Starting from zero to get ideas

Some years ago Sir Ken Robinson, the author and creative advocate, once told a story of a six year-old girl in school.

The girl was sitting in the back of the classroom drawing when the teacher walked back to her and asked “What are you drawing?” The girl said “I’m drawing a picture of God.” To which the teacher laughed a little and replied: “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the little girl said “They will in a minute.”

In telling this story Sir Robinson explains that children aren’t afraid to take chances. If they don’t know something they’ll risk failing or being wrong. Creativity isn’t about being wrong, of course, but to quote Sir Robinson: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Children who are still warm to failure are exceptionally creative, you can see it by putting a blank sheet of paper and a box of crayons in front of them. Without knowing really anything, children explore creative ideas as best they can, through risk taking and play.

How does this relate back to us as adults?

Consider the fact that creativity is often the by-product of existing knowledge and experiences. Robert Epstein, a successful psychologist and author, once wrote: “Creativity, in short, is not something mystical; it’s an extension of what you already know. To be more specific, new behaviors (or ideas) emerge as old behaviors interact.”

Steve Jobs, before passing, explained that “creativity is just connecting things.”

It’s a common belief that the best ideas are spawned from what we already know. Knowing more is possible through a number of methods for discovering the impossible. But what if we don’t know very much? What if we can’t travel, or if we don’t have a lot of time to read, how can we be truly creative without those experiences and expansive knowledge?

In those circumstances we have to look to children as examples. What do children do if they don’t know something? They think about it and then make assumptions, but they make those ideas without fear of being wrong and without worrying of failing.

This is such a basic concept, but often as adults we’re trained (or educated) out of it. We’re taught that failing can lead to misery, that being wrong makes you look like a novice (even though we know that looking like a novice by asking naive questions can lead to breakthroughs).

Children are prime examples for what we should do when we want to be creative. Like that little girl in the story told by Sir Ken Robinson, how can we shape new ideas even when we (and the world at large) may not know what something looks like?

Illustration via The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.