CREATIVITY: Divine Genius or Just Making Connections?

For over one hundred years the debate has been waged...Is everyone creative or just a few unique individuals?...Does everyone have the ability to envision, innovate, and initiate creative responses?...Or is creativity truly a singular gift for only the very few with amazing dual brain hemispheres? Do you have to be an "Albert Einstein" or a "Steve Jobs" to be wildly creative?
 
Brain research in the past ten years has answered most of these debates definitively. We are all capable of innovative, creative thought processes; we are all "whole-brained" in our creative thought processes using information from both sides of our brains; we all, not just a few, can be wildly creative personalities.
 
Then why, I ask, in my forty years in the classroom, can I name only twenty to thirty students that were still wildly creative, and about the same number of adults that I have worked with that their actions would be easily identified as highly creative?
 
Because those individuals, students and adults, had life habits that sustained their creative spark from early childhood, had teachers (or models) that were creative practitioners themselves, and/or developed personal strategies that fueled their creativity. One of those personal strategies is making connections.
 
Steve Jobs' own words tell how simplistically he viewed his creativity:
"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it; they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."  Wired, February 1996
 
Many people reading this quote, and who don't count themselves as being creative practitioners, would probably say or think something like, "Well, that's easy for him to say...he is a genius." While there may be research-proven links between intelligence and creativity, brain research shows that a high IQ is not a prerequisite for creativity. But neuroscientists from California Institute of Technology (CalTech) did prove that general intelligence does have  something in parallel with creativity: connections.
 
"The researchers found that, rather than residing in a single structure, general intelligence is determined by a network of regions across both sides of the brain. One of the main findings that really struck us was that there was a distributed system here. Several brain regions, and the connections between them, were what was most important to general intelligence," explains Jan Gläscher, the first author of the CalTech study.
Many great writers, artists and scientists have talked about the importance of collecting ideas and bits of knowledge from the world around them, and making connections between those dots to fuel creative thinking and new ideas.
 
This original diagram of creativity and its connections is from cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, who drew this brilliant way to express a concept that's often not that easy to grasp.
 

The image makes a clear point...that knowledge alone is not useful unless we can make connections between what we know. Whether you use the terms "knowledge" and "experience" to explain the difference or not, the concept itself is sound.
 
As a child in the 1950s, before TV, the internet, computers, video games, cell phones and all the amazingly easy connectivity we enjoy today, I was frequently entertained by working in coloring books. One of my favorite activities in those coloring books was the dot-to-dot activity, usually located in the back with two or three mazes.  I learned how to count to 100, and even farther, by drawing lines between the numbers in sequence, to make a picture. My sister and I had races to see who could correctly guess the drawing with the fewest dots connected. Four years older than me, and already in school, she frequently beat me.  I now know it wasn't because she was more intelligent than I was, but because she had more experience with numbers, etc. ... knowledge, than I did. Envisioning the outcome was easier for her.
 
As Steve Jobs said in Wired, February 1996:
"And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have."
 
Connections fuel creativity: nothing is original
Maria Popova, a Bulgarian writer, blogger, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York, is known for her blog BrainPickings.org, which features her writing on culture, books, and eclectic subjects off and on the Internet. She is arguably one of the best personal examples of (and proponents of) what she calls combinatorial creativity...That is, connecting things to create new ideas:

"...in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines. To combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles."
 
Popova's LEGO analogy, where she likens the dots of knowledge we have to LEGO building blocks is a favorite:  "The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become." Her analogy is very similar then to Hugh MacLeod's diagram of knowledge and the links that happen with experience.
In Popova's writings and frequent presentations, she often describes the importance of being well read on a wide range of topics, the premise being that all this mishmash of information and ideas is fodder for creativity. She also supports the idea that each of our creative egos can affect our willingness to build on what others have done.

"...something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don't really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before..."

So creativity is not divine genius or luck, but rather a result of very hard work, much and varied learning, that is holistically-webbed with ego-bursting realizations that what we hope to do is to build a better mousetrap, not just reinvent the wheel.

Austin Kleon, the author of Steal Like An Artist, a book about using the work of others to inspire and inform your own, is a lifelong proponent of collecting ideas, making connections, and remixing ideas to spark creativity, writes:
 
"Every artist gets asked the question, 'Where do you get your ideas?' The honest artist answers, 'I steal them.'" Kleon is inspiring because he is so bluntly honest about how the work of others has become part of his own work. He also firmly believes the phrase quoted from Maria Popova above, that "nothing is original."
 
"Every new idea is just a mash up or remix of one or more previous ideas." Austin Kleon
 
Scientific Thinking Is All About Making Connections, Too
Writers, artists, cartoonists, make connections to spark their creativity. In the field of science, making those connections between those dots of knowledge and experience seems to be equally important.
In The Art of Scientific Investigation, Cambridge University professor W. I. B. Beveridge wrote that successful scientists have often been people with wide interests which led to their originality:
"Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected."
 
Science writer Dorian Sagan agrees that science is about connections:
"Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect."
 
Last, but certainly by far not the least of scientific thinkers, Albert Einstein believed that the best thinking comes from making connections in an almost childlike enjoyment of playing with ideas. "Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought." Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas while playing the violin.
 
Take Notes and Review Often
Author Austin Kleon lists several simple life habits to develop connective thinking:

  1. Read voraciously on varied topics
  2. Carry a notebook everywhere
  3. Record novel ideas, "sparks" for creativity
  4. Review notes regularly

Benjamin Franklin, one of our nation's founding fathers, a scientist, an inventor, and a remarkable creative himself, was a prodigious note taker.  He suggested and modeled taking notes, and then going over those notes often to help to more easily recall them. Each day Franklin read through what notes he had previously made.  Just as one might expect to find in the time that had passed, Franklin would have added more knowledge and/or experiences to his previous repertoire so that then he could connect to his old ideas!
In fact, this practice dubbed The Benjamin Franklin Method, produced one of Franklin's well-known habits he modeled for self-improvement. He once detailed a thirteen-week plan to practice important social virtues, and kept daily notes tracking his progress toward his goal. Every morning and again each evening, he would review his day answering one simple but powerful question: "What good have I done today?"
 
Take Time to Think and Reflect
Such self-reflection requires two main ingredients: time to reflect and the desire to change/improve/or create. Driven by test scores to teach the most possible in the shortest time, to saturate learning with the single best method or strategy, to find the one correct answer in the least time, American education today does not allow students, or teachers, the time to reflect, the time for creative connections to percolate.  Wake up America! Time and connections are wasting!

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference." - Steve Jobs.


Sources:
"The Spark File" by Steve Johnson from The Writers Room blog
"The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking: Being Able to Make Connections" blog by Beth Bell Cooper from Buffer.

Steve Jobs, Wired, February 1996
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein.
Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born by Denise Shekerjian, 1990.
The Art of Scientific Investigation by W. I. Beveridge, 1957.
BrainPickings.org, multiple article and quote references: (Popova, Sagan, Kleon)