2 Dec 2010

On the origins of creativity

Posted by jofr

What are the origins of innovation and creativity? What is the mystery behind the emergence of new companies, new theories, new species, new masterpieces of art? Is it luck, or destiny, or both? Where do the good ideas come from?

Sometimes this is hard to say. The reasons why people become creative personalities differ. Some are forced and “trained” to be creative as a child (like Mozart the child prodigy). Some discover it early as a way to cope with reality, they become creative as a child because they want to escape reality or try to compensate a terrifying loss (like Goethe, see below (*)). Some become creative because they have to make a living, especially if they have left their secure former life and must start a new one (like Einstein or Shakespeare). Some become creative simply because it is fun.

We like to learn, and we like to play. All mammals like to play, and humans, the smartest mammals, are the most playful. Humans are curious and creative from the beginning. One could say that they are build to be curious: they are creative because they enjoy insights, they like to find things out, and they love to discover new things. Gaining insights and finding things out is fun. Comedy is popular because it contains insights.

But where do good ideas come from? John Cleese says his good ideas come from Mr Ken Levinshaw who lives in Swindon. He would get his ideas from Mr Levinshaw each Monday on a postcard. Well, there you have it. Mr Ken Levinshaw in turn gets them from Mildred Spong who lives on the Isle of Wight. And Mrs Spong refuses to say where she gets them from. In short sometimes we don’t know the origins of our ideas. Or comedians won’t like to tell us. What John Cleese wants to say is perhaps: good, creative ideas do not come from a specific source or particular point. Creativity occurs rather through diversity, by the combination of various sources and connection of different points, when completely different worlds collide, for example different cultures, ideas or frames of reference.

Scientists are very accurate when it comes to determine the sources of their idea. It belongs to the scientific culture to write down your references in your publications. Yet the public used to think great ideas come from great scientists. Only the very best, the scientific geniuses make it to top, and invent the groundbreaking theories. Unfortunately, this is not always the full truth. Even good scientists can not find out something new if there is nothing to find out. One can only discover America once. It is quite difficult for many modern scientists to be innovative because so much already has been found out. To be successful, you have to cheat or you have to be very lucky, i.e. you have to be at the right place and the right time in order to connect the right dots. The driving force for scientists is not always the pure pleasure of finding things out, as noble as it may sound.

In the economy, the driving force behind the emergence of new companies is money. This is no suprise. The sources of innovation are less public, but the origin of innovation are often small, new, agile firms which have a new idea. They are supported by independent and corporate venture capital firms, who are hoping to make big money by finding the the next big thing. Unfortunatley, most startups supported by venture capital fail.

In short we like to win, we like to find things out, and we like to be successful creators. Unfortunately, to find original or novel ideas is indeed difficult, just because they are orginal or novel. Something is novel if nobody has done it before. In nature, the origin of creativity is without doubt the constant recombination which takes place in evolution. Evolution is a creative process. This indicates that the origin is combinatorial.

As Simonton argues in his books, creativity is based on an evolutionary process of recombination, variation and selection. In his major books “Scientific Genius” (1988) and “Origins of Genius” (1999) he has examined the question if creativity can be reduced to a single psychological mechanism. He has found strong evidence for a Darwinian process behind creativity. Already Leonardo da Vinci said: “Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is doing something else.”

Doing something else means to find a new idea, a new thought, or a new combination. Creativity arises in general from novel (re-)combinations. It means to take existing elements or ideas and combine them in novel ways, to realize new possibilities, and to transform the possible to the actual. The book “The Medici Effect” argues that real innovation happens when different cultures, ideas and disciplines come together to spark off new and unprecedented solutions. Interdisciplinary domains offer many possibilities for creativity and innovative ideas.

So what do you need to be creative? It is helpful to start early. Mozart, Goethe, Einstein, Shakespeare all started very young to become experts in their fields. They had a very good basic education when they were young. And they had their first big success when they were young. Goethe says himself how important it is to start early in a letter to Wilhelm von Humboldt in his last year when he was 82:

“Je früher der Mensch gewahr wird, daß es ein Handwerk, daß es eine Kunst gibt, die ihm zur geregelten Steigerung seiner natürlichen Anlagen verhelfen, desto glücklicher ist er; was er auch von außen empfange, schadet seiner eingebornen Individualität nichts. Das beste Genie ist das, welches alles in sich aufnimmt, sich alles zuzueignen weiß, ohne daß es der eigentlichen Grundbestimmung, demjenigen was man Charakter nennt, im mindesten Eintrag tue, vielmehr solches noch erst recht erhebe und durchaus nach Möglichkeit befähige. Hier treten nun die mannigfaltigen Bezüge ein zwischen dem Bewußten und Unbewußten [..] Die Organe des Menschen durch Übung, Lehre, Nachdenken, Gelingen, Mißlingen, Fördernis und Widerstand und immer wieder Nachdenken verknüpfen ohne Bewußtsein in einer freien Tätigkeit das Erworbene mit dem Angebornen, so daß es eine Einheit hervorbringt welche die Welt in Erstaunen setzt.”

J.W. v. Goethe, Aus einem Brief an Wilhelm von Humboldt (17. März 1832)

He also says that it is important to collect information without bias, for example by being passionately curious. Yet even if all preparations and conditions are right, a bit of luck is necessary. You need the right opportunities and conditions, the right motivation or drive to succeed, and finally the freedom to do it. If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, then maybe all a creative person needs is a bit of luck.

the right opportunities / preparations / conditions

  • You need luck to be at the right time and the right place, where a real innovation or very creative act is possible. As Simonton writes in his book “Greatness” (1994), already Tolstoy recognized that great men are labels for historic events: “In historic events, the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself.” Simonton adds further that great persons “serve only as convenient tags for big events”. This is certainly true for many great politicians, historical leaders and ingenious statesmen. Edward O. Wilson said “Genius is the summed production of the many with the names of the few attached for easy recall.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued “The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age; he actualises his age” (in “Philosophy of Right”, p.295, English Translation from 1942). The ability of a person to have great influence depends on the right place and time, if he wants to represent a revolution and unleash pent-up forces or avalanches of new ideas. The world must be in some form of critical state with pent-up energy. It must be near a revolution or breakthrough, where large avalanches and cascades of consequences are possible.
  • You need experience , which means hours and years or learning, training, practice and skill acquisition in your domain. Only when you are adapted to a domain you have access to the right raw material or the right skills. Subjective experience and creativity are two sides of a coin.
  • Sources of inspiration are important. The conditions to be creative are especially good at the intersection of disciplines, fields, communities and cultures. Children require a father and a mother, original or novel ideas require more than one source. New possibilities arise for example in “melting pots”, if different cultures and cultural realms meet. Therefore you need distraction from time to time to view the world from a different point of view. Your melding pot must be filled with ideas. You need to be connected to make connections.
  • You need to be able to ‘think out of the box’, which requires a little madness, insanity or simply unlimited curiosity

the right motivation / the drive to succeed

  • You need motivation to do it. A threat to lose (in a competition) or a threat to existence are a strong motivation. Shakespeare and Mozart wrote their works to make a living. Tortured souls threatened by extinction and people in a crisis are said to be exceptionally creative. Somestimes the real masterpieces are born in a crisis. The best motivation is to have a passion for what you are doing. Mozart the musician, Goethe the poet, Einstein the scientist, Shakespeare the playwright, they all loved what they were doing: playing/composing (Mozart), writing/imagining (Goethe), calculating/studying (Einstein), play writing/acting (Shakespeare). They were passionate about their work, Mozart loved music and was very playful, Goethe loved poetry and was very imaginative, Einstein loved science, and Shakespeare loved the theater.
  • You need courage and perseverance to do it. The courage to go further than anyone else before. You will probably meet obstacles, difficulties and hostility on the way. Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) said “Damit das Mögliche entsteht, muss immer wieder das Unmögliche versucht werden.” (“To realize the possible, we must try the impossible”). Sometimes you need to create whole new worlds to be innovative, which other people probably view as stupid in the beginning. Other people may consider you as weird, mad, stupid or insane. According to Ben Horowitz, Innovation is almost insane by definition: most people view any truly innovative idea as stupid, because if it was a good idea, somebodywould have already done it. So, the innovator is guaranteed to have more natural initial detractors than followers.
  • You need concentration to formulate the new idea, to write it down, to work it out. You need to be isolated.

the right authorization / freedom

  • You must be authorized to do it, that means you must have the freedom to do it. The right preparation and the right motivation are useless if it is not allowed to create something new. Existing systems and institutions may try to prevent new ideas. You need freedom to explore every possible connection and to draw novel conclusions.
  • You need to be in the right mood or mode to do it. According to John Cleese, creativity is based on the ability to play freely with ideas. He distinguishes between two modes of operating for the mind: an open and a closed mode. In the open mode we are curious, spontaneous, and playful. In the closed mode, for example at work under pressure, we are serious, earnest, nervous, and anxious of making mistakes. He argues we can only be creative, i.e. turn problems into opportunities, in the open mode. We need to have enough freedom to be in the open mode when pondering on a problem.

Free markets encourage creativity, because they offer the right conditions for creative individuals: they offer a lot of opportunities and niches to be successful, they have usually high competition which leads to high motivation, and they grant the freedom to be creative.

In short, you need distraction (for the inspiration and accumulation phase) *and* concentration (for the incubation phase). You need to be connected (to fill the melting pot) *and* isolated (to cook with the melting pot). And most of all you neet the drive to succeed. If all conditions are fulfilled, you need still need the drive to be creative and innovative. And sometimes you just need a bit luck – or a letter from Mr Ken Levinshaw who lives in Swindon.

(*) for Goethe, creativity was a means to cope with problems in his personal life. He lost all six of his younger siblings when he was young, only his sister Cornelia and he survived. This was a terrifying experience for the familiy and the young poet. Creativity allowed him to compensate the loss by creating s.th. new. His early literary and poetic experiments were an attempt to escape in the world of fiction and fantasy, and he tried to create s.th. for the parents and his remaining sister to compensate the loss of his siblings, see
“Leidenschaft, Goethes Weg zur Kreativität”, Rainer M. Holm-Hadulla, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2009

more links, literature and further reading:
– “Strange Brains and Genius – The secret lives of eccentric scientists and madmen”, Clifford A. Pickover, Penum Press, 1998.
– “Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness”, by David Joseph Weeks et al., Kodansha International, 1996.
– “Genius and the Mind”, Edited by Andrew Steptoe, Oxford University Press, 1998.
– “Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius”, Robert W. Weisberg, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1993
– “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996
– “Scientific genius: A psychology of science”, Dean Keith Simonton, Cambridge University Press, 1988
– “Greatness: Who makes history and why”, Dean Keith Simonton, The Guilford Press, 1994
– “Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity”, Dean Keith Simonton, Oxford University Press, 1999
– “The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures”, Frans Johansson, Harvard Business School Press, 2004

(Flickr Photo is from Flick User adebond1)

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3 Responses to “On the origins of creativity”

  1. I very much appreciated your ideas on creativity. I have come to appreciate the use of precursor elements from our experience, destroyed by the crucible of multiple failures and insurmountable pressures, recombined in novel ways to create novel responses to our environment.

    I am tackling currently two novel properties of information. One is: how do we determine which incoming signal (information) out of the welter at our disposal to amplify and re-broadcast? What values do we impose on the incoming stream of sensory data in order to arrange it for maximuim utility?

    Two is: how can we in this “age of information” hide information from each other? If we freely share information with one another will its “value” shrink to zero? Or will the reverse happen, and our shared “better mousetrap” will cause the world to come clamoring to our door?



  2. I like the phrase “passionately curious”. I wonder what separates the mildly curious from those passionately so.

    In your notes on Goethe you use the word “terror”… he used creativity to escape the terrifying experiences of his childhood. He invented his own escape pod, in a way. So maybe creativity is externally (situationally) derived, at least somewhat. But what separates the Goethes of the world from others who similarly suffered at youth?



  3. Yes, he invented his own escape pod. Nice comparison. I think Goethe was lucky, first his father was very wealthy and rich, and he had a lot of luck with his first book. He wrote his first novel, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ (called ‘Die Leiden des jungen Werthers’ in German), when he was very young. And this novel was a huge success, because it caught the spirit of the times. Accidentally, he did the right thing at the right time. Everything else followed.



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