In Originals, his brilliant tour through the inner and outer worlds of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Adam Grant tells us that these stars in our firmament have one thing in common. They fail more than other people. In his 2013 speech to London Book Fair, Neil Gaiman acknowledged this same trait with his call for publishers to apply the dandelion method to their trade, trying, as he put it, a thousand things in order that 100 might take seed.
Creativity and failure cannot be separated. Brilliant ideas emerge from a primordial soup that is given its potency by sheer weight of numbers. Writers generating the sparks of plots know this. Inventors know this. Artists know this. And if you’ve ever taken part in a task of the kind used in the Torrance Test, the benchmark test for measuring creativity (and the kind of test similar to those used in the Creative Thinking World Championship), it is something you will recognise as being central to the very essence of creativity. Creativity is, at its base, the mashing together of stuff that’s never been put together before, in ways that have never been tried before, to see what happens.
This is why the best creative out there is nature. Nature gives us everything from pulsars to the murmuration of a million starlings, black holes to graphene. Evolution not only gets to experiment with all of the mutations – it gets to run those experiments longitudinally in a way scientists can only drool over. And then there’s cosmology, which has given us the universe in which this conversation is able to happen thanks to infinitesimally finely-tuned parameters like the Hubble Constant (which means there is just enough matter that gravity stops everything flying off into nothing, but not so much that it all collapses back in). On one reading of the multiverse model, we find ourselves in such a wonderful world precisely because literally all of the not so well put together ones have happened and, like something from Douglas Adams, failed.
The problem we have as creatives is that we don’t have billions of years or trillions of possible universes to play with. We have a few decades, lives limited by numerous external factors, and the strictures of circumstance. We cannot generate all of the ideas and test each one. We cannot run longitudinal experiments on random mutations. There just isn’t, as it were, the longitude to do it in. If we as creatives pursued the nature’s super-top-optimal strategy of try everything then there is every possibility we might miss the answer to providing clean, renewable energy to whole nations because we are too busy exploring what might happen in imaginary worlds where at 6.43 pm on a wet grey Tuesday all of the broccoli becomes James Corden.
There are, of course, collective creative endeavours that have found pretty effective equilibrium models that narrow the scope of possibility enough to cope with the whole being finite thing whilst allowing maximal flexibility by the throwing numbers at it method. Science is a really good example. We fund, as a society, experiments to test a whole load of conjectures knowing damn well that most will be dead ends without, if we are doing it right, prejudging which those will be. Another really good example is literature. Anyone can write (and as a slush reader trust me, they do) absolutely anything and send it forth and most of it will be, politely, the kind of thing that makes one think, aw how nice that people have a hobby. And that avalanche of the average and sub-average is the precondition for the few soaring works of originality that occasionally break the surface.
So, we can celebrate the fact that we are a part of a glorious process at the macro- and the supra-macro-level. But what about how that creative imperative can play out in our lives? Are we subject to an overwheening irony that dictates the only difference that we, as individuals, can make, is to allow ourselves to be played by these grandscale numbers games? Well, I’m not going to dismiss the notion out of hand. There’s a lot of work to be done in the field, but the myth of the singular genius is, thanks to the likes of Adam Grant, being replaced by a different mythic image, that of the shape slowly emerging from a bubbling soup of possibility.
But might it be possible for us to make a genuinely creative difference in our own lives? What might lives dedicated to that end look like?
If you go into any bookstore, or even have the misfortune to take a wrong turn in the labyrinth of life and wind up in the living hell of a management training workshop, you will have been imbued with a lot of incredibly positive mantras and techniques. Blue skies and non-boxes and multiple hats and rhymes that sound like something from the 1990s news. Because it’s not the business of the self-improvement, er, business to sell you failure, or even uncertainty.
It’s all very well devoting your life to thinking outside the box, but without there being some kind of box, and some kind of reference in your thought to that box, you are liable to spend your life experimenting with scenarios involving James Corden and broccoli, or at the very least a variety of commonly available brassicas. And this brings us to one of the big questions for humanity – would our future as a species be better if we threw our collective effort behind boxless experiments even though we know that for many people their lives will be experimental dead ends? Is boxing individuals in better using our resources, or is unboxing them and celebrating green Corden the only way to maximize our overall creative success? And how on earth do we square that with economics?
And this is where, as so often, we descend to question and conjecture. Which is not a bad place to start, especially as this post marks the start of my own project, a systematic exploration of the nature and potential of creativity on the human, the organisational, and the societal levels.
Let us assume that absolute creativity, whatever that may mean, is the province only of those forces with infinite resource. There must still be an optimal amount of creativity for a life. Here we face a question I want to come back to in the weeks and months to come, but to leave aside here. It is the question we have already asked, and it is this – how does a creative society balance optimal ingenuity for the world with optimal ingenuity for each individual who finds themselves part of that whole with their separate and equally valuable dreams and desires and needs?
Let’s say for now that the idea of an individual’s optimal ingenuity makes sense. How do we achieve that? What is the best way for us to be creative? How can we go about it so that we have the best chance of hitting on the best idea that will change the world or people’s perspective on it the most, and ideally for the best?
That is the set of questions at the heart of the research that, in short, will constitute the main work of this blog, and this part of Rogue Interrobang, for the years to come.
Fortunately, I have a conjecture that I want to put to the test. I will explain how I arrived at it, and why I think it has potential, later. But for now, I will simply state it. See what you think. Does it make sense? Does it have legs? Does it fit with your own experience of being creative or watching others around you follow an original idea through to a truly creative conclusion?
It’s not particularly startling. It’s certainly not, I am sure, original or overly creative, but it’s been niggling at me for a long time, hinting at me, asking me to take a closer look, so here it is:
Creativity occurs at the intersection of deep knowledge and broad knowledge. Deep knowledge of a subject means that you have mastered the workings of the small field in question to the extent that consciously or unconsciously you start to become aware of the flaws and fissures within it, to have a feel for its landscape. But deep knowledge also means that you know something so well that you have internalised its “rules”, have developed a blindness to fresh perspective. Broad knowledge brings a voracity and enthusiasm and furious connection-building that sees everything as new, free from preconception. But it also leaves you navigating in the dark, lacking an atlas of its semi hidden pathways and pitfalls. It is in the constant change of focus, the zooming in and zooming out of perspective, the bringing of deep knowledge to play on new fields and constant newness on an intimately known terrain that the possibility of truly meaningful innovation will most likely and most profoundly occur.
And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, ready to revisit with a rationale and a methodology later. In the meanwhile, over to you. What is creativity? Is real originality possible and does it matter?