Imagine a world without books or newspapers. Instead, you get news from the town crier. You hear about distant lands from travelers at the pub. You learn history from the old woman who knits by the fire.


This was life in the Middle Ages. Few could read and fewer could afford books. They were expensive because scribes had to copy each page by hand.


In 1440, books became mass produced in Europe. Suddenly, even the poorest families could buy books, learn to read, and expand their minds.


Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press made reading accessible to everyone. He combined the movable type of coin punches with the power of mechanized wine presses. By connecting two seemingly unrelated things, Gutenberg changed the course of history.


Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

-Steve Jobs


Creative system

Ordinary people can learn to be creative. And the more you create → the more you believe you’re creative → the more creative you become. It’s a virtuous circle.


Here is the system:


You can’t use up creativity. The more you use the more you have.

-Maya Angelou


Identify the right problem

Sometimes you think you’re solving the right problem, but you’re actually working on a symptom. Ask yourself “5 Whys” to get to the root.


Example: Car engines break down


A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

-John Dewey


Gather knowledge

Creativity is easier if you have lots of raw materials for combinations. What knowledge is worth gathering?


First, focus on fundamentals. In every field, some principles and techniques stand the test of time. For example, engineering is constrained by laws of physics. Everything else is negotiable. This “first principles” thinking enabled Elon Musk to develop Tesla’s electric car.


The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

-Peter Thiel


Second, let your curiosity guide you down new paths. For example, Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class in college because he was curious about hand-lettered posters around campus. He recalled:


I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.


None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.


If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.


Highly curious people, who have carefully cultivated their long-term memories, live in a kind of augmented reality; everything they see is overlaid with additional layers of meaning and possibility, unavailable to ordinary observers.

-Ian Leslie


Generate lots of solutions

The more solutions, the higher the probability of success. Aim for quantity and quality. Don’t censor yourself. For example, Thomas Edison tried hundreds of different filaments before perfecting his light bulb. And he tried 10,000 combinations of materials before inventing the alkaline storage battery.


Ask questions that change your perspective. For example, how would you solve the problem if you had unlimited time or money? In the ideal world, what is the perfect solution?


For every good idea, 10,000 idiotic ones must first be posed, sifted, sniffed, tried, and discarded. A mind that’s afraid to toy with the ridiculous will never come up with the brilliantly original.

-David Brin


Incubate the problem

Enlist your subconscious mind to seek solutions. The most effective ways are rest and leisure—nap, sleep, walk, exercise, listen to music, or read a book.


For example, in the 19th century, chemists were arguing about the structure of benzene. They knew it had 6 atoms of carbon and 6 of hydrogen. But no one could arrange the atoms in a way that explained benzene’s unusual properties.


The breakthrough came in 1861. Friedrich Kekulé was sleeping in his armchair by the fire. He dreamed of a whirling snake biting its tail. In a flash, Kekulé realized the carbon atoms formed a ring with hydrogen attached to each carbon, like charms on a bracelet. His insight created the field of aromatic chemistry—the building blocks of proteins and DNA.


Life is a series of problem-solving opportunities. The problems you face will either defeat you or develop you depending on how you respond to them.

-Rick Warren


Johannes Gutenberg. (2021, March 5). Wikipedia.


Creative system

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Identify the right problem

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Abdulla, AM et al. (2020). Problem finding and creativity: A meta-analytic review. Psychology Aesthetics Creativity Arts. 14(1): 3–14.


Gather knowledge

Schutte NS, Malouff JM. (2020). A meta‐analysis of the relationship between curiosity and creativity. Journal Creative Behavior. 54(4): 940–947.


Chokshi N. (2016, March 8). The Trappist monk whose calligraphy inspired Steve Jobs—and influenced Apple’s designs. Washington Post.


Clifford C, Mejia Z. (2018, April 18). Why Elon Musk wants his employees to use an ancient mental strategy called ‘first principles’. CNBC.


Generate lots of solutions

Sarooghi H, Libaers D, Burkemper A. (2015). Examining the relationship between creativity and innovation: A meta-analysis of organizational, cultural, and environmental factors. Journal Business Venturing. 30(5): 714–731.


Gralewski J, Karwowski M. (2019). Are teachers’ ratings of students’ creativity related to students’ divergent thinking? A meta-analysis. Thinking Skills Creativity. 33: 100583.


Acar S, Runco MA, Park H. (2020). What should people be told when they take a divergent thinking test? A meta-analytic review of explicit instructions for divergent thinking. Psychology Aesthetics Creativity Arts. 14(1): 39–49.


Myth buster: Edison’s 10,000 attempts. (2012, Fall). Edisonian.


Incubate the problem

Sio UN, Ormerod TC. (2009). Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review.

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Seltzer RJ. (1985). Influence of Kekulé dream on benzene structure disputed. Chem Eng News. 63(44) 22–23.

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