Twenty Frames For Thinking About Creativity

Adjacent possible. This concept describes how biological systems can transform into more complex systems via small changes or gated rates of discovery. It comes from Stuart Kauffman, who writes in his book Investigations (2002) that 

“a biosphere gates its way into the adjacent possible at just that rate at which its inhabitants can just manage to make a living, just poised so that selection sifts out useless variations slightly faster than those variations arise. We ourselves, in our biosphere, econosphere, and technosphere, gate our rate of discovery” (22). 

The idea is later explained by Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From (2011): 

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible” (31). 

Consider then, how new ideas may lurk at the edge of what you are presently doing.

Catalogue your negative results. This idea comes from Nassim Taleb, an expert on decision making under conditions of opacity, who writes that we have options “by negative information, reducing the space of what we do by knowledge of what does not work.”

Taleb’s idea is echoed by the chef Ferran Adria. In A Day At El Bulli, Adria speaks of creative audits he uses “to identity trends, habits, ruts, and evidence of what has worked and what hasn’t.” Consider then, how understanding what has not worked will help you locate what will.

Complex Systems. Interesting ideas often arise as the “output” of complex systems with all of their associated nonlinear and unpredictable dynamics. In his book Creativity, Inc., computer scientist and Pixar founder Ed Catmull notes that “complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways” (310). Consider then, how you might introduce complexity into whatever system you are working with. 

Creativity is mundane. This idea is adapted from an article by Daniel F. Chambliss on excellence among olympic swimmers. Chambliss writes: 

“Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time”(85). 

Consider then, how it’s the small things you do repeatedly that compound to bring about creative moments.

Feedback Loops. In his book The Creative Code, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy suggests that creativity is akin to a sophisticated computer code or algorithm that learns from its own mistakes, in a feedback loop. He notes how a “creative thought needs to be balanced with a feedback loop which critiques the thought so that it can be reined in and generated again” (125). This relates to Taleb and Adria’s cataloguing negative results and trends. Consider then, how to build feedback loops into your process to accelerate your learning. 

Find imperfections in a system. This idea is explained by Philippe Petit in his book, Creativity: the perfect crime. Petit says a performance is a creative “crime” in the sense that it is an opportunity to find “imperfections in the system…as tiny portals through which…to explore, to understand, to create” (22). This relates to Kauffman’s adjacent possible concept. Consider then, your process as an opportunity to optimize the imperfections in your work.  

Flaneuring.  The word flâneur is French for a person who strolls. The figure of the flâneur encourages not idleness, but an analogous mindset of simply wandering about. Consider then, the value of just wandering, following what seems interesting and lively. 

Intuition or winning without thinking. Creativity depends a developed sense of intuition, and intuition is not a magical faculty but rather paying attention to what matters. In his book Gut Feelings, Gerd Gigerenzer defines intuition as a judgment derived from noticing cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. Gigerenzer describes a baseball outfielder running down a fly ball, timing his running speed by focusing on the trajectory of the falling ball. This, says Gigerenzer, is “winning without thinking” (8). Consider then, improving your intuition by paying more attention to what matters to the work.

Iterate via versions or demos. This idea is explained by computer programmer Ken Kocienda, who designed the auto-correct on the original iPhone. In his book Creative Selection he writes: “We improved our demos in incremental steps. We evolved our work by slowly converging on better versions of the vision” (221). Consider then, developing your work through iterations.

Learning happens through momentary incompetence. This concept comes from author Seth Godin. Consider then, the value of feeling momentarily inadequate to the task at hand.

Magic. In his book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland makes the case for the limits of rationality versus the possibilities of counterintuitive, illogical, and magical thinking. “The problem with logic” notes Sutherland, “is that it kills off magic.” This relates to Gigerenzer’s concept of intuition. Consider then, the value of suspending logic for a moment or two. 

Micro details. To return to Ed Catmull’s discussion of Pixar: he explains how micro details are “a hidden engine” (198) of creative work that lend it power, authenticity and conviction. Consider then, refining small things to impact the big picture.

Momentum. Creativity is guided by the momentum of the moment. In The Storm of Creativity, architect Kyna Leski explains: “The creative process is bigger than you. It is like a storm that slowly begins to gather and take form until it overtakes you” (x). This relates to Kocienda’s concept of iteration. Consider then, allowing your process to gather momentum over time.

80-20 rule. This concept is also known as Pareto’s Principle, named after the economist Vilfredo Pareto, which states that 80 percent of an output/consequences comes from 20 percent of input/causes. Another meaning of the rule comes from running. Create as the runners run: 80 percent of the time go very easy, and 20 percent of the time go hard. Consider then, what part of your work is the 20 percent, and then go easy the rest of the time.

Proliferate Options. In The Runaway Species, neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt describe the creative process of proliferating options: “Instead of running set algorithms, the brain bends, breaks and blends its storehouse of experiences, imagining what-ifs” (150). Consider then, proliferating variations on a single idea.

Signal and Noise. Creativity involves figuring out which processes bring meaningful, high-information results (or signals) and which ones bring less meaningful, low-information interference (or noise). In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver observes that in any data-rich environment “we perceive far more inputs than we can consciously consider, and we handle this problem by breaking them into regularities and patterns” (449). The key to clear thinking about the world we live in is “determining whether the patterns represent noise or signal” (240). This relates to the 80-20 rule. Consider then, where the signals in your work are.

Tensegrity (tension + compression). This term was coined by the inventor Buckminster Fuller to refer to the concept of tensional integrity. In some ways, creative works are compression engines. Consider then, how you might incorporate networks of tension into, and through, your work.

Tinkering. To return to Nassim Taleb: his concept of tinkering describes how trial and error experimentation within a complex system tends to lead to interesting results: 

“It is in complex systems, ones in which we have little visibility of the chains of cause-consequences, that tinkering, bricolage, or similar variations of trial and error have been shown to vastly outperform the teleological —it is nature’s modus operandi. (…)

In his book Antifragile, Taleb explains that the advantage of tinkering is that it allows us to make many small mistakes that are rich in information yet small in harm, positioning us to discover “something rather significant” (236). Consider then, how you can tinker to advance your work.

Use your faults, use your defects. This phrase is attributed to the singer Edith Piaf. This connects to Petit’s concept of finding imperfections in a system. Consider then, the productive ways in which you are the useful imperfection.

We build for tomorrow at three. I heard this idea from a friend who once studied musical instrument building with a craftsman. This craft teacher used an impending deadline to spur getting the making of something done.

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