Cosmology, Collidors, and Creatively Playing the Fool

A dandelion from Hawkesbury Upton. Dandelions are featuring big in my life this year and I was delighted to get some great snaps.

I was delighted to be asked to talk about creativity at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival with two of my heroes. Orna Ross’s brilliance and kindness and inspiration have meant so much over the years to me personally as well as the wider literary world. Joanna Penn is a creative and motivational inspiration to many but for me it is her sick, twisted mind that is a thing of beauty and a reminder I am not alone in the dark. This is what I had to say:

I could make this a very short talk, because there is one thing that will do more to unlock your creativity more than every other technique put together. Stop judging yourself. Stop being afraid of looking an idiot. That’s it. Of course, this falls into the category of “straightforward advice” known as “simple but not easy.”

But maybe you want me to say a little more than that – albeit the rest of what I have to say can be filed under “useful footnotes to be referred to once you’ve got the hang of the biggie.”

Sadly for our pathological love of sentiment, but fortunately for anyone who wants to be more creative, contrary to the heart-rending, fist-pumping, misty-eyed and mystical picture painted by the likes of Dead Poets Society, creativity is not about a tenderly handled flame of passion or a spark of something divine. It is, almost entirely, a numbers game.

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 cultural 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. It is a soup of ideas in which most will, by any definition that considers them in isolation, fail. Yet seen together it is precisely the presence of so many failing ideas that enables the soup itself to succeed.

Consider the most successful thing ever to have emerged from the creative soup. It is this:


This simple formula expresses Hubble’s Law. It is used to calculate the velocity, V, at which the Universe is expanding. Whether you look out through a radio telescope at the stars or in through a microscope at the structure of graphene or around you at the swell of the sea or the iridescent dance of the bird of paradise or the endless rippling retreat of the sands or the smile on a lover’s face, every single thing you experience today, or look back at across the ocean of time or forward to the death of the last star is possible only because of the precise value of the terms of this equation. And it emerged not, sorry, through divine fiat but by a weight of numbers so utterly unimaginable it defies metaphor.

and another

The theory of the multiverse, brought to us by Hugh Everett, the physicist best known to many as the father of the lead singer of the indie folk rock band Eels, tells us it is sheer processing power that makes the cosmos the greatest innovator there has ever been. It states that every possible universe there could have been has, in fact, occurred. And an immeasurable number of those where the value of V was just slightly too high or slightly too low to support the beautiful complexity of our own have, simply, collapsed in on themselves or floated away into the infinite wastes.

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 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.

Even in a field of human endeavour where the numbers game really matters, let’s say literature, our place is much more likely to be part of the avalanche of the average and sub-average that is the precondition for the few soaring works of originality that occasionally break the surface.

But might it be possible for us to make a genuinely creative difference in our own lives?

I’m not sure I have an answer for that but I want to give the closest I have. What we need to find is, to go back to a cosmological turn of phrase, a goldilocks zone where we do just the right amount of failing and just the right amount of succeeding.

My thesis is simple

Creativity occurs at the intersection of deep knowledge and broad knowledge. This might sound esoteric but the ideas are there in two of the most commonly referenced pieces of self-help you will find: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule – that to gain true expertise in a field you need to spend 10,000 hours working at it, and Josh Kaufmann’s complementary rule that you can get pretty good at most things with 20 hours of highly focused study.

Deep knowledge of a subject means that you know 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.

So now we know where in the creative cosmos to look for our goldilocks zone, how do we use that information? What are creativity’s radio telescope and mass spectrometer?

I want to offer you two simple techniques you can practise every day, all based on the notion we have decided to explore that creativity is about bringing existing things and ideas together in interesting new ways:

Collide and elide.

For each of these techniques you will need a list of things. You can add to this list at any time, and you can add any thing. Write each thing on a separate card. These cards will become the most important tool on your creative journey. For each exercise you simply need to draw two cards and start.

The collision method, for want of a better term, works rather like the Large Hadron Collider. Take two different things. Speed them up. Smash them into each other and then look at the resultant mess to see what you’ve got.


Really good exercises for practising this include taking your two things and asking “How is x like y?” or “How is an x different from y?” or “What would happen if you crossed x with y?”

Eliding is simply one form of colliding, a very basic but fun to practise one. Eliding two objects literally means sticking two objects together by lopping a bit off each and gluing them together. Basically what, in less literary surroundings, we’d call a cut and shut.

Mythology uses elision a lot. Think of all those beasts that are half this and half that, such as a griffin, which is half lion half eagle, or the half man half horse centaur, or the satyr or the harpy or the mermaid. The general term for them is chimaera. These days we might think of them as a form of hybrid. Joining two things like this is sort of like colliding, only less free-form, less chaotic. It’s more a case of “imagine something that had the something of an x and the something of a y”. For example, “Imagine an object with the wheels of a bicycle and the fur of a dog.”


A great exercise for practising this is an elaboration of the previous one. For each object on your list, list 6 of its specific characteristics, (you can write these, numbered, on the card). And then pick two objects, and for each object pick one of its characteristics using a die. And then imagine a new thing, one that has each of those characteristics – in what way might this new thing, this chimaera-object improve upon the two existing things? How might it be able to do stuff that is completely new?

These techniques might not seem to be very useful. Who actually needs to know what, say, a half coffee cup half spinning jenny would look like, or what hidden uses it might have? But that is to miss the key point. Learning to think creatively isn’t about usefulness. Usefulness comes later. Usefulness comes when you immerse yourself in your deep knowledge, and then go wandering through the varied landscape of your broad knowledge, applying these techniques on every step of the journey like the world’s greatest absurd mash-up ninja. Then again, maybe it never comes. It certainly won’t come until you have conquered the fundamental art of being OK with making a fool of yourself.


Just One Thing

From time to time I post questions on Facebook about the kind of strange question that keeps me up at night. Usually the kind of question that will either one day form the kernel of a thriller should I have my fictional hat on, or a piece of speculative futurology or creative research should I be wearing that jaunty trilby that day. The questions aren’t unique or particularly original but they are two things:

  • fun. At least if your brain is all beaten out of shape the way mine is then this is what you find fun.
  • great for getting you to think in different ways. In particular in forcing you to make a decision (do nothing is never an option), just like citizens and governments are forced to every day and then think through the consequences and how those consequences lead to conflicting outcomes, off the wall consequences that only emerge much later, and always disappointing if not downright hurting not only some people but parts of your own psyche that are integral to who you are and how you see and value the world. Whatever the answers, this trains you to develop new ways of balancing things that sit very ill at ease with each other

This particular question should probably be called the Columbo Dilemma, in honour of everyone’s favourite shabby detective who always wanted to know “just one thing”. As always with my questions, there’s no trick. The object is to think as deeply as possible about every possible aspect of the question and where it might take you.

As a very good programmer with a team of very good programmers, and a huge but finite wealth to draw on, you realise that you are in a position to tackle once and for all one of the world’s most pressing problems. But which one? Fortunately, you don’t have to answer that. You are, after all, a very good programmer, so you decide to create an algorithm to answer the question for you – which of the world’s problems should I solve?

1. How do you begin writing such an algorithm? What parameters do you set? What do you tell it to do and with what portions of which data?

2. Would having a more sophisticated algorithm and better processing power enable you to get a better answer but do you worry that at a certain point the algorithm will make a leap such that it incorporates its own self-interest into its calculations, which may be at odds with your goals, and if so do you scale back its capacity, knowing that the only reliable effect will be a less effective answer?


Colliding, Sliding and Eliding: Lessons in Creativity 2

This section contains three very different sets of exercises for you to work on. As such, it may be worth spending longer on it than last time, or treating it as three separate sections. Though of course it’s entirely up to you.

(click here for the first lesson)

Last time we looked at some ways to get the brain used to mashing things together and seeing what happened. Now it’s time to introduced a little more nuance, and separate out two very different ways that mashing can take place. Rather as potato can be baked or boiled for very different if equally delicious flavours (both, of course, can be mashed though mashing is not a way of cooking).

I recently witnessed a conversation on social media about the lunar landings that furnished me with a perfect metaphor for this occasion. The point at issue was how a tiny, fragile capsule could, once the crew had finished playing golf and planting flags, dock – with the required precision – with the tiny, fragile craft that would then transport the astronauts safely home. The problem was that this tininess and fragility came with an eyewatering groundspeed for the orbiting craft of some three and a half thousand kilometres an hour, at which the smallest mistake would rip the capsule open like a sardine can leaving the poor astronauts to be consumed by the merciless tuna fish of space.

Of course, this is not how docking works. If it were, astronaut may find itself a little further down most people’s list of dream jobs. In reality, docking is achieved, just as mid-air refuelling of aeroplanes – by synching orbits between the objects to be joined so that the relative speed and position gets closer and closer to identical and the meshing can be achieved with feather-light precision.

Fortunately, where the mind is concerned eyewatering gaps in relative speed can play themselves out with little physical danger to anyone. What that means is that when it comes to playing “ooh, that thing is like that other thing” or any other kind of exercise designed to put two concepts together, you can use either method – slide or collide – for doing so. And practising both is a really good way of producing very different but equally interesting sets of results.

Let’s explore that, and look at ways to practice.

London’s Southbank Undercroft


The collision method, for want of a better term, that is similar to the method we looked at last time, works rather like the Large Hadron Collider. Take two different things. Speed them up. Smash them into each other and then look at the resultant mess to see what you’ve got.

Exercise 1

Really good exercises for practising this include “How is a … like a …?” or “How is a … different from a …?” or “What would happen if you crossed a … with a …?”

These are great questions, and you should practise them regularly. To do so, you will need slightly more preparation than last time. You will need a ready-made list of “things”, which could just be a list of objects. It is a very good idea to create such a list, for exactly this and similar exercises. It could also be images or photographs, of things or places – a great tool for this is creating Pinterest boards. Or even using other people’s – maybe one day there will be a whole community of people with “creative images” boards to choose from when practising.


Eliding is simply one form of colliding, a very basic but fun to practise one – and very much worth adding because we all know that a title containing three words that rhyme is infinitely better than one that contains just two. Eliding two objects literally means sticking two objects together by lopping a bit off each and gluing them together. Basically what, in less literary surroundings, we’d call a cut and shut.

Mythology uses elision a lot. Think of all those beasts that are half this and half that, such as a griffin, which is half lion half eagle, or the half man half horse centaur. The general term for them is chimaera. These days we might think of them as a form of hybrid. Joining two things like this is sort of like colliding, only less free-form, less chaotic – but very unlike the smooth systematic nature of the method we’ll look at next. It’s more a case of “imagine something that had the … of an x and the … of a y”. For example, “Imagine an object with the wheels of a bicycle and the fur of a dog.” This

Exercise 2

The exercise for practising this is an elaboration of the previous one. For each object on your list, I want you to list as many specific characteristics as you can. And then I want you to pick two objects, and for each object pick one of its characteristics. And then imagine a new thing, one that has each of those characteristics – in what way might this new thing, this chimaera-object improve upon the two existing things? How might it be able to do stuff that is completely new?

These techniques might not seem to be very useful. Who actually needs to know what a half coffee cup half spinning jenny would look like, or what hidden uses it might have? But that is to miss the key point, that this isn’t about usefulness, and even if it were, often the most useful things turn out to be by-products of the simple process of creation and experimentation.


This is very different. You might think of it as bringing two objects together through a process of convergence the way two sets of econometric data would be brought into alignment before two countries adopted a single economic framework. Or you may stick to the image of a plane refuelling mid flight.

The way it works is very similar to the descriptive technique of analogy that was used by many mediaeval thinkers. Indeed, it’s very similar to one of the tools we use for communicating every day – metaphor.

Metaphor is simply describing one thing with words that refer to another. If you look out of the window and the trees are blown almost vertical by a wind that’s so loud you can barely hear yourself think you might say “I’m staying in. It’s hell out there.” You don’t actually mean, of course, that a horned figure is standing in the street toasting the bodies of the damned (it’s too blowy for barbecue, after all). Instead, you are taking a common reference point between you and the person you’re talking to – all those childhood stories about Satan, pitchforks, and conditions that you really wouldn’t want to take a leisurely stroll in – and using all the associations you have with that reference point to convey something about the actual thing you’re describing (“It’s really unpleasant out there”) in a way that’s more engaging, and in terms of the feelings involved actually more expressive, than simply saying “It’s really unpleasant out there”.

Metaphor works precisely because the two sides of the equation – the thing you are describing and the thing you are using to describe it – have lots in common, especially when it comes to a key feature. Take the phrase “whirlwind romance”. It is a metaphor that works (romances aren’t *actually* whirlwinds, not unless you have a very unlikely paraphilia) because of a key common trait – quickness in this case. From all the available images in your database you have chosen one whose orbital velocity is very evenly matched to the thing you are describing. You have brought images into alignment so that they can be delicately meshed together.

But metaphors work best of all because for all those similarities there are also differences, and it is those apparent differences that can add to the picture you are painting. A whirlwind, for example, rises out of nowhere in response to changes in atmospheric pressure, it is confined to a tiny locale where it reeks its havoc unseen from elsewhere, and then vanishes, suddenly, leaving devastation. All these, and more, features of the meteorological event are conjured up when we hear the phrase, and we transfer those thoughts onto the romance being described, making us see it in a very different way from if we had said simply “it was a very intense romance that was over very quickly”.

Exercise 3

Take one object from your list. Make a list of the key things about it, with a sentence at a time – for example, think what it does, who might use it, where you might find it. Then take that list of sentences, and for each sentence make another list, this time of all the other things that it could be describing. Then I want you to bring the first object and the second objects together in a single sentence, at the same time leaving out the key part about the key attribute they each share. For example

Object: an orange

Attribute: it has a thick skin

Other items that have a thick skin might include “elephant”

New sentence – “This object has the skin of an elephant”

Exercise 4

We can take this beyond metaphor, though. This next set of exercises will practise putting two objects together, just as you did with the collision technique, only using the alignment technique. You can use exactly the same lists for the two different exercises.

For any two objects, find something about them that is the same, ideally something that works the same way. You can, of course, define this in any way you want. For example, both an orange and a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare (once it has been pulped in water and remoulded) will roll down a hill. Likewise both of them have something like skin (especially if Shakespeare is written on vellum – though in that case of course you couldn’t make papier maché).

What I want you to do is the same kind of process of elaboration as I asked you to do in the last post. There you started telling stories about the dog-like cloud. Here I want you to start doing something similar. An orange rolls down hills like a bicycle does. What else might it do that a bicycle does? What might a bicycle look like if, instead of wheels, you gave it oranges, or if you in any other way incorporated oranges into its design? Likewise, consider the orange – when it rolls down hills maybe it loses some of its zestiness as it bumps on the cobbles. Likewise a bicycle with flimsy tyres is very vulnerable, but have been designed to be more robust. Could this provide you tips for the transportation of genetically modified robust oranges? This is the hardest exercise we’ve done so far, by a long way. And it’s hard because when you first see it you find it difficult to get out of a rigid way of thinking about how two things might be alike – hopefully the “don’t worry about looking silly” exercises we did last time will have helped you to step outside that rigidity. But once you can do that, and accept that there really are no right answers, more importantly no wrong ones, just more or even more interesting ones, you will find this incredibly enjoyable.

What you should find, after a while, is that treating these sets of exercises as something very separate will allow you to perform them in increasingly different ways, thereby gaining the most from each. You may have found, for example, that when you first did the collision exercises, all you focused on was the ways in which the objects you were bringing together were similar. Which is great, but is also largely covered by the alignment exercises, so when you perform those as a separate thing, your collisions will be free to become increasingly strange and alarming – which means you’re getting more creative!


This time’s exercises are designed to push your creative horizons considerably further than last time. They are also potentially incredibly useful tools not just for enhancing your transferable skills but for finding new ways of understanding problems, and new and better ways of communicating your ideas.

Lessons in Creativity 1: Little Puffy Clouds

I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about the way creativity is, for want of a better term, about mashing things up and seeing what you get. But what I haven’t done yet is talk about how to develop the skill of the interesting collision. Skill, maybe, is the wrong word, because that takes us back to that misleading notion of “success”. The real thing that we can train is to make lots of fascinating idea-collisions, and not just to plop things together as if to say “Ooh, look, it’s a lake where the waves are made of JCBs” for example (though there’s much value – and fun – in that), but to explore what a lake whose waves of JCBs would actually be like. It’s about training to take yourself fully kitted all the way down the rabbit hole.

This is a first step of a 7 part journey in pursuit of the white rabbit.

All these were taken on a walk along the Thames Path. See what you can see in each.

At some time in our lives most of us will have played the clouds game. The one where we look up at skyborne packages of condensed water vapour and go “look, that one’s a bit like a camel with a bong.”

Maybe it’s a game you played as a kid. Maybe it’s a game you play with your own children. But maybe it’s not a game you play at many other times aside from with an occasional whiff of nostalgia as you gaze from a train window on a slightly melancholic late afternoon in autumn.

If you want to be more creative, the very best way to start is to rediscover the game of clouds. And not just clouds.

The first exercise is simple. I want you to make a conscious effort, as many times a day as you can, to stop yourself in your tracks, look around you, focus on something. And then list all the things it reminds you of. Ideally, you would do this with a camera, attached note to a photograph. That way you can look back later and see what you did, and maybe let your brain start recovering the other similarities it had been working on subconsciously.

But if you don’t have any technology, or even a notebook, don’t let that stop you. In fact, if I had to give one single piece of advice and then remain forever silent on the subject, it would be this:

“Whatever the doubt you’re raising right now – don’t let that stop you!”

It’s the simplest game in the world but don’t be surprised if at first you find it almost impossible. That’s not surprising – and I don’t just mean for those with a neurodivergence that interferes with the way they construct analogies.

The reasons we struggle to point at a cloud and see something else will vary from person to person. In some cases, as I have hinted, it will result from a neurodivergence that throws up a block to the formation of this kind of metaphorical connection. I would not want anyone to whom this applies to try and try and be left feeling disappointed and confused at their failure. But for most people the crux of the problem will be twofold:

Lack of practice – as I have hinted, “clouds” is a game most of us associate only with childhood – our own, or that of others. But whilst we may think of that link to childhood as having to do with occupying otherwise overly noisy youngsters on long journeys, the truth is rather that it is a superlative workout tool for training young (and old) minds.

Self-censorship that comes from a twofold fear.

  • Fear, on the one hand, of being ridiculous. Even though the only person who will ever know the true extent of what we perceive as the weirdness flowing through our minds. It would be easy to be glib, but the truth is this kind of fear runs very deep ad can be extremely intransigent. If you find yourself falling prey to it then the best place you can focus your energy is on overcoming it. Some tips for this are
    • Simply do these exercises. Allow yourself to be sceptical but do them anyway.
    • Watch documentaries online about some of the world’s great artists and innovators. Many of them are what you would think of as incredibly weird. But they did great things, and part of that was because they didn’t feel self-conscious – even doing this in public, and you’re only being asked (for now) to do it with an audience of just you.
    • Maybe stop judging “weird” and start embracing it. Or even celebrating it as an idea. Make a list of weird people and weird stuff. Bookmark things and go back to them.
    • Play Cards Against Humanity.
    • Again – just do the exercises. And if you can’t bring yourself by any duress to point, mentally, at a cloud and say to yourself, “that looks like a puppy” because your inner self-censor just won’t let you, don’t worry. At the bottom of this article is a list. Print it out and take it with you in your wallet and three times a day – morning, lunchtime, and late afternoon or, indeed, whenever – and pick an object in the vicinity – not necessarily a cloud, maybe a puddle or a building or a hill or a window or a crack in the pavement – and read through the list making yourself say, “this looks like a …”
  • And fear of being not very good. The same fear that stops us starting most things in life, hence the reason why the single most important tip for becoming an expert at anything is, simply, “start doing it.”

A day or a week of doing this will not make you Thomas Edison or Margaret Attwood. Sorry. But don’t worry about that. What you can do, as you find it easier to say “that looks like a puppy” is to start elaborating, just a bit at a time. What kind of puppy is it? What might the puppy be doing?

At first, you will find you think of puppies doing puppyish things – chewing a bone or fetching a stick or waiting for a walk. And that’s great. After a while, once you’re used to that try making the things the puppy does un-puppyish or try making the tree be covered with something that’s not Christmas decorations or leaves. Make these as outrageous as you like.

And just as I have left a list of nouns at the bottom of this post that you can come back to as prompts, start making your own list of verbs and use them the same way.

And once you are comfortable looking at a crack in a wall and saying to yourself “that looks like a rhinoceros learning to play the bugle” elaborate further. What might motivate a rhino to play the bugle? What mayhem might a bugle-playing rhino cause if, say, it were to take a shopping trip to Macey’s or climb the Eiffel Tower, or stand for President, or announce to a disbelieving world with a tear in its eye that after years of careful consideration it had decided that in good conscience it could no longer continue playing the bugle but was leaving it for the nose flute?

A new chapter in the life of a bugling rhino is as good a place as any to leave this first lesson, save for the consoling thought that I am only asking you to be, in utter privacy, a fraction as ridiculous as a so-called advisor explaining, with a straight face, the moving musical history of a pachyderm.

10 things that clouds (and sometimes walls) sometimes look like

  • A cat
  • A shark
  • A unicorn
  • A frying pan
  • An ice cream
  • A rubber duck
  • A spoon
  • A sports car
  • A fire extinguisher
  • A duvet

Why We Are Wrong About Creativity

Creativity. Whether we are a massive organisation looking to break new ground or an individual wanting out of a rut, it is the one thing everyone wants more of. Yet of course it is the great unquantifiable.

Anyone my age with any kind of artistic leaning will probably remember the inner – or, quite possibly, outer – fist pump we did when Robin Williams, playing the teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, had his students read out fictional scholar J Evans-Pritchard’s formula for calculating the greatness of a poem before having them rip the page from their books. Because poetry is not a matter of science, it is a matter of art. It cannot be captured in a formula, it can only be felt in the reader’s heart.

Keating was, of course, utterly and catastrophically wrong, despite being right about many things in the course of the film – from the problem of human transience to the importance of unusual perspectives and most basically of all the fact that poetry is great.

But about this, he was wrong, and in the few moment I have today I want to explain why it matters so much that we understand how he was wrong. Because unlocking our creativity has the potential to change our species’ future in infinite wonderful and unexpected ways. It will enrich our lives through culture. It will meet the challenges we will face this century that now feel so large we cannot bring ourselves even to glance at their shadows. It will bring us myriad new ways to understand, describe, enjoy, and simply wonder at the vast and beautiful universe of which we are a part.

But if we carry on creating the Keating way it will bring us only the mawkish sentimentality we find in every other Robin Williams film.

The reason so many react in horror to the notion that we can in some way measure creativity using a formula is that they understand this to mean that creativity somehow happens by the operation of that formula. And when I say “understand” I am, of course, speaking antonymically.

As it happens, we have a pretty good way of measuring creativity. It’s called the Torrance Test. A variant of it is used in the judging of the Creative Thinking World Championships. It assesses the creativity of time-constrained answers to specific questions, such as devising novel uses for everyday items or finding solutions to open-ended problems, along three axes: prolificness, that is, the sheer number of ideas generated; originality, which is to say those answers given by fewer people in response to the same question are weighted to count more highly; and elaboration, which looks at how fully thought through or developed your responses are as well as their complexity. Possibly counter-intuitively (though if you have such intuitions you may want to read more about creativity) but importantly, what is not measured or scored in any way is whether any of these ideas would actually work.

To give an example of how this works in practice, in the 2016 Creative Thinking World Championships one of the tasks we were set was a “down the back of the sofa” problem, how to find uses for recovered misplaced items, specifically thirteen odd socks, a chopstick and one glove. In the 20 minutes available I had lots of suggestions, but apparently what earned me the highest marks was my idea of using the socks to mark out the 13 months of a lunar clock, with the chopstick to serve as a gnomon, whilst the glove doubled as a coxcomb so that the moon, believing it to be a crowing cockerel, would be reminded to follow its proper path through the heavens. It is, perhaps, not surprising that no one else came up with such a ridiculous idea, and it is certainly very fortunate that marks are not awarded for whether it would actually work, but in its favour in terms of elaboration it served to link the three separate items into a single notion that, at least within its own rather limited little world, made sense as a whole.

In fact, there is an even more accurate measure. It is, indeed, the most accurate measure in the Universe. One might put it that if God played dice, this measure would be the equivalent of the first roll taking place as the Bigness Banged and subsequent rolls continuing right to the heat death of the Universe without ever rolling anything but a double six.

And it’s this


That simple formula expresses Hubble’s Law. It is used to calculate the velocity, V, at which the Universe is expanding. Whether you look up at the stars or in through a microscope or around you at the swell of the sea or the iridescent dance of the bird of paradise or the endless rippling retreat of the sands or the smile on a lover’s face, every single thing you experience today, or look back at across the ocean of time or forward to the death of the last star is possible only because of the precise value of the terms of this equation.

If V were lower, then gravity would mean the entire universe would collapse in on itself before it got under way. Any higher and its fundamental particles would spin away into oblivion before they could ever coalesce to form the most basic of compounds.

How did this remarkable universe, dependent on such a precise measurement, turn up on our doorsteps? This is not the point at which I leave science behind for religion. One of the most popular explanations is that of the multiverse, a theory initially devised, as trivia fans will know, by the brilliant mathematician and cosmologist now best known as the father of Mark Everett, the lead singer of the rock band Eels. What it states is that every possible universe there could have been has, in fact, occurred. And an immeasurable number of those where the conditions did not support the beautiful complexity of our own have, simply, collapsed or floated away into the infinite wastes.

This point is essential if we are going to understand creativity. The Cosmos is the greatest innovator of them all. And that is because it has all of time and all of space and all the matter and energy there will ever be as its toolkit. And yes, it has produced what we see today. But it has failed not once, as we might do putting an Ikea cabinet together, or a hundred times as we might do as an author looking for an agent, or a thousand times as Edison may have done whilst inventing the lightbulb, but an infinite number of times.

Adam Grant, in his wonderful book Originals, tells us that when it comes to human creativity this cosmic principle holds true. The one thing research finds that the most innovative human beings have in common is not “talent” or, as memes would tell you “these seven great ways of organising their live.” It is simply this – like the greatest innovator of them all, the Cosmos, they fail more than others.

And this is the great dilemma most of us face. The freedom to fail is a privilege very few of us truly have. Most of us cannot take time out of our money-earning day to pursue, with the few productive hours our brains allow us, activities that may lead either nowhere or to failure. Those of us who can are the lucky few, and we must never forget that. This is one reason why finding the essential innovative solutions to this century’s greatest challenges – the AI singularity, the possibility of transhumanism, food security, automation of the workplace, resistant bacteria, disease, and climate change – will best be served by providing a universal basic income. It is why one of the aims of my own creative enterprise Rogue Interrobang is to provide “freedom to fail” studentships to enable people to follow their strange obsessions and peculiar dreams for no other reason than to see where they might end up.

Worse, and because so few of us have that privilege I am tempted to say – from a global perspective at least – criminally, those of us involved in the creative world, perhaps especially those of us in self-publishing, treat success with an almost cultish reverence. We seek to maximise our chances of success by pursuing those strategies that have been successful. And when we receive a new initiate we groom them for success by providing them with the most tried and tested tips from successful people on how to replicate that success. And governments, of course, are as bad, seeking to fund only those endeavours with the greatest chance of success.

There is a reason, of course, we are so tempted to pursue success from the outset of a project when every piece of evidence we have is that creativity at its best happens when we repeatedly follow an idea to destinations of interesting failure. And it is one that brings us back to cosmology, where, and in many context, we will hear the phrase “The Goldilocks Zone”.

As you might gather if you are familiar with fairytales, most often used in reference to the distance a planet needs to be from its star for life to be sustainable, in any context the “Goldilocks Zone” refers to that place which is, in relation to some particular thing, “just right” – neither too big nor too small, too near nor too far, too much nor too little.

As creatives, the search for our own elusive Goldilocks Zone takes us in search of just the right amount of failure. And it’s a question to which there is probably no one answer. One problem is that of the scale of our creative endeavour. As a writer, this is something I feel particularly keenly. If my creative endeavour is to contribute the best I can to humanity’s rich cultural tapestry, then my goal is best served by a life of constant failure. The numbers tell us that we will have more and better works of true brilliance and originality and life-changing, epoch-shaping possibility if we all throw everything out of the window and push ourselves in every interesting direction. Most of those directions will be dead ends but because we are all doing the pushing, those that are not will open up spectacular new vistas.

The problem is that as individual creatives, unlike scientists who take precisely this approach and for whom success means the success of the endeavour as a whole rather than their individual part of it, we seldom see ourselves as part of this bigger quest.

For me, this narrow horizon is a cause for sadness, and possibly the root cause of most of my feelings of ill-ease with the literary community, especially that part one could identify as the “self-publishing industry”. The more of us who change our definition of success from the micro to the macro scale, the brighter the future for our cultural landscape. But, of course, we come back again to the constraints of needing to keep a roof over our head. And that is why, on the one hand, the answer to unlocking the creative future of our species is the provision of a universal basic income, and on the other the most exciting places to watch are those inhabited by the amateur and the hobbyist, precisely those written off as less serious or less important by the “industry”. Because it is when a person’s horizon can be the macro and not the micro; when they can pursue their ideas fearlessly; when they are, simply put, free to fail that they can best contribute to the great numbers game of culture.

But of course we do not have have a universal basic income, and it I entirely natural for people to want to be the most creative they can be within their own lives. And if that is the case, my closest approximation to a creative goldilocks zone, welcoming dead ends yet maximising the probability of useful innovation, is summarised in the principle:

wide and deep

Which is fortunate, because that just happens to coincide with two of the most effective methods of learning we have, the building of expertise through years of deep practice (what Malcolm Gladwell brought to prominence with his 10,000 hour claim), and short, targeted bursts such as we find in the “learn anything in 20 hours” method expounded by Josh Kaufman. These are things I have intuitively always practised, almost certainly by luck, which is perhaps why I have both enjoyed good fortune in creative thinking competitions and in equal measure baffled audiences with my mash-up lectures on such topics as mathematical models and mediaeval torture instruments or the common ground in Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy and 17th century marriage tracts.

By wide and deep, what I mean is that we do best when we bring long-in-the-making expertise to constantly new fields, or a stream of new perspectives to a problem of which we have a detailed and intimate knowledge. It turns out, as Adam Grant explains when talking about the effectiveness of innovation, that wide and deep is not, as I had thought, just my personal experience of a peculiar quirk. What he found was that the most effective innovators in a field tended to be extremely knowledgeable people who were new to that field.

In order to facilitate this process of crashing different parts of my knowledge, Hadron Collider-style, into each other to see what strange particle traces might result, I use another technique that has a long history within the world inhabited by those of us who live in our minds – the memory palace. This ancient technique was just a few weeks ago demonstrated in a study carried out by Boris Konrad and others to actually alter the neurological wiring of those who adopted it, alongside their performance at feats of memory. It involves building a personalised mental superstructure, which in many cases is, literally, a giant building (hence the term memory palace) with easily distinguished and recognisable rooms, and then placing the different parts of one’s knowledge in those rooms so that, when one wants to retrieve a fact, one simply walks, in one’s head, to the appropriate room and retrieves it.

When presented with a problem such as those found in creative thinking competitions, I will tackle it by wandering around my memory palace a wing at a time seeing in each place if there is anything there that might help me solve it.

And I will add to it constantly – making sure that I carry out a constantly revolving stream of 20 hour learning bursts, making myself a mini expert in one subject after another. And wherever possible I will go beyond simply learning a new subject – as I learn I will let natural associations form with everything else I know, noting every connection, finding ways to turn even the most random of them – such as the observation that the mathematical model of a particular function somewhat resembles the shape of a Judas Chair, something I filed away and later explored and turned into a talk about membranes and distortions and the way things react when we pull them out of shape.

And so I end up with my creative to do list, which always presents itself as a series of possible connections, ways on which two parts of what I know might be similar in interesting ways, or operate in the same manner or share something so tenuous as that both remind me of marmalade. Because the atrium of my memory palace is the knowledge base built on a lifetime’s learning rather than these superficial flights of fancy, most of these connections, certainly the ones that hold my interest the longest, will in some way refer back to it. For me that core of deep knowledge is around subjectivity, agency, narrativity, and all the various other terms we use for the ways we seek to understand and express ourselves in the world and in relation to each other. If I ever achieve anything more than amusingly quirky it will be from the colliding of that core with the myriad branches springing up on the periphery. I may, indeed I probably will, not. And I am very lucky. That will not take the roof from over my head, though I would, of course, appreciate a little more time to go about the business of failing that having a day job and two other jobs on the side does not afford me.

I want to begin to wrap up then, as Neil Gaiman ended his glorious 2013 address to London Book Fair, by urging those of you who are able to do so to embrace the pursuit not of success, but of failure. Because that is where the greatest, the most exciting, the most important, and for the future of our species the most critical creative and innovative success truly lies.

And having set out to show how, like science, creativity is not only quantifiable but a game that is best played by the numbers, what other place could I possibly finish than with one of the great formative influences on millions of people my age, the man who more than anyone else showed that the scientific could be an object of beauty, the beautiful made more so by being subject to the measure of science.

In the words of Carl Sagan:

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”