For many, this is a common phrase, but even if you’re aware of the saying you’re likely to overlook just how valuable it is.
What does it mean exactly, to create is to destroy?
In regards to creativity, it means that, in order to be creative, you have to destroy pre-conceived notions, ideas, or parts of a problem. If you’re going to be creative you have to look at something you believe and make it false (or lesser true) in order to spur creative insights. In essence: a creative thought is one that destroys original thought.
I think this is one reason why it’s easy to shy away from creativity or creative ideas, they often invoke change in our beliefs, and that’s frightening.
No boss wants to hear “there’s a better way to do this thing we’ve been doing for the past few years.” Likewise nobody would like to hear “this thing you thought was so great? It’s not so great after-all” So we shy away from creativity.
But that’s how we innovate and create works that inspire or motivate. Creative ideas shake up what we believe, they destroy known concepts, but what they destroy they replace with something worthwhile. Like the auto company Tesla proving that electrical cars can be sustainable and luxurious, Apple showing the world what a smart phone should be with the iPhone, or Dali demonstrating that artwork can go beyond surrealism.
Therefore, to be creative, you simply need to find something to destroy.
Yet, before we can destroy, we should understand who we know what to destroy.
How we process what exists
I think we often look past this point, that nothing new (or creative) can come about without the old.
We too often find ourselves talking about innovation or creating something inspirational, but we rarely look to what already exists as inspiration for those things. For example, countless times I’ve found myself sitting and thinking about something new I can work on, without considering the fact that nothing new can come about unless it involves the old.
But what is “the old” in this instance? What is it we should destroy in order to create?
The answer: beliefs, or pre-conceived notions.
When we encounter something, certain neurons and networks begin firing in our brain. This is true whether we are experiencing something tangible and real, or something we’re merely imagining; research studies have shown that the brain treats both scenarios the same.
Whichever neurons become the most active are evaluated by others in their neural network (that is: neurons that have previously worked together with the stimulated parts of our brain are activated as well, to some degree). If the proper neural signals are all fired in a certain network, that activity represents some tangible truth.
This is the bayesian network or our brains in action.
So, for example: let’s say your brain suddenly registers the fact that water is falling on you. You can look down at your arm and see a little drop of water. Seeing that droplet signals other areas in your brain, such as: I’m standing outside, I am not under any cover, the sky is cloudy and gray, therefore it must be raining.
The fact that it’s raining, in that example, is a truth you believe because all of the signals in your brain that indicate it’s occurring are activating. You can see the raindrop (which is, in itself, a complex process of signaling in your brain), you can feel the raindrop on your arm, you can look at the cloudy sky, and so on. It’s raining becomes a truth you believe due to associations.
But what happens when we remove some of those associations from the event?
If you feel a water drop hit your arm, you can see it on your arm, but what if you’re indoors? Suddenly you know that it cannot be raining, or that it can be raining and that there’s a hole in the roof. If it’s not raining though, something else must be occurring. At this point you are likely to pursue your curiosity to find the reason why a drop of liquid suddenly appeared on your arm.
This same approach goes to ideas.
Ideas are the result of associations within our brain. We see or think about something and associations with that something are made instantly.
We hear the word “book” and we immediately think of words, series of words, stories, etc.
To be creative is to purposely break the parts of that belief system in order to invoke curiosity.
Say, for example, that you want to write a book.
The facts and beliefs of a book are that they are typically written with words, in an orderly fashion. There’s usually a main character or number of characters that the story revolves around. These characters encounter situations that either cause them to grow and learn a lesson or something happens to them that intrigues the reader. Books can either be false and from the imagination, or true and based on real life.
To be creative we have to destroy what we know about the idea of a writing a book.
So what if, instead of using words in orderly fashion, we write the book one sentence at a time, in a disjointed way? Now we’re onto something.
What if we take that same idea, of writing a story in a disjointed way, and then look at a pre-existing story that we can further destroy? Take the popular child’s story from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland for example. The story tells of a young girl who, out of boredom, imagines a very illogical and magical world.
To destroy this example story we simply need to break apart one or more pieces of it, essentially destroying the bayesian network that tells us “this is a story of Alice in Wonderland.” Something as simple as removing the main character and instead focusing on the world of Wonderland itself is a start. But could we can go further and remove the world aspect as well?
The result of this exercises it that we have a book written in a disjointed fashion, where one sentence from a chapter is placed into an unrelated section of another chapter, and the topic of the book is the seemingly random occurrences of peculiar characters whom we do not know exist in a fantasy world.
Maybe not the best idea for a book, but you can see how destroying pre-conceived ideas yields way to more creative ones. I guarantee you’ve never read a book quite like the one just described above.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously, the reason we often shy away from this approach to creative thinking (even though it’s so fruitful) is because it’s frightening.
Taking something that we believe, or something that has proven to work, and destroying it in peculiar ways in order to see what remains means we’re risking time and, in effect, our very beliefs.
But it’s through the destruction of what we believe (how things are done, what works and what doesn’t, where good work comes from, etc.) that we propel ourselves into a curious place where unique ideas can thrive.
It’s by destroying something old and replacing it with something new, something potentially much better, that the world (and we, as artists and creatives) grow.
In order to be creative, you have to destroy. What ideas or elements of your work can you destroy today?