I often say creativity is broken down into two very simple parts.
1. Know lots of things about lots of things
2. Be able to join those things together
Taken together these two elements harness the real power of what it means to say that knowledge is not the sum of what you know but the product of what you know.
I want to give you a really simple tool, or exercise, that shows you what this means. It’s one I use pretty much any time I tackle a creative thinking problem. It’s really helpful for
• generating unexpected ideas
• enabling you override your mind’s tendency to tell you that certain things don’t belong together, that “this or that isn’t relevant here”
• scoring really well on the Torrance Test, the standard way of measuring creativity, which rewards ideas that are drawn from a really varied set of fields rather than the same number of ideas that are from a narrow field or, as is often the case, just variations of the same thing
I call it “taking an idea for a walk.”
Let me explain how it works using one of the classic creative thinking problems. How many uses can you think of for a paperclip? How would you go about thinking of things? The danger is that you will feel like a writer confronted with an empty page, and you will end up with nothing.
If you’re slightly more used to problem solving, you might take your cue from what a paperclip looks like. So you might think of a whole load of things that look like a paperclip – a diving board, a coat hook, a heating element and so on, and devise new uses by listing those and adding to each “for ants”.
The approach I take is to go through, systematically, each part of my knowledge, and for each one figure out whether there is any way a paperclip could be useful.
It’s a very simple idea. But to be able to make the most of it, you need to be able to access every different part of your knowledge bank quickly, fluidly (the easiest trap to fall into when generating ideas is to come up with something really interesting and then to find it really hard to change track), and in usable form. That means practising how you access information. You can obviously do lots of creative thinking exercises, but you can also do it as you go about your daily life, seeing how many random connections you can make to the things you encounter every day. But you also need to make sure you store and catalogue information in a way that’s really easy to use.
We’ll look later at some incredibly effective ways of storing information, but for now you could use something as simple as the categories of a trivial pursuit set. Or the Mycelium drafting table, which I devised to, in theory, divide the whole of human knowledge into 100 headings.
So, to go back to our paperclip example, I might start at the top left of the drafting table with “deserts” – a paperclip might act as a heat transfer element in a solar panel, or you could put it under the ground at the desert’s edge and encourage roots to grow around it so as to avoid soil erosion and desert encroachment. Eventually your “idea journey” will go through headings like business (we all know the book “One Red Paperclip”, fashion (punk revival for office managers), education (the different lengths of metal might make it useful for performing calculations), fish (prosthetic for an angler fish who’s lost its lure), and the law (might we introduce a “paperclip standard” dictating that all openings in drinks cans have to be the size of a standard paperclip or more?) – and so on.
Without this systematic approach, I might not have come up with any of those ideas because I would be left without a clear place to start. Try it out.