I will start with the bad news and inform you that nothing you ever create, invent, design, or build is ever truly new.
Sorry to start on such a sour note, but it’s true, there’s nothing you could ever dream of that’s not made up of tiny pieces of all the things you already know. Everything that is “new” is really just the combination of old ideas, done in novel and unexpected ways.
Everything that anybody creates is made up of other creations, which are themselves made up of creations before them. To quote Steve Jobs:
“Creativity is just connecting things.”
Whenever someone uses their creativity to design something new, they’re connecting dots, connecting them in the most unusual, but oddly useful of ways. So if in order to created you need to combine, what do you need in order to be creative? Well, You are the sum of all your experiences, so the best way to become creative and really exploit that imagination of yours is to experience and learn as much as possible. That’s the secret! But I’ll give you a little more than that.
In 1926, Graham Wallas gave the four stages of the creative process as: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. Not long after, in 1939, James Webb Young expanded on those stages by adding a fifth, which after the initial stage of preparation, is to Digest the material and seek the relationship. Let’s expand shall we:
- Preparation: Building a rich pool of raw material, investigating it in all directions.
- Digestion: Seeking a relationship between the material.
- Incubation: Unconscious processing, using no direct effort on the process.
- Illumination: The “A-Ha” moment, a flash of insight that the conscious cannot will.
- Verification: Idea meets reality, a conscious and deliberate effort to test validity.
James Webb Young elaborates:
“The first principle is that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”
Something we’ve already touched on, but he goes on…
“The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas.”
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The ability to see relationships is an important topic, there are many aspects of our lives that rely heavily on the ability to see relationships, and seeing as how creativity is based on what we know, it might be important to note that memory works by using relationships too.
Your memory works something like scaffolding, you need to attach new knowledge to the old if you’re ever going to build it up. That way you create a web of knowledge that’s all connected in some way. This is why the more knowledge you have, the greater your capacity for learning even more.
What you decide to learn is important, it’s best to learn something that in some way connects with what you already know. We remember something with greater ease when we can relate it to our lives or to knowledge we already have, it’s like a latch that hooks on to existing memory. When we try to learn something that’s too far away from what we know, we have nothing to connect it to, and it drops off when we’re not looking.
“To some minds each fact is a separate bit of information. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”
If all you create is based on all you know, it makes sense that the more you know the more you can create.
Due to the fact that memory works in a different way than most people think, the common strategies for learning aren’t quite as effective as you’d expect. The way that you learnt in school, throw it away, if you really want to be creative, you need to learn how to learn, and Robert Bjork has a few tips on how to do that effectively.
Bob Bjork stresses “Desirable difficulties,” in essence real learning doesn’t come easy, when you struggle to pull the answer from your mind, you’re etching it further in.
In particular, Bob Bjork points out the value of interleaving, retrieval and distributed practice. That is to alternate between learning one thing with something else; to retrieve the materials from your memory often (This can be through a test or flash cards or anything that forces you to think of the answer); and spacing out your learning sessions with sufficient time in between.
I believe this to be of great importance, we go through school and pick up habits of leaving things to the last minute and cramming for tests and exams—while you might pass, the next day you’ve forgotten everything. This is absolutely horrible and if you’re ever going to really learn something, you need to break these habits.
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So now you know how to learn, and you understand the importance of knowledge in your quest for creativity. It’s time to get to the part where you create stuff.
We have a problem here, because as you might be aware, an abundance of options can often stifle us, we freeze in the face of too many choices, and with all our new knowledge we risk that happening here. I suspect this is why starting is always the hardest part, because we can start anywhere, we don’t know what to do.
“Creativity is Subtraction.” — Austin Kleon
We need to remove all the useless or inappropriate material. We need to act as a filter, so that only the relevant and ‘good’ material is left, then we can use it to create something special.
Austin uses this principle to make his ‘blackout poems,’ by erasing the majority of text from a newspaper article, leaving a select few words that take on a new meaning.
When we set ourselves up with restrictions and barriers we often find that we are more creative within them. Of course, this is better done from the beginning, when you decide what to learn, but there is no reason you cannot filter what you already know.
Once you have the parts you want to use all nicely piled together, you can start your search for the relationships and connections.
. . .
“Creativity in our work is often a matter of what we choose to leave out, rather than leave in—what is unspoken vs. spoken, what isn’t shown vs. what is, etc.”
Once you’ve done all of this—You’ve learnt how to learn; you’ve learnt relevant material that connects to the old; you’ve filtered through the ‘fluff’ to find some meaningful connections; and you’ve started or focused on the ‘creation’ at hand, the next step is to sit back and relax, take your mind off of it and let your subconscious mull over it for a while.
This is the incubation stage, and it’s the one you’ll hear about most often, like the falling apple and gravity for example. This is an important stage, we need to detach our focus and let our mind-wandering state take over. This is where you’ll find many articles and blogs that tell you — to be creative you should take a walk outside, get some exercise, listen to music, doodle, read a book, and so on. These work because they are ‘gateways’ to mind-wandering, they help to simmer your attention—when you’re too focused on the problem you fail to see the possible connections that lie beyond it, these ‘gateways’ help to take you outside.
Sooner or later, with the idea simmering away in the back of your mind, when you’re least expecting it, you’ll have your “A-Ha” moment, that flash of insight that most of us call creativity.
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