In my career of creative research, I’ve spent much of my time believing that if we could better understand how creativity works we would be able to establish a process for doing more with it.
If we can determine the cognitive instigators of fresh ideas, we can better harness their abilities.
But now I’m wondering if creativity is what it is simply because happenstance allows it to be. By attempting to turn creativity into a process, we cut out much of what makes it work: newness, particularly in the frame of serendipity.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson lists serendipity as one of the seven causes for creative ideas. In order for an idea to be creative, it must have some element of unanticipated and unpredictable newness to it. Without that unpredictability what you have isn’t creative, it’s analysis.
In the book Creativity, Inc., Pixar’s Ed Catmull writes of beginner’s mind, a type of zen practice that promotes new thinking by focusing on always believing you don’t know anything:
“By resisting beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
To put it another way: to be truly creative you cannot expect to follow a pattern and get equally creative results every time. What works under some circumstances (for example, taking a walk with a co-worker to resolve an outstanding task) may not work in others.
Simply because you found yourself inspired at the act of free writing does not make free writing a go-to method for inspiration.
This is part of what makes creativity so damning. You can dedicate your entire life to being creative, but unless you’re willing to forget what you know, what you think, you can’t stumble on the inspirations you are seeking out.
“To advance creatively, we must let go of something,” Ed Catmull writes.
Undoubtedly the best process for stumbling on creative ideas, then, is to stumble forward, often through the dark, often blindly. It can be tremendously frightening to do so, but it produces equally tremendous results.
At least, that’s what the past eight years of researching and writing and creativity has led me to think. But what do I know?
Read this next: What we get by demystifying creativity.