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.”


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