A rigid, step-by-step guide to creativity


curse of knowledge

Irony is a good time, although sadly, there are people out there that live by what’s in the title even if not immediately recognizing that that is, what in fact, they are doing.

John Lehrer wrote a nice piece on how to be creative. Check it out here (with WSJ subscription).

We’ll start with the bad part of the piece, which is generally overshadowed by all the good.

  • He is slightly ‘fooled by randomness’ (see Taleb, book by the same title). He talks about knowing when to relax your mind versus knowing when to keep struggling toward the answer. The only problem is that you can’t know how close you are until after the fact…huge reliance on hindsight bias here.
  • His ten tips at the end are pulled out of nowhere, and take away from all the good work he does describing the research earlier in the piece.

Now on to the good:

  • His main thrust is that creativity comes from connecting things that were previously thought to be separate disciplines. Basically, creativity is not about coming up with something completely new, but rather connecting things that already exist in new ways.
  • He talks about having knowledge in many areas. Working in one discipline all the time tends to restrict one’s knowledge to accepted wisdom in that field. If better application of conventional knowledge could produce great results, we would have already found them. He references Innocentive, which is one of my favorite innovations in itself. It involves using crowdsourcing to solve problems that people blinded by their knowledge of only one field can’t solve.
  • He reinforces the notion that relaxing the brain and stepping away from a problem can be what is needed to solve something particularly difficult. Google has ping pong tables and other methods of relaxation as part of its company culture. I have seen cultures where this sort of thing would never happen…employees must work like machines for 8 hours, then go home to have any fun. Attempts at doing anything different, if not controlled from the top, are subjected to scrutiny. Ultimately, people don’t even bother asking. These cultures occur in companies slightly less successful than Google. My best problem solving, and other types of creativity come when I am going for a run. Just need to figure out a way to capture notes while on the treadmill…

The bad news is that your work environment may not be conducive to creativity. The good news is that if you think about this stuff when it is your chance to lead, you’ll stand out.


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