“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating,” said John Cleese in a 1991 lecture on the topic.
Yet how do we actually operate our way to creativity?
We idolize stories of aha moments and equate ideas and inspiration with random flashes of revelation. It’s no wonder that a large portion of the population has given up on being creative. If we consider great ideas as both rare and unpredictable, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to stake your career on reliably finding them.
But behind every aha moment isn’t random rays of insight shining down from the heavens. The actual path to new ideas is neither random nor unpredictable. It’s a process, one that anyone can apply.
It’s this process, this way of operating, that James Webb Young packs in his short but powerful book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. Written 80 years ago, Young – an ad man by profession but a trademark Renaissance man if there ever was one – offers five steps that lead to an effective creative process. And at $2.99 on Kindle, it could easily be the most cost-effective investment you’ll make this year.
The Principles behind Creativity
“What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.” – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas
I’m guessing you’ve gone through the exercise of memorizing facts for a test. Only to take the test and later realize you didn’t actually learn anything.
Facts without understanding don’t lead to knowledge. And having a process without understanding the principles behind it doesn’t lead to ability.
Mainly because reality is constantly changing. So while having a creative process is critical, it’s not much use unless we can adapt it into our changing circumstances. Young recognized this and offers two deceptively simple principles that govern the formation of ideas,
“The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”
“The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.”
Similar to Steve Jobs’ view that “creativity is just connecting things,” Young’s principles – that an idea is a new combination and the ability to create new combinations depends on our ability to see relationships between them – provide the foundation for the entire creative process.
Step 1: The Raw Material Gathering Stage
“The more of the elements of that world which are stored away in that pattern-making machine, the mind, the more the chances are increased for the production of new and striking combinations, or ideas.” – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas
In the 1600s, England was in a dire shortage for rags. They banned the use of cotton and linen for burying their dead. There was even talk of harvesting Egyptian mummies for the wrappings.
Why? They needed rags to make paper and there was a critical shortage. Until a French scientist figured out a better way.
Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur was a combination physicist, chemist, and lover of bugs. Walking in the woods one day, he began to examine an abandoned wasps’ nest and realized it was made of paper. Paper that was made without the use of rags.
Reaumur realized that the wasps were chewing wood and plant fibers. And while it took decades to develop the method for producing paper from wood pulp, this realization set the entire process into motion.
All because of a walk in the woods.
Except not really.
Because while Reaumur may have recognized the potential at that point, the realization came as a result of his extensive knowledge across diverse subjects. He was able to make the connection because he’d developed a depth of knowledge across many different areas.
Young’s first step is to gather raw material – those mental resources from which we can create future connections. For this part, Young emphasizes the need for curiosity and a drive for lifelong learning,
“Every really good creative person… whom I have ever know has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested—from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”
Gather your raw material. Be curious. Learn and experience life. Because the more dots you have, the easier it is to see the connections between them.
Step 2: The Mental Synthesis Stage
“What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit.” – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas
In 1816, Dr. René Laennec was concerned that a young woman had heart problems, but couldn’t hear well enough to make a determination.
Laennec, who was also a musician, considered the problem until he recognized the opportunity to combine his two professions. He rolled up a tube of paper – like a flute – and found that he could hear with much improved clarity. He later made a more permanent one out of wood with a funnel at one end. And the first stethoscope was born.
Laennec’s ability to make this connection helped doctors begin to diagnose problems of the heart that they’d never before had the opportunity to hear.
In this second stage of the creative process, Young encourages us to turn over each fact, looking at each of them from different perspectives. And searching for the potential relationships between them.
“What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.”
Step 3: The Incubation Stage
“In this third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. You drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can.” – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas
In his third stage, Young advocates allowing our unconscious mind to work over the problem.
In Tim Harford’s latest TED talk, he cites the work of Bernice Eiduson and her research on the personalities of 40 leading scientists, including Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman. She was studying their personalities and research habits, trying to understand why some scientists were able to continue producing important work throughout their lives and others were less successful.
The pattern that emerged was surprising – Eiduson found that top scientists frequently switched topics as they developed research projects – a term which Harford dubbed slow-motion multitasking.
The process of frequently switching topics likely provided multiple benefits, including the ability to develop diverse knowledge areas (Stage 1) and see new connections (Stage 2). But another main benefit is that it allowed their minds to unconsciously ponder different problems and work out solutions.
Our minds can’t work out solutions instantaneously – often we’re stuck on a wrong path and getting more frustrated by the minute. We just need a break to clear out those wrong paths before we can recognize the correct one.
Similar to the results of Eiduson’s research, Young advocates that in the third stage, we allow our unconscious mind to work over the problem. The trick is to keep your mind active without focusing on that specific topic.
“So when you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions.”
Take a break. Do something fun. And let your unconscious mind carry the load for a while. As John Cleese put it,
“This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”
Step 4: The Eureka Stage
“It will come to you when you are least expecting it—while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.” – James Webb Young,A Technique for Producing Ideas
If we’ve followed the first three stages, out of nowhere, everything will eventually click into place and an idea will come to us. Archimedes (supposedly) had his original aha moment while getting in the bath. Charles Darwin progressed his groundbreaking work on evolution while taking walks in his garden. And Einstein attributed some of his major breakthroughs to his violin breaks because he thought they helped connect different parts of his brain in new ways.
This shouldn’t be taken for a guarantee. But most of us are no strangers to a flash of enlightenment hitting us when we least expect it.
Step 5: Bring Your Idea into the World
“In this stage you have to take your little newborn idea out into the world of reality. And when you do you usually find that it is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it.” – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas
In the early 1800s, a French artillery officer, Captain Charles Barbier created “night writing.” Trying to help soldiers on the front lines read notes without exposing themselves to the enemy, he developed a code of raised dots poked into a piece of paper.
Later, Barbier introduced his system to the blind and met a thirteen-year-old boy who was thrilled at the chance to learn it. But when the boy found a number of ways to simplify and improve the system, Barbier was insulted that a mere boy thought he could improve on his system. He stalked out of the room and refused to listen to him.
The boy was, of course, Louis Braille. Who, not to be deterred, would go on to develop his own system. And succeed in revealing a new world for the blind.
In the final stage we need to bring our ideas into the world. It’s at that point that they run into obstacles and face the challenges of reality. And it’s our now our job to help our idea evolve and grow to meet that reality.
Derek Sivers wrote that “ideas are worth nothing unless they are executed. They are just a multiplier.” Ideas, regardless of how brilliant they may seem in our own heads, need a strong advocate in the world. As Kevin Ashton, the man who cam up with idea for RFID chips, wrote in How to Fly a Horse,
“Creation is a long journey, where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”
Yet too often this is exactly what happens. People expect their ideas to be immediately successful. They view creation as a moment instead of a process. And they refuse to put in the work that’s needed to develop their idea into something useful. As Young wrote,
“It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost.”
Braille understood this. Barbier did not.
Everyone is Creative.
“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” wrote Jonah Lehrer in Imagine: How Creativity Works. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code.”
If creativity truly were a unique gift that some people are privileged enough to be born with, the world would be in a lot of trouble. Because we know that only a small minority is born with great gifts in any one area. We couldn’t hope to find enough people to develop ideas and solutions to the problems that face us in today’s world. Indeed, if the ability to develop ideas were a gift,
But fortunately creativity is a process. It’s a system of practices. And practices can always be learned. As Young summarizes,
First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.
Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.
Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.
Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the “Eureka! I have it!” stage.
And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.
Stay curious. Keep learning. And never stop looking for connections.