The creative demands of work keep increasing, and with good reason. Creativity is one of the few things that can’t be easily automated. Everyone, from entrepreneurs to coders, has to be continually creating, but keeping yourself at the top of the creative game is no easy task. There is no rule book for creativity. Below, innovative CEO and serial entrepreneur, Victor Mitchell, describes how creativity is more than the sum of its parts:
Creativity might be subjective, mutable, and esoteric, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to increase your creativity by understanding a little more about how it works. New ideas, new formulas, and new products don’t come out of thin air. Creativity comes from knowledge combined into something new and unexpected.
You can nurture this creative process with the right combination of knowledge. You can cultivate that knowledge into new creations that are more than the simple sum of that knowledge. You can vary the information you collect and the restrictions you set on yourself to spark the creation of something new, unique, and valuable, whether that is a new app, a new industry, or a new theory of the universe.
“There is a sequence about the creative process, and a work of genius is a synthesis of its individual features from which nothing can be subtracted without disaster.”
— Seneca, first-century Roman philosopher
Creativity is information combined with processes into something new, but the process is as old as humanity itself. The first step in creativity is to collect information and to collect it smartly. Everyone today is continuously inundated with information through their smartphones and computers, but this online information is filtered and modified.
If you rely on the internet for information, you’ll end up as a jack of all trades and a master of none. You might be able to see patterns across the information, but it’ll be hard to convert that into unique, valuable creativity that thousands of other people haven’t already seen. It will be hard to come up with ideas that are both unobvious and still useful to others. Learn widely, and get out to libraries to learn in depth, and remember to pick other people’s brains. Only when you know how things are already done can you know how to change it.
Eureka moments as people think of them, as sudden insights based on nothing, may be a myth, but what people think of as eureka moments have some basis in reality. Newton didn’t invent his theory of gravity by sitting under a tree, sitting under a tree gave him the time to process the information he’d gained over many years of intensive study and research.
“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
— Steve Jobs, in a 1996 interview with Wired
Nevertheless, you don’t want to get too stuck in your own tiny area of expertise. Newton invented a theory of gravity that stood for centuries, but he also became obsessed with dead-end alchemy. Perhaps if he’d been able to peer out of his box a bit, he might have seen it for the folly it was.
To find those truly unique and valuable creative and innovative solutions, you need to complement your expertise with a wide range of knowledge across many fields so that you can see those broader patterns and apply them to your specific problem. Steve Jobs was an innovative mastermind because he could see beyond the tiny tech-centric box that most of his competitors worked in. He could look into the wider society around him and the problems that Apple could solve.
This idea behind T-shaped skills, combining both specific expertise in one field and wide-ranging surface knowledge across many others. You want to be a Jack of some trades and a master of at least one. Then you can finally put it all together to create something that is more than just the simple sum of that knowledge and expertise, something that draws widely to offer specific value.
“We all have our imaginations. We mix and match. It’s like Mr. Potato Head.”
— Margaret Atwood, in an interview with Canadian Business
Science fiction writers, such as Margaret Atwood, are masters of combining information into something new, and usually, have T-shaped skills. They gather bits information from everywhere and connect it with their expert knowledge in writing. They have to understand a little about society, innovative technology, philosophy, psychology, and history to make believable new worlds in their stories, but combining that knowledge takes some practice.
You need to mix things up to stay creative. You need to rearrange the potato head. Tackle problems in different ways and with different rules and restrictions on your process. Managers looking for new innovative ways to organize their teams might set rules restricting them from using their preferred approaches. Coders looking for more efficient algorithms might set demands on performance, or even the number of lines of code. You have to force yourself out of your routine to put all of your knowledge to work in innovation.
Some of the most creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial companies, such as Apple, started on shoe-string budgets, and it was that very scarcity that forced them to approach problems with innovative solutions that the big companies avoided because they had the resources to solve this with brute force. Even if you have all the resources in the world, you can still force that scarcity on yourself.
Elon Musk, in his quest to get people to Mars, set himself to asking questions about the problem. His most important question was “why are rockets so expensive?” as he explained in an interview with Inc. Everyone in the industry thought rockets were about as cheap as they could get, even though they’re barely changed since the 1960s, but Musk thought differently, and he forced his team to work with scarcity to create something better. In 2015 his company, SpaceX, managed to successfully test and land a reusable rocket system, significantly reducing the cost of space travel.
Creativity is subjective, but at its core, it is just recombining information until you find that unique combination that is more than the sum of its parts. You need expertise, and you need a wide range of other influence to see patterns and solutions outside that narrow field of knowledge. Once you have that knowledge, you have to force it into new combinations. Try enough combinations, and you too can create something innovative that is more than the sum of its parts.
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