"The creativity lie" series explores the many ways society teaches us to suppress our natural creativity. In part one, we defined the lie.
If everyone is naturally creative, as we argued in part one of this series, how come so many people say they’re not? What stops them from realizing the truth? Well, a whole bunch of factors. Things like social incentives, risk aversion, corporate structures and more. This week’s column deals with one of the most pervasive factors of them all: we call it the great Eureka! myth of creativity.
Imagine some nefarious company hired you to convince as many people as possible that they aren't creative.
You could do a lot worse (and be a lot less creative!) than by inventing a mythology about how the world's most brilliant inventors and creatives discover new insights and ideas as if through divine inspiration.
A classic example: Isaac Newton. Every schoolkid's taught the same story: that this guy's just sitting in his yard, minding his business, when an apple falls right out of the tree in front of him and—Eureka!— his theory of gravity snaps into place like magic!
Yes, it's a true story, and yes, the apple's fall inspired Newton to finally articulate his theory. But too many of us get the lesson entirely wrong. We learn that creativity must be the process of simply waiting for apples to fall from trees. As the years go by and we don’t find ourselves struck with divine inspiration, we assume we must not be one of the “special” people.
How many millions saw an apple fall before Newton? Throw in acorns and leaves and it’s just about everyone who ever lived! The difference between them and Newton wasn’t proximity to falling objects. And it wasn’t sheer intelligence or creative power, either—Newton was brilliant, but so were many who came before him.
The difference was the existing ideas that Newton had in his head (Newton himself coined the phrase “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”), combined with a problem he was trying to solve (what’s the nature of the relationship between objects?) combined with a lucky encounter (an apple falls from the tree while he’s thinking about all of this).
In the spirit of “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” a crude formula like this somewhat approximates the process:
what you already know + problem you’re trying to solve + new information = new ideas
The apple didn’t put the theory of gravity into his head. It sparked something that helped him rearrange what was already in his head into a new concept! It was the missing piece that allowed him to see the whole.
This is how creativity works. Not instantaneous discoveries of brilliance with no basis in what you already know, but new insights as a result of connecting what you already know with something that allows you to see that body of knowledge in a new way.
Charles Darwin remembered the very moment he discovered his theory of natural selection. He wrote that he was sitting in his house, reading a book on economics, when suddenly something in that book caused him to rearrange his thoughts on this problem he'd been thinking about for decades, and nearly instantaneously, he formed his theory.
What's really amazing is you can go back and look at Darwin's notebooks and you'll find that he had the whole theory of natural selection pretty much nailed for months before he read that book on economics. He just couldn't express it (and didn’t know he knew it) until he found that final puzzle piece.
People who maximize their creativity like Darwin and Newton collect ideas, but they also collect problems. These problems work like a filter against all incoming information. Our brains are so overloaded with ideas to process that if they don’t see an immediate use for it, they’ll discard it. Incidentally, this is why so many people think, I would have tried so much harder in XYZ class now that I know how useful it would have been!
So for someone who isn’t concerned with the problem “How do I describe the relationship between objects?” the apple falling won’t connect with anything. And as they gather new ideas they try them out on those problems. Most of the time, nothing happens. But every once in a while, it's like magic.
Creativity isn’t the result of divine inspiration. It only feels that way when everything clicks into place. Oftentimes inspiration can strike so subconsciously that you can’t even identify where the idea came from. This doesn’t mean it came from nowhere.
The Eureka! moment isn’t the creative process—it’s only the culmination.