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.
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.
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
Question #1: Why do car engines break down?
Answer #1: Because they have many moving parts
Question #2: Why do they have many moving parts?
Answer #2: Because an engine requires pistons, cylinders, shafts, and valves
Question #3: Why are these parts required?
Answer #3: It’s how the engine translates gasoline combustion into mechanical motion
Question #4: Why does the engine need gasoline combustion?
Answer #4: It doesn’t, the engine could use electricity and have fewer parts
Question #5: Why don’t you create an electrical engine?
Answer #5: Yes, that’s the right problem to solve
A problem well stated is a problem half solved.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Johannes Gutenberg. (2021, March 5). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg#Printing_press
Scott G, Leritz LE, Mumford MD. (2004). The effectiveness of creativity training: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal. 16(4): 361–388.
A meta-analysis of 70 studies with 4,210 participants found that creativity training increased overall creativity (effect size = 0.64), including problem solving (effect size = 0.84) and divergent thinking (effect size = 0.68)
Jauk E et al. (2013). The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection. Intelligence. 41(4): 212–221.
A study with 297 participants found there was an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) threshold of 104 points for creativity and 120 points for highly-original creativity
Once the intelligence threshold was met, the personality factor of openness was more predictive of creativity
In contrast, there was no IQ threshold for creative achievement—higher levels of intelligence had more benefit
Haase J et al. (2018). A meta-analysis of the relation between creative self-efficacy and different creativity measurements. Creativity Research Journal. 30(1): 1–16.
Identify the right problem
Ma H. (2009). The effect size of variables associated with creativity: A meta-analysis. Creativity Research Journal. 21(1): 30–42.
A meta-analysis of 111 studies found that the following personal variables were associated with creativity: openness (effect size = 0.71), mysticism (effect size = 0.67), and inclination for divergent thinking (effect size = 0.43)
The following variables of the creative process were associated with creativity: restating the problem in many different ways (effect size = 0.93), retrieving problem-related knowledge (effect size = 0.86), generating solutions (effect size = 0.49), generating criteria for evaluating solutions (effect size = 0.49), and selecting solutions (effect size = 0.43)
Significant environmental variables were: favorable working circumstances (quiet, alcohol-free, natural, relaxed, and unrestrained) (effect size = 1.13) and class climate favorable for creativity (high competition, low friction, encouraging teacher) (effect size = 0.71)
Abdulla, AM et al. (2020). Problem finding and creativity: A meta-analytic review. Psychology Aesthetics Creativity Arts. 14(1): 3–14.
A meta-analysis of 40 studies with 6,649 participants found that problem finding was associated with creativity (effect size = 0.22)
Problem finding is clarifying or delimiting a problem before it is solved
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. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/03/08/the-trappist-monk-whose-calligraphy-inspired-steve-jobs-and-influenced-apples-designs/
Clifford C, Mejia Z. (2018, April 18). Why Elon Musk wants his employees to use an ancient mental strategy called ‘first principles’. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/18/why-elon-musk-wants-his-employees-to-use-a-strategy-called-first-principles.html
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.
A meta-analysis of 52 studies found that creativity increased innovation (effect size = 0.46)
Creativity is the generation of novel and useful ideas, whereas innovation is the implementation of these ideas into new products and processes
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. https://edison.rutgers.edu/newsletter9.html
Incubate the problem
Sio UN, Ormerod TC. (2009). Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review.
Psychol Bull. 135(1): 94–120.
A meta-analysis of 117 studies with 3,606 participants found that incubation increased problem solving (effect size = 0.29)
Incubation was more effective when participants rested (effect size = 0.46) or performed tasks with low cognitive load (effect size = 0.52) vs. high cognitive load (effect size = 0.24)
Seltzer RJ. (1985). Influence of Kekulé dream on benzene structure disputed. Chem Eng News. 63(44) 22–23.
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