genius

How to be the most creative person in the world

If we assume the universal definition of what it means to be creative is: to produce something both valuable and unique, then we can build a foundation from which to evaluate the other components of the question: “How can I become the most creative person in the world?”

To be the most creative person, you would need to produce numerous ideas which are both valuable and unique. We’re talking global, revolutionary stuff here.

We can look through the history books to see who has done this feat before (producing multiple ideas which are of an original variety and provide some value to the wider group or society).

Albert Einstein undoubtedly was a remarkably creative person. To quote the Wikipedia page on Einstein: “He developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics)… is also known for [his] influence on the philosophy of science…. is best known in popular culture for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2 (which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”). He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his ‘services to theoretical physics,’ in particular his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, a pivotal step in the evolution of quantum theory.”

Other historically “great” creatives include Archimedes (a remarkable mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer who revolutionized many of these arenas with his ideas), da Vinci (who was a famous inventor, painter, sculpture, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, writer, astronomer, and botanist), Elon Musk (who has helped propel reusable rockets into outer space as well as revolutionize the electronic automobile industry, in addition to other business and energy-efficiency related ventures), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, on and on the list could go.

If we begin to look through the massive amounts of literature on the lives of these individuals, some surprising trends tend to bubble to the surface.

But before we touch on those similarities, let’s quickly touch on where original and valuable ideas come from in the first place. In his appropriately titled book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explains the seven key elements that produce creative ideas. They are:

  1. The adjacent possible
  2. Liquid networks
  3. Slow hunches
  4. Serendipity
  5. Errors
  6. Exaptation
  7. Platforms

To encounter the most novel and valuable ideas requires each of these things in varying degrees.

The adjacent possible (1) simply means what is actually possible in the world of today; you could not, for example, have invented the iPhone in the 1920s due to the technical and resource limitations of that time.

Liquid networks (2) and platforms (7) are how ideas and information spread around and through us. The Internet is a great example of a liquid network, but only in certain contexts. A more solid example would be Quora, where ideas are free to spread, evolve, and reproduce.

This leads to exaptation (6), the ability for ideas to shed certain layers in order to evolve (or adapt) into something more useful.

Slow hunches (3) are just that: hunches that develop over time. The critical point of which is time itself. The best ideas, it seems, take time.

Serendipity (4) is something mostly out of our control. However, we can do things in our lives to prompt it (like involve ourselves in fluid networks and come to understand what adjacent possibles exist in our lives today).

Errors (5), of course, are typically a requirement for creative ideas because they allow ideas to evolve in the proper ways. What typically gets people hung-up about errors, unfortunately, is that it can sting to be wrong. Nobody wants to make a mistake, yet making mistakes is the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t. To quote the brilliant writer slash statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “It is true that a thousand days cannot prove you right, but one day can prove you to be wrong.”

Now, if we go along with Johnson’s requirements for where good ideas come from, and if we start look at the list of historically “great” creative thinkers, we can more clearly see some trends that make a lot of practical sense.

Many of the thinkers on our list were exposed (either by fortune or misfortune) to adjacent possibles and fluid networks by sheer proximity. Archimedes lived in the literal hub of ideas, while Franklin surrounded himself with the most motivated of individuals, and Edison created a literal group for the purpose of producing ideas.

The number of errors each individual encountered through-out their life is high as well. Einstein, for example, is well-known for his countless mistakes (see: Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius), his failed attempts at complex equations, and even years failing to become a successful educator.

Undoubtedly one of the most vital parts of each creative individual’s life was sheer serendipity: not only being in the right place at the right time (literally), but also being able to identify the moment when a good idea could be captured and explored.

What this tells us is that we must do whatever we can in our lives to promote each of these aspects of brewing good ideas however possible. Surrounding ourselves with intelligent and diverse people, paying attention to recent trends and breakthroughs, being open to mistakes and attempting got learn from them, giving ourselves time to develop ideas, etc.

But most importantly, I believe, to be the most creative person in the world is to be the most curious person in the world. Because for each possibility there is the ability to ignore it, to be blinded by the way we think the world should be instead of the way it really, actually could be.

To be the most creative person in the world you must have each of these things, but they will do you no good unless you are capable of observing your circumstance. The best way to do that, undoubtedly, is to be open to possibilities and the going-ons around you: to simply be insatiably curious.

It was Albert Einstein, after-all, who famously quipped:

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”


There is no lone creative genius

There’s an iconic photograph of Steve Jobs, taken during the very early, successful days of the company he helped start: Apple.

In the photo you can see Steve sitting in his home, only a lamp, a sitting pad, a few vinyl records, a record player, and a notebook sitting in the room with him. Apart from those few items, the hardwood floor and walls are bare. There’s no couch, no television or radio, no coffee table, nothing like that.

The photo is iconic because it makes Steve look so powerful, so all-knowing and wise. His position, upright with legs crossed, makes it appear as though Steve has obtained some level of higher enlightenment.

This is an important photo. Not because it’s of the brilliant Steve Jobs, but because it symbolizes countless other photos and images of historical, creative geniuses throughout time. And there’s a huge problem with that.

How often do we imagine these genius creatives, sitting in their home or studio, contemplating the next big thing? If you think of nearly any creative great, this is likely how you’re going to imagine them.

It’s not difficult to imagine the likes of Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, or Thomas Edison in these moments of deep insight or masterful work. It’s also easy to imagine these masters in these moments entirely alone. They are, after-all, the major masters of their craft, the geniuses behind the glass.

When we imagine these thinkers like this – sitting or working by themselves – we create a scenario around creativity that isn’t entirely true. This belief can hurt our own ability to achieve creative mastery.

The greatest creatives hardly ever work alone. If you think you can go alone on the path to ideas that matter, it’s time to think again.

One of the most notably stories around the myth of the lone genius comes from Thomas Edison, best known for his work on the first, practical light bulb. Notably, Edison is quoted as having said: “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Images of Edison spending countless days or weeks working at his desk on the light bulb readily come to mind. Yet, it wasn’t Edison alone who made all reportedly 10,000 attempts.

In his book, The Myths of Creativity David Burkus shares with us the truth on the matter:

“Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone….As their work progressed, the team quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name….according to Francis Jehl, Edison’s long-time assistant, those inside knew that ‘Edison [was] in reality a collective noun and [meant] the work of many men.'”

In their 1995 report titled “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth,” researchers Alfonso Montuori and Ronald Purser explored the psychological and social-economical reasons why the myth of the lone genius persists, and what matters for generating truly great ideas.

The researchers explains:

“The romantic myth of the lone genius still prevails… This may be due to the fact that the image of the creative genius is closely tied to hyper-individualism… There is a fear, for instance, that learning to play another musician’s solos by heart, as the great innovator Charlie Parker did…might somehow weaken or contaminate one’s creative ‘purity’ with the possibility that one could turn into a carbon copy of the role model.”

As creatives, we want to believe that our work is entirely original and groundbreaking. The more unique and valuable our ideas are, the more likely we are to be associated with their impending success and fame.

We like the story of lone geniuses because we want to believe that great ideas are spawned from some deeper source of genius itself. If anybody can have great ideas, who will we have to celebrate as creative geniuses? If great ideas don’t come from within ourselves, how do we know they are worthwhile or not?

Of course, we know that creativity is not a gift bestowed on a lucky few. We know from ample research and psychology that creativity is a trait each of us are born with and carry through-out our lives. Believing that the lone genius is reality gives us a hero to worship or, more importantly, an excuse for when we are struggling to come up with ideas ourselves.

Montuori and Purser continue:

“Creativity takes place in groups, organizations, and societies…and can be sparked by interactions…we believe this does not diminish the role of the individual in the least, but rather addresses more fully the concern of individuals and the contexts in which they have to operate–contexts that are, after all, also composed to a large extent of other individuals.”

I’m all-too-familiar with the trap of believing in the lone genius.

Most of the independent work I do, I do alone. This blog, for example, I write entirely on my own. I designed the blog and programmed the template on my own. Many of the ideas for the posts are my own.

Except that’s not entirely true.

Without realizing it, much of the inspiration for this blog has come as a result of speaking with other creatives. The discussions I have – and the questions I’m asked ” spark the insights that keep this blog going.

With nearly all of the work I do, there’s someone behind the scenes inspiring me. Whether it’s a conversation I have with a friend or family member, or a piece of design work I see somewhere on the web. I am not doing this work on my own, it’s actually the result of hundreds of people throughout history each inspiring me in some way.

You, too, do not work alone. You may sit in a studio or room alone, you may solely be responsible for pushing the brush across the canvas or the keys on the keyboard, but it’s through your interactions with others that your ideas flow.

To truly be a creative genius, then, we must embrace working alongside others. Not all the time, but often. It’s through our interactions that our best ideas swell.

Related:

The Myths of Creativity

Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth

Where good ideas come from



Are you creative or not?

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Asking someone if they are creative is the wrong question to ask.

It may be better to instead look at what is meant by “creative” and what it means to ask someone if they are that thing. But creativity is a very complex something to describe. Is it a process? A function? A spiritual gift bestowed on us when we need it most?

Is it fair to even ask “what is creativity” when the answers may be just as complex? I don’t think so. In-fact, I think we’ve been thinking about what it means to be creative in a round-about way.

In his 2012 book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer writes that creativity is the equivalent to thinking with various processes in the brain: “[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.)”

Aha! Creativity, we can now assume, is not any singular thing; an elicit action or function within the brain or spirit. Creativity isn’t necessarily thinking by itself either, though thinking is a very big aspect of creativity.

No, creativity is how we think.

I’ve tried to express this with words for nearly six years, but it’s been difficult to find the right explanation. Creativity seems so mystical, so misunderstood and falsely preached about. The reason it is so difficult to describe is because we associate it with thinking, with the understanding that thinking itself is a process of creativity.

This fact alone makes creativity itself seem much bigger than simply what we think, which – in turn – makes it seem like such a vastly complex thing to describe. Because thinking is a part of what we title “creativity” it seems like something that is beyond thinking, something we can’t express accurately (it goes beyond anything we can understand, since it is outside of our thinking scope).

But creativity is not as overly complex to discuss when we understand that it is simply around the notion of how one thinks. We place complexities onto it by how we talk about it, that’s all.

Of course you’re creative, if you think. When we talk about creativity we’re not asking whether or not you think however, what we’re really trying to understand is how you think and how much of what you think entails imagination, previous experience, curiosity, etc.

Someone who generates a lot of ideas is viewed as creative not because they have the capability of coming up with a lot of ideas (anyone can do that), it’s the fact that they have gone and done it.

To ask: “Are you creative?” is to ask: “How do you think?”

For further reading on semantic interpretation, see If a tree falls in an empty forest, does it make a sound?



Three keys to thinking like a creative genius

Maria Konnikova, a world-reknown Harvard psychologist and writer, explores what it takes to have a mind capable of matching the fictional detective/genius Sherlock Holmes in her novel: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

If you’re unfamiliar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes you’re missing out on both a classic series of novels that will undoubtedly make you think, as well as a number of cult-classic films and television series. Holmes, it seems, is a thinker that has inspired generations with his wit, creativity, and intelligence.

But how well does a fictional character with remarkable intellect such as Holmes relate to us, the common thinker?

According to Konnikova, we can all learn to think like Holmes, whether we’re creative geniuses and unfathomably intelligent, or whether we’re just an average thinker who occasionally likes to pursue the sporadic day dream.

I’ve written briefly on the topic of creativity and intelligence before, but with Konnikova’s insights and scientific mind to back me up I wanted to approach it once more.

As it turns out: you don’t have to be remarkably intelligent to be creative, you just have to know how to use the intellect you’ve got to produce ideas. Specifically, there are three ways to see this process through.

1. Have more experiences

Creativity draws from only what you already know, and sometimes from what you don’t know you know.

When you’re working on something and you have that sudden “Aha!” moment of insight, that’s your brain finding a creative match to the topic at hand. Even if the match is one that was previously buried in the deepest folds of your brain (in the long-term memory area of the brain known as the hippocampus).

You may not immediately know the concept was there, but through an intense and lightning-fast series of processing, your brain was able to pull the information out.

Where did that information come from in the first place? Through past experiences you’ve had, not from a mystical unknown.

The fictional Sherlock refers to this storage locker of experiences as the “brain attic.” You don’t have to do any work on the front of things to store and sort through the ideas stored in your brain attic, you just have to have the experiences.

To quote Konnikova:

“A mind that can find connections between the seemingly unconnected can access its vast network of ideas and impressions and detect even faint links that can then be amplified to recognize a broader significance, if such a significance exists. Insight may seem to come from nowhere, but really, it comes from somewhere quite specific: from the attic and the processing that has been taking place while you’ve been busy doing other things.”

Trying new foods, taking a different route to school or work, reading a random book, visiting a foreign country, doing things spontaneously, and experimenting with the objects you have around you are all ways to build up your experiences and the number of resources to pull from in your brain attic.

So if you want to be more creative, you don’t necessarily have to have more schooling (though it undoubtedly helps in this regard) or natural intelligence, you just need to have more experiences to start off with.

2. Think on your experiences more often

Another signature trait of creative geniuses is their habitual tendency to think on their experiences.

What good is all of that new stuff you’re trying and all of the discovery you’re doing if you don’t ever take the time to think about it. This doesn’t have to be an existential type of thinking or personal reflection, it can be as simple as playing the event over in your mind several times and calling it a day.

Some of the best ways to think on experiences are exactly what they say on the tin: meditation, yoga, journaling, a good conversation with friends (or strangers), or simply day dreaming.

When you think on your experiences you’re essentially doing multiple things that will yield positive results for your creative abilities.

The first thing that reflection like this does is strengthen related connections in your neurological network.Thinking on things makes it more likely that the knowledge will be more readily available when you need it most: when you’re stuck on a problem at work or when you’re brainstorming for new ideas at home.

Another thing that happens when you think on your experiences is you mentally make distinctions between what was important and what wasn’t.

Thinking on our experiences forces us to observe, not to merely see or hear, but to really make sense of what’s going on. As Konnikova explains:

“When we observe, we are forced to pay attention. We have to move from passive absorption to active awareness. We have to engage. ”

Passive thinkers who merely let experiences happen to them are missing a prime opportunity to learn more, and therefore have more resources to pull from when they need to most.

3. Pursue more than just one solution

When faced with a problem or challenge, a typical person will think long enough to come up with a single solution, whereas the likes of Holmes will actively continue searching in an attempt to more accurately grade the initial solution.

While a first thought may commonly be appropriate, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s the bestconclusion unless you spend a little bit more time evaluating other options.

In the Sherlock series we often see his accompanying partner Watson both figuratively and literally jumpto conclusions, while Sherlock typically stands by idly evaluating possibilities.

The creative mind is one that commonly embraces time as a benefactor of sorts. Konnikova separates the more creative mind from the typical mind by calling them into the two types of systematic thinking that they are:

“I’m going to give the systems monikers of my own: the Watson system and the Holmes system. You can guess which is which. Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance ” that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we’ll be once we’re done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives – and in so doing break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.”

If you want to be more creative you have to aspire to think like Sherlock: take your time, be more observant, and consider multiple solutions rather than first-encounters.

In conclusion, when it comes to creative pursuits, the more time you invest in experiencing and thinking, the more likely you are to come up with something truly original and grand.

But, to again quote Konnikova, you have to want to think differently to truly do it.

“Motivated subjects always outperform. Students who are motivated perform better on something as seemingly immutable as the IQ test – on average, as much as .064 standard deviation better, in fact. Not only that, but motivation predicts, higher academic performance, fewer criminal convictions, and better employment outcomes. Children who have a so-called ‘rage to master’ – a term coined by Ellen Winner to describe the intrinsic motivation to master a specific domain – are more likely to be successful in any number of endeavors, from art to science. If we are motivated to learn a language, we are more likely to succeed in our quest. Indeed, when we learn anything new, we learn better if we are motivated learners.”

What’s your motivation?