breakthroughs happen from disconnected fields (inspiration can come from anywhere), but the most productive skills to learn are those which are unusual enough to change the way you think while still remaining relevant. For example: a musician might learn a completely different instrument from a different family (a string instrument player might learn a percussion instrument, or even to sing). She might even study something like mathematics, which is very different from music but which has a great deal of influence and connection to music. Or a virologist might study computer programming and hacking to understand how digital viruses work. In each case, the skill to be learned is complimentary but different.

The Fuel of Knowledge

Knowledge serves as the fuel for creativity: the raw material upon which new ideas are built.

The more knowledge you have available to you, the more ways you’ll be able to combine it to create new ideas. It’s no coincidence that so many of the most creative artists and inventors have seen creativity as a sort of habit or daily practice instead of something as to be “used” or “turned on” on a whim.

The real practice of creativity, then, is that of learning. Picking up hobbies and new skills might feel like either a fun diversion or a chore, but the truth is much deeper: it’s an investment to your future mental performance.


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