How You See Me, How You Don’t – Aaron Swartz Day

Please comment on the latest iteration in the comments or by replying on twitter to @agnieszkasshoes I would like to hear from all #actuallyautistic voices as well as any and all employers willing to consider this project

You can download a pdf of the project as it stands here.


“You ought always to be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing I could be working on right now? If you’re not doing it why aren’t you?”

It can often feel as though we live in a time when there are very few real heroes. Or that everyone who gets caught on film engaging in acts of basic human decency is a hero now. You can make a good case that both are true. But Aaron Swartz really was a hero. He changed the world for the good time and time again. He founded movements, engaged politicians and people alike, did an enormous amount to promote the idea that the impact our lives have matters, on a practical level improved people’s lives through technology, and gave people hope that their voices could be heard. And, of course, he paid the ultimate price for doing so.

November 4th is Aaron Swartz Day. It will be marked by an incredible weekend in San Francisco, with an evening of inspiring speakers followed by a day of hacking around technology’s designed to protect the integrity of journalistic sources and make it possible to share information, to collaborate and to bring the truth to the public securely.

This event will be accompanied by other events across the globe, all dedicated to the same goal of preserving Aaron’s legacy.

With that in mind, I want to say a very little about what Aaron’s legacy means to me, and what I will be doing this weekend to contribute to it.

For me Aaron’s legacy is a very simple and very powerful one made up of the following elements:

  • It matters that we each, insofar as we are able, try to make the world a better place.
  • It is possible for each of us to make the world a better place.
  • Technology is essentially neutral. It is our greatest challenge and our greatest responsibility to us it, just like anything else, for good, but it is possible to do so.
  • Anything that makes the world better, in however small a way, matters, is part of a beautiful, profound project, and should be celebrated.
  • Whoever you are, however solitary your endeavour, however many and however powerful the voices telling you that you do not matter, that you cannot make a difference – they are wrong. You matter. You can make a difference. You are not alone.

I will be spending this Saturday contributing a very small part to that project.

  • The small problem I am currently working on is ensuring that everyone is empowered to fulfil their full creative potential to help solve the world’s wicked problems.
  • The small part of that problem I am trying to make mine is empowering the neurodivergent and those with mental health conditions to be able to fulfil their creative potential.
  • The small part of that challenge I am currently focussed on is making the workplace accessible to the neurodivergent so that they can make the maximum creative impact through it.
  • And the small part of that problem I am working on this weekend is creating a format template of CV that presents the skills, the capabilities, and the needs of brilliant neurodivergent people in such a way as to make not only a compelling case for recruitment in companies to be restructured so as to accommodate them but to ensure that once in the workplace they are employed in roles where they will be both fully empowered to achieve at the edge of their potential, and supported to do so.

Iteration 1

Idea: A new way of presenting information about people’s skills that matches skills with employers’ needs to overcome the structural barriers to recruitment to and retention of employment for neurodivergent candidates, and to remove the difficulties of executive function associated with application

Mechanics – a web-based interface asks very simple questions about an employer’s needs and the accommodations they are willing to make, which interacts with a “back office” of a person’s skills so as to produce a custom document that shows

  • Which skills match which requirements, producing a “skills profile” relevant to the job (in the form of one of those “points on concentric circles” diagrams
  • What accommodations are needed if any in relation to each skill so that employers can empower their workforce and be proactive about accessibility
  • What is the best way to ask candidates to demonstrate proficiency in relation to each skill (written answer, pre=prepared presentation, interview, webchat etc). This can also include evidence of skills to avoid the need for testing (such as links to a design project or a paper as well as qualifications)

How it works

Those looking for work would:

  • Compile elements within a structured database by answering questions (how would we make this so it required less executive function than a regular CV) about
    • their preferred method of working
    • their accommodations and needs
    • their skills (prompted)
    • examples of those skills and how they would like to be tested on them (again, suitable prompts to avoid executive function issues)
  • Send the interface link to employers who would then answer the set questions about their requirements so as to pull through bits of information from the database

Potential employers would (if they’re not willing to take this step they are not going to be up for making the kind of accommodations they need to):

  • Complete some very simple questions such as “which of the following skills do you need?”, “which of the following kinds of accommodation is your organization able to make in relation to this post?”

There would need to be free text possibilities to allow for specific qualifications etc if necessary, but these kept to a minimum (because answering open-ended questions is what we’re trying to minimise)

Applicant would get to review the “pulled through” document and edit then submit – the employer would then receive their custom CV

If successful, a support plan would be auto-generated

Iteration 2

Key questions

  • When we look at the skills that employers want and the skills that people can offer, is there a mismatch?
  • If so, is that mismatch the result of language?
  • If there is a language problem (company wants “something jargonese” and person has a skill of “really good at pie charts”) is this a problem that could be solved by some kind of translation in the interface? That is to say, company is able to ask for “xyz” and this is presented to applicant as “abc” and when applicant’s “abc” goes back to company they see it as “xyz”
    • Would this be helpful or would it actually avoid tackling the problem because potential employers need to be more open to people’s actual language and this might teach them that they needn’t do any of that labour?
  • Should potential employers be asked what problems they want solving/tasks they want doing as opposed to what skills they want, so as to avoid bias about “what they think they need?”
  • When a person enters something into the database, would it be helpful if
    • They were asked for a skill and could enter in response to a prompt, or would this cause problems with trying to figure out what the question is “actually” asking?
    • Would it be better to be given free text, and then given a list of different, multiple ways of tagging that text to indicate the areas in which it would be useful to employers (ultimately could there be “intelligent prompts” as to possible categories?)
    • There was a mix of the two, so that you know what the skills areas are but can 1. Add other areas and 2. Can enter free text prompted by those categories, and then tag it multiple times?

Iteration 3

apologies for the jpegs, this is the first skeleton of a workflow and how the interfaces might function. The next phase will see the category lists populated. All feedback as always welcome

Iteration 4

Particularly useful feedback on the employer portal, specifically the later “check” columns. Where a skill might present particular issues, rather than the “challenge” of the previous iteration, now framing that as a presentation of alternatives, suggesting how work might still be done but without the requirement for the exclusionary elements:

  • There would still be a required “explanation” box, but this would now be written not as the result of a challenge but as the result of a series of prompts.
  • The potential issues would still be raised, but now each would be accompanied by questions of a “what if…” format that would enable employers to proactively consider more flexible practices


Unlock Everything: Mycelium Hackathon One – Unlock Employment

talking at Pitt Rivers Museum on World Mental Health Day with (l-r) (me), Marie Tidball, Miranda Relliy, Sonia Boué, Philip Bullock

The Mycelium project is now well underway. You can learn all about Mycelium, the creative thinking training tool that mixes mediaeval alchemy and neuroscience, on this website. A key part of the project is empowering people to innovate and tackle the challenges facing the world. And a key part of that is innovating through hackathons and other events aimed at tackling small problems offering achievable goals that will make a genuine difference.

The first hackathon ties into this wider project on unlocking access to the platforms that will enable neurodivergent people and those with mental health conditions to help shape the world of the century to come.

It will be open from 7pm UK time on November 4th to 7pm UK time on November 5th. The dates are deliberately set to coincide with Aaron Swartz Day, a day of global hackathon events all of which are aimed at furthering social justice digitally.

The goal is simple, but may need some really innovative angles to produce something that has a hope of working – to create a package for prospective employers that opens will open the door for neurodivergent people so that they can flourish in roles that use their full skills, by explaining:
1 – what skills neurodivergent people can bring, and how those skills can be used to great benefit in the workplace
2 – what barriers exist *in the recruitment process* that mean people with those skills are denied access to the recruitment process (from job specifications to interview methods and everything else)
3 – what barriers exist in workplaces that stop people doing the jobs they could do even if they got through recruitment
4 – *what steps employers can take to make both recruitment and the workplace accessible* so that they benefit from people’s skills

Our job here is mainly to come up with a great format to answer 4

Obviously any and all contributions received in advance are welcome. It will be my job to pull together as wide a pool of resources as possible, which I will make available from the previous Saturday. And to produce the final product – be that a document, a book, a film, or a combination – by Sunday 7pm.

I will be seeking input on 1-3 from outside this group to get the widest set of data possible.

For 1-3 especially a starting point might be what we could call the “Citroen dilemma” – i.e. “I have 2CVs” – that is “here’s a list of the shit ton of cool stuff I can do” and “here’s a list of the categories employers want to know about”. In essence one thing this might be about doing is making these two the same by getting employers to see that only the first CV is something they need to bother with.

The only rules of engagement are
– do not gaslight. If someone says something is a problem for them, it is a problem for them. Our job is to figure out how to deproblem it if it can be deproblemed
– following the “nothing about us without us” principle strictly, for 1-3 I am only seeking input from neurodivergent people. If you are a carer or a friend, and if the need for a carer itself is part of the barrier or strength by all means state that, and links to blogs are great but please no assumptions about someone else’s needs.
– comments that do not respect these rules will be deleted.

Also wanted:
Links to any organizations we can send the final product to, and suggestions for formatting/approach/strategy

Feel free to contribute in the comments, or to email stuff you might not want to share or might want to share anonymously to Contributions and discussion on the day will be via an online forum and potentially an in-person event in Oxford that will be linked to online discussion and that will be completely neurodivergent-accessible.

Happy hacking

Data Stuff

We take your privacy seriously. All comments through this site, the online hackathon discussion, and made by email to are collected solely for use in connection with the project outlined in this post. Suggestions and ideas made may be quoted in the final object and associated materials and publicity unless you tell us otherwise, but will only be attributed if you give permission to do so. Your email or other contact details will not be stored after the event, and all comments will be deleted on December 5th (kept for one month after the project is completed in case final edits need to be made with reference to them). All contributors who give their permission will be listed as co-authors of this project.

If you would like to be on an email list for information on future hackathons or events organised by Mycelium, please state this in your comment/submission.

When making your first submission, please state:

  • Whether you would like to be attributed with your comments/ideas including information about your circumstances relevant to the project. If you would like to be attributed and/or listed as a co-author, please let us know the name you would like attributed.
  • If you are happy to receive updates about the project’s progress and the day of the hackathon – this will not place you on any other mailing list and your details will be deleted at the end of the event.
  • Your pronouns so that we may address you as you would wish. This is really important if you want to be attributed.
  • If you are happy for your neurodivergence to be referred to it is important to us that we use language you are comfortable, even if we do so anonymously. Many people, for example, call themselves autistic, others a person with autism, others something else; likewise some people say they are disabled, others that they have a condition or an impairment. Please let us know which you prefer so that any language used is something you’re happy with.
  • Please note that because this is a 24 hour event, there will not be time to get everyone’s sign-off on the final object produced. If you would like to withdraw your words you may do so at any time up until 6pm Greenwich Mean Time on November 6th.
  • For points 1-3 as listed above we are looking for contributions from neurodivergent participants only, with the exceptions listed there in relation to carers talking about care (carers talking about the needs of those they care for is only OK if they include explicit permission). For hacking the issues identified there we are looking for anyone who wants to help, but of course we especially value neurodivergent voices.

Learning on the Run: 2017 Race to the Stones

Avebury 1

CN: anxiety, suicidal ideation

Every time you run an ultramarathon you learn something new about yourself. And the further you go, and the slower you go, the more you are likely to learn. Which means, at least on the second score, I should be a genius by now.

This was my third Race to the Stones, a 100 kilometre run along the Ridgeway. The first time, as I guess is the case for most newbies, the main thing I learned was that I could do it. I also learned that for me the oft-repeated dictum that your body can do remarkable things but the battle is to persuade your mind really doesn’t hold true. My threshold is what my body will do before caving in completely. I already sort of knew that from spending my late 20s powerlifting, living every workout on the very edge of what was physically dangerous. And I knew it from decades of staying alive through mental illness when it would have been so much easier to give in to the desperate desire to be dead.

Last year I learned something surprising. I am not particularly good at lots of things. And at some things I’m not too shabby. But in all things I am absurdly competitive. I had assumed that competitiveness would override anything, but when it turned out Ann was seriously ill mid race, I didn’t think twice about stopping to make sure she was taken care of. Running teaches you about your values, about where your boundaries lie, and it can often surprise you. A similar thing happened during training last summer when I found myself clambering into the Thames to pull out a sheep who’d ended up grazing too close to the edge. I’ve also learned that this border-case altruism most definitely doesn’t extend to swapping pleasantries with other runners while out on the trails – stories afterwards absolutely, but small talk is as unpleasant for the neurodivergent on the trails as off – and has the potential to utterly ruin an experience.

So what did I learn from this year’s Race to the Stones? Well, this year’s race was very much a dance of mind and body, flesh and spirit, learning a great deal about how my corpsely self functions, about the way life and our living of it is not illuminated by metaphor but *is* a metaphor. And I learned more than I have ever done in one concentrated burst about flow.

It has been a very difficult year for training, but for the first time I can remember, the month leading up to the race I was able to put in four weeks of uninterrupted training without any injury. And in the race itself it was clear before long that I was a lot stronger than I have been in the past. A bit heavier, yes (I’m working on that, and losing weight will be key to staying injury free), but with a much stronger core, and that made a big difference to a lot of the more technical parts of the course where I have struggled a lot before.

The Ridgeway is beautiful, and looking at the profile, it’s a pretty gentle place to run. In practice, a combination of vehicle access and soil type means that long stretches are rounded narrow single track consisting of chalk baked like cement with protruding flint. You literally have to watch every foot placement, constantly making tiny – and not so tiny – adjustments to your stride. This is exhausting mentally, but it also places massive strain on your ligaments and tendons, and on muscles like you adductors and abductors that see very little action when it comes to jogging along on a well-surfaced road.

But this year I’ve been working a lot on my core, thanks to Ann’s brilliant, simple tip of doing one leg balances every day – a perfect way to occupy those awkward minutes waiting for the bus. The result has been that, as if by magic, making those adjustments to foot position is now something I can do from the core, sparing my muscles and joints. And it’s had the greatest effect of all on some wonderful downhill paths, such as the root-strewn section of Grim’s Ditch, and a previously vicious quarter mile of single track coming down into Swyncombe, where I can now just open up completely and take full advantage of gravity. And that was the first thing I noticed – the transformative effect of being able to let go of all control completely, legs flying without encumbrance, heart rate never rising so long as the descent continues. The feeling of fluidity – of, literally, feeling that one has become a liquid sliding over the surface of the earth, is utterly magical, and add the side to side movement of those ever changing foot placements and it feels as though one is dancing with the earth.

A second effect of a stronger core and greater residual fitness is the ability to run out of trouble. We have had a warm, dry spring and the Ridgeway has been consistently parched. So, with the forecast showing a beautiful cool overcast day, I set out in road shoes to be gentle on my feet for the tarmaced stretches. But of course the forecast was wrong. The race began with 6 hours of steady rain (given that I am sitting typing this in a library not a police cell I can only imagine that my thoughts towards weather forecasters were muttered under my breath throughout that period). It wasn’t long before parts of the course were becoming like an ice rink. But while this required a sense of permanent at least semi watchfulness, I never felt in danger of slipping and sliding the way I have done in the past. Whenever the surface was a little too sketchy I was able to run my way out of trouble, light, skipping strides creating a contact less prone to losing grip.

So the actual experience of running was different. And that, in turn, changed my thoughts as I ran. There were more times when I was able simply to enjoy the pleasure of moving, of body and nature in contact, dancing together.

My second experience was putting to the test a piece of research I had always felt rang true, one which goes against one of the fundamental tenets of ultramarathon advice. The advice goes to start slow. Really slow, so you don’t blow up and crash out. The problem is while that might work for top athletes, as so often most of us reading the advice aren’t top athletes. And I read a great piece last year that showed you’re far better going out quicker – if you’re in the part of the pack I occupy (I finished Race to the Stones 696th out of 961 non-stoppers) you’ll end up at a crawl however you start, so you might as well bank some quick miles.

So I set out at a pace I knew from training I could sustain for more than 30 kilometres and decided to see how far it would take me. “Keep going till you blow up, then hold on.” I can’t quite understand why I have never formulated it as a principle before. It’s something I’ve applied to pretty much every area of my life where I’ve had any kind of success, yet it runs so counter to what we are told by coaches and memes and podcasts and “those who know” again and again. Which is another reason I need to get on and write my self-improvement for neurodivergents book.

The mantra ran through my head on a loop (when I wasn’t cursing meteorologists), and in particular I thought of one of my great inspirations, Anna Frost, who applied the same approach to her first hundred mile race, going out hartd to get as much done as she could before she hit the wall – only for her the wall never did come. She just won. In a very fast time.

Of course, I’m no Anna Frost so I did hit the wall, at about kilometre 60. But still, I managed to see 10 kilometres more of the course in daylight than I had done before, despite this year’s start being an hour and a half later tI did hang on, at a pace not really slower than when I had gone out more “sensibly”. For the last 30 kilometres at least my thought was simple – “I don’t know how I am going to finish this, but I know that I am.” Of course, I did know – one foot in front of the other and repeat. It’s that simple.

And here’s the important thing about that. Sometimes the cautious approach really is best. Sometimes you need to pace yourself and leave energy in the tank to get you through the last gruelling hours of a challenge. Bt sometimes it’s not, and unless you’ve thrown everything you have at something and then clung on for dear life when you’ve fallen off the cliff – how will you ever know? We hear a lot that life is a marathon not a sprint, but what the hell kind of philosophy is it to make sure you hit your 80th birthday with plenty of fuel in the tank just to be sure you cross the line strong? Besides which we also now know that often the best tactic in a marathon is to go out strong and hold on.

Finally, I learned more about flow. Running is perfect for achieving flow in different ways. On the road, with a sure footing, one can let one’s legs tick over metronomically while one’s mind finds its own rhythms. And on the trail, one is so aware of every foot placement, so focused on each root and rock that one loses oneself completely in one moment after the next.

We hear a lot about flow these days, about the importance, for example, of finding flow in our work, or a hobby. It is often portrayed as the ultimate hipster accessory, an indulgence for the lucky and entitled. But for me it has always been so much more than that. It has been a survival mechanism. When I’m ill, life is petty much about survival in the face of the overwhelming urge to die. It’s all about section two of the lessons learned here, one foot in front of the other and repeat.

But when I’m not ill with depression or mania, there is nothing to mask the underlying state of chronic anxiety. Living with anxiety means living in constant fear. I would describe it most accurately, I think, as living face to the sky with one’s neck upon the block, waiting for the axe to fall. Not knowing when, just knowing that it will. It is all-consuming. One’s life is spent endlessly playing out the different scripts that end with the fall of the axe. And there is never a script that ends any other way. Not ever. Not one. For me, the simplest everyday scenarios all end with my own death or, more often, my wife’s. Any situation that involves contact with, or even proximity to, another human being will end its trail of impeccable logic with death, despair, the loss of everything. I will sleep in an exhausted but delirious relief that I have avoided the axe for another day – but always knowing that the slightest noise in the night could restart the script.

Flow offers precious moments without anxiety. It absorbs so much of the self that there is nothing left over for fear. Worryingly, this is the same function that can be served by intense pain, which is one reason self-harm is one of anxiety’s closer companions. It is why I have never understood the “don’t take it too far” or the “why do you have to do everything to extremes?” voices that ostensibly demonstrate concern. Simple. Because it is only at the very edge cases of or human endeavour that we can find flow, and a few moments’ respite from the flash of the axe about to fall.

What I realised as I ran was that, again, so much of the advice we commonly receive is wrong. We should not be looking to make tiny pockets of flow in busy lives. That is the flow of hipsterism, of indulgence. Valuable, yes, of course. But possible? Not for so many. And its absence a source of easy reprosch for those who would rather blame the despair on the deficiency of the despairing than create a world that would minimize it. Far better to devote ourselves to carving out large chunks of uninterrupted time in people’s lives for them to find true flow, whether or not they find it alone under the stars on the trail.





Mycelium: Winner of the Oxford University Humanities Innovation Challenge

Creativity is a key part of what I do here. I spend a lot of time thinking about what creativity is, about the conditions under which it flourishes, and about how to increase everyone’s capacity for creativity – both the things that I can do personally and directly by teaching, writing, and developing tools; and the things that we need to do as a society (to which I can contribute by raising awareness, profile, possibilities for research, and one day funds) so that everyone has the resources they need to put those tools to work.

This week I am absolutely delighted that the work I am doing has been given a fantastic shot in the arm. On Monday, I was honoured to win the Oxford University Humanities Innovation Challenge for my creativity and innovation tool Mycelium. The prize gives, most valuably of all, mentoring; but also a pot of start-up capital that is small but sufficient to get me to the first hurdle, a working prototype, and a series of events that will test it, and then access to the opportunity to pitch for sufficient funds to go from the results of those tests to a fully functioning and openly available product.


I will say more about Mycelium as we near the launch, but the long and the short of it is this:

  • Mycelium is a tool for priming the brain to be more creative.
  • It does this by encouraging “leaky thinking.”
  • What I mean by that is best illustrated by a contrast. Most brain training techniques focus on our ability to recall information. This is even (perhaps especially) true of those where we are trained to make associations, such as mind maps, where the associations reinforce what we are learning, or enable us to “uncover” something that in some way is already there. As such, these methods seek to build strong walls around our knowledge to help us not to forget it. Great, but as I put it in the pitch, that kind of knowledge isn’t really useful as anything but a starting point – it is, as I termed it, a “less good Wikipedia”. What we need is not ways to learn and store stuff but ways to use the stuff we have learned and stored. And for that, having strong walls around parts of our knowledge really isn’t good. We need a way of making those (usefully) watertight walls leaky at the flick of a switch. Like polaroid filters that can go from dark to light according to the use you require. Or those toys we had as kids
  • It will start life as a card game, and then in 2018 will also have a series of app versions for individuals and organisations.
  • The card game will focus on beautiful design so as to be satisfying to use as well as rewarding intellectually, maximising its appeal and therefore its benefit.
  • The idea behind the play is very simple – it trains you to form interesting connections between things.
  • The research behind the simple, fun game is a lot more complicated, and it is the details that result from this which differentiate it from being “just another puzzle game”.
  • The game has been designed to incorporate the latest findings from neuroscience, specifically on the involvement in creativity and imagination of the associative areas and the frontal lobe.
  • But it is also based in mediaeval and early modern mnemonic systems that have some incredible backstories about people being burned at the stake for trying to memorize stuff using pictures because they were thought to be summoning demons!
useful knowledge isn’t about the stuff we know but about the connections between the things we know.

As much as the award, I was encouraged by the feedback, both on the night and since. First of all, the competition attracted 20 entries from across the Humanities, many of them put together by senior academics, so for me whose day job while I build this place is in administration to have the work I am doing recognised means a lot. And the entries of my fellow finalists were brilliant, from an app to help with the recovery process from anorexia that is based on listening to people with lived experience rather than assumptions about what they must need to an affordable way to use touch and audio to make art available to blind people – again developed with people who would use it and not by people making assumptions. With such incredible, and socially significant, work as that in the final, I feel a certain weight of expectation to make sure that Mycelium becomes more than just a training tool for management (though it very much is that and serves a useful purpose as such).

What was most encouraging was the feedback I had about the scope for Mycelium. Over the course of the evening it became clear that the judges, and the various other investor types who were invited along, saw a wide range of groups of people for whom this would make a genuine difference to their lives – which is, of course, the reason I am doing it. I have always had the tendency to think of my creativity as an amusing thing I do on the side, largely as a result of spending my formative years in an education system that really didn’t like anyone who was different, of being constantly told by pretty much every “person who should know” that “that’s nice, now think about proper things” or “nice hobby but don’t talk about it in public”.

It takes a lot to overcome that. I know, cerebrally, that bringing creative and innovative skills to people is a critical part of empowering people to imagine different and better futures, but having the reinforcement of someone telling you you’ve not got it all wrong matters when it comes to actually believing it, believing it in a way that means you will give it the effort and attention you need to make it a reality.

So, thank you, Oxford University Innovation. And, as I said at the close of my pitch, “let’s build better dreams together.”

I will be holding a series of beta sessions through July, August, and September in Oxford and London. If you would be interested in participating, or just being kept up to date with the project, please email with “mycelium” in the subject line.



Basic Income Day: Why it Matters for Creatives

Today is Labor Day. Which is why it was the perfect day for groups within the basic income movement to pronounce it Basic Income Day. That’s because one of the key things the basic income movement stands for is the decoupling of the link between work and the money that we need in order to live.

This is not about my personal opinions, though I have very many of those. For me, a universal basic income is going to be an essential part of surviving the century for our species, and the longer we delay the more catching up we will have to do later.

So, what is a universal basic income? The basic income movement encompasses many different visions and is one of the few areas of policy that unites those on the libertarian end of the spectrum (Milton Friedman) and the socialist (Chomsky). But the broad principle is simple. Everyone gets money given to them directly on a regular basis by the government, with no qualifying criteria other than citizenship of the place governed.

There are many reasons why people favour a universal basic income. The pressing practical reason is most frequently given is the increasing automation of the workplace. Will technology mean that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around by the end of the century? Opinion differs, but if so then it is essential we address that problem. Many would say it is essential we address our society’s obsession with valuing people’s rights to the basic means of living according to their productivity anyway.

Libertarians focus on the possibilities for a basic income replacing many state benefits and kickstarting entrepreneurialism on an unprecedented scale (experiments in Africa and Asia have shown that free money does, indeed, give a tremendous boost to the starting, and sustaining, of new small businesses).

Socialists focus on the social safety net that a basic income would provide, freeing up citizens from what they see as meaningless and often counter-productive capability testing.

There are other reasons that cross such lines. Some point to the fact that one of the main factors that prevents women leaving abusive relationships is financial insecurity – a guaranteed basic income paid directly under all circumstances would give them a security net that would enable them to reach safety. And some point to benefits to mental health by removing pressure at critical points of vulnerability in a person’s life.

But what is of most interest to us here (though all are relevant, especially the entrepreneurial considerations, essentially providing many indies with start-up capital) is the potential that a basic income has for unleashing a new wave of creativity. For me the key points are these.

  • If you had a guaranteed income that met your basic needs, you would be free to write what you wanted. This may be exactly the same as what you write now, but for some of us it may not.
  • If you weren’t desperate for sales, you could spend more time writing and not be a slave to marketing (which may help you build the body of work that would end up growing your readership organically).
  • You would have time. It would buy you a shorter week doing the work you have to do, and that means more time for the stuff you love to do. And that includes writing.
  • It would ease the mental pressure that grows from the financial and time pressures so many of us feel and that can be so creatively paralyzing.

You can find out more about all kinds of basic income schemes through the Basic Income Earth Network. And you can join the Artists for Basic Income group on Facebook to discover the many ways it can help those of us in the arts. And if you want my full opinion on the subject, this piece is a good place to start.

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.”