Each of us can become more creative. Inside YOU is creative genius, as unique to you as your fingerprints.
It’s up to you to unlock it.
Over many years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview numerous experts in the field of creativity and innovation. Whether learning from an entrepreneur or an artist, I have collected some of the best advice available on how to boost your creativity.
And these experts have shared with me what we get wrong when we think about innovation. There are myths that we believe to our own creative detriment. Don’t believe these limitations which lock you in to a dull, gray world!
“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” –Henry David Thoreau
What does it take to make it into the history books as one of the world’s greatest innovators?
Do creative geniuses have any unique characteristics?
Rowan Gibson, one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation, previously shared some of his thinking about his new book, The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking. Part of what makes his research unique is that he studied innovators throughout history to understand their thinking, their characteristics, and their methodology. What he shared with me about history’s greatest innovators may influence the way you manage, the way you look at your boss, or the way you look at others we label as stubborn. Because, as we will see, the best innovators are often the most unreasonable people.
Why the Best Innovators Are Unreasonable
Rowan, throughout your new book, you give examples ranging from da Vinci to Richard Branson. By studying these innovators, you developed a unique perspective. What does one need to possess or do to get mentioned in the history books?
I think those that make it into the history books are to some extent unreasonable people. George Bernard Shaw put it best when he argued that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Innovators like the ones I just mentioned – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk –these are not reasonable people. They don’t just accept that the world is the way it is. They have this deep, insatiable urge to improve it or radically change it to fit their own vision of how things should be.
“You can’t harvest big ideas unless you sow the right seeds.” -Rowan Gibson
Take da Vinci. Was he a reasonable person? Here’s a man who filled 13,000 pages of notebooks with scribbles, drawings, scientific diagrams, and designs—everything from human anatomy and facial expressions to animals, birds, plants, rocks, water, chemistry, optics, painting, astronomy, architecture, and engineering. He once coated the wings of a fly with honey just to see if it would change the sound of the fly’s buzzing noise in flight. Why would anyone do that? Da Vinci did it to establish that the pitch of a musical note is connected with the speed of the percussive movement of the air. In this case the fly’s wings became heavier due to the honey, so they couldn’t beat as fast, resulting in a lower-pitched buzzing sound–which of course might be interesting at some level, but reasonable people don’t do things like that.
Unreasonable Innovator: Richard Branson
Let’s say you opened a little record store in London, UK. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. But would you call it “Virgin”? And would you then create your own record label and start backing unknown musicians like Mike Oldfield or controversial bands like the Sex Pistols? Would you try to grow your one little record store into a national chain of media hypermarkets? I mean, if you did all of that, it would be quite remarkable. But would you then decide to start your own transatlantic airline and go up against British Airways on their own turf? Would you try to build your own mobile phone business from scratch and then your own bank or take a big risk by investing in a space tourism company? These are not reasonable things to do. So clearly Richard Branson is not a reasonable man.
Do you want to tap into your inner creative voice?
Do you want to power your creative thinking?
Power Your Creative Thinking
I love reading about the world’s greatest innovators. Whether it’s an innovative individual or a company, I am fascinated with the stories behind history’s greatest breakthroughs and inventions. Recently, a terrific new book on the subject crossed my desk and captured my attention. After reading it, I had the opportunity to converse with the author. The insights in this book can help any company improve its innovative culture and any individual become more creative.
You share four lenses or perspectives on innovation. The first is challenging orthodoxies. There are many examples of people who stand up and say there is a better way. Perhaps that child with a rebellious streak may have a great future?
Almost by definition, innovators tend to be contrarians and nonconformists. As Steve Jobs put it, they “think different.”
“Almost by definition, innovators tend to be contrarians and nonconformists.” –Rowan Gibson
I just saw the movie “The Imitation Game” about the work of Alan Turing during the Second World War. This guy was obviously a genius, and a pioneer in the field of digital computing. He almost single-handedly built a machine that broke the German Enigma code, which undoubtedly helped the allies win the war. But Turing had no regard for prevailing wisdom, or for military authority, or for anyone else’s way of doing things. He believed only in his own revolutionary ideas.
Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission
So, yes, maybe that rebellious school child has a great future. Turing’s headmaster told his parents he was wasting his time at school because he wasn’t willing to be educated in classical thinking. Einstein was so rebellious he was actually expelled from school. But it was that rebelliousness toward authority that led him to question Newton’s seemingly unassailable laws of motion. Richard Branson was another rebel at school and eventually dropped out at age 16—going on to create Virgin Records.
If you recall some of the other famous individuals who were featured in Apple’s “Think Different” ads, such as Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pablo Picasso, they were all misfits and rebels. The saw things differently from others. They wanted to challenge and change the status quo.
There are just so many examples of companies that have innovated very successfully by challenging deep-seated orthodoxies: Swatch in the watch industry Dell in the computer industry, Southwest in the airline industry, IKEA in the furniture industry, Enterprise in the car rental business, Zara in the fashion industry, Chipotle in fast food, IT’SUGAR in candy retail, and the list goes on.
A recent example is Beats by Dre. They asked themselves why every other field of consumer electronics—TVs, laptops, smartphones—was being dramatically improved, while people were still listening to music with cheap, low-performance earbuds. What if there was a market for premium headphones, costing hundreds of dollars, that would reproduce music the way artists wanted their songs to be heard? And what if those headphones could be marketed as a fashion statement, not just as an audio accessory? Luke Wood, CEO of Beats by Dre, told the press, “People thought we were crazy. They said the marketplace would never support a $300 headphone.” Well, once again, here’s to the crazy ones. Today, premium headphones are one of the fastest-growing categories in the consumer electronics industry, making up over 40 percent of all headphone sales, and Beats owns over 60 percent of that market. Last year, Apple acquired Beats Electronics for $3 billion.
Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission
2. Harnessing Trends
The second lens or perspective is harnessing trends. How do you spot the trend in time to ride a new wave?
Well, you have to be very sensitive to what is changing in the world. It’s not about having a crystal ball and trying to predict the future. It’s more about having a wide-angled lens that allows you pick up important trends and then exploit them in some way.
For companies, creativity is the fuel for innovation and competitive advantage. For individuals, creativity is the key to quickly and effectively solving problems. But as important as creativity is, most of us don’t understand how it works and how to enhance our own creative thinking. Instead, we tell and retell a series of myths, faulty beliefs that serve as our best guess for how creativity works. But the implications of 50 years of research into creativity are re-writing many of those myths. The results might be counterintuitive, but they are effective. Here are four evidence-based ways to boost your creativity.
We tend to think of outstandingly creative works or projects as wholly original. But the truth is that most breakthrough creative works are the result of copying and modifying existing works. Microsoft and Apple both borrowed the design of Xerox’s Alto to build their personal computers. George Lucas copied the theme of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” and blended it with concepts and visuals from Akira Kurosawa films and Flash Gordon serials to create the blockbuster Star Wars series. Even on a smaller scale, ideas are made by the combining of older ideas. Research suggests that individuals whose brains make connections between various thoughts score higher on creativity tests. Start collecting ideas, testing possible combinations, and seeing what creative ideas emerge.
Creativity doesn’t just love constraints; it thrives under them. -David Burkus
While our most difficult problems are often given to long-standing experts, the most innovative solutions don’t always come from these experts. Instead, individuals with a sufficient background in a field, but with additional knowledge from a diverse range of fields, are those ones who dream up breakthrough innovations. Paul Erdos, the most published mathematician in history, changed his field of specialization constantly. Erdos was known for showing up on the doorstep of future collaborators and exclaiming, “My brain is open.” He’d trade knowledge with his collaborators and move on to find new ones. Open your brain and start studying new fields; you never know which one your creative insight will come from.
The idea for the novel is not only clear, but the story is outlined and researched. Still, the page is blank. She is waiting for the inspiration to make it happen.
The business to create a fortune is constantly pushed to the backburner. Magazines and books are consumed like candy as he studies ideas only to continue looking. The idea never is good enough.
Someone is waiting for a divine moment, that flash of insight that is a near-religious experience. Until that happens, the idea is frozen.
Creativity myths have been around for centuries. David, you say that these myths hinder the creative process. In fact, the subtitle of your new book is The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great ideas. How does knowing the truth about these myths help? Why is rewriting the myths so important?
David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University. Find out more about David at www.davidburkus.com. He also writes for Forbes, 99U, and the Harvard Business Review.
We’ve been writing myths for thousands of years. Myths are attempts to describe the world around us, everything from where sun comes from to the creative process. But myths are dangerous because they’re often not true, or at least are half-true. So it is with the myths surrounding creativity. They help us explain a little bit, but because they aren’t totally true, believing the myths in entirety can actually limit our ability to express our creativity. If we question them, find the truth, and rewrite them, then we stand a better chance of reaching our full potential.
You are rewriting and busting these myths, but they are legendary in some ways because we love them. That “falling apple” moment or “lightning strike.” Why do we love these stories?
I think we tell a lot of these stories because they let us off the hook. If some outside force, a fallen apple or a lightning strike, is responsible for our creative insight, then the pressure is taken off us to generate great ideas. But creativity doesn’t come from outside ourselves, it comes from inside and from thought patterns we’re all capable of, as long as we believe we are capable of them.
Your new book The Myths of Creativity outlines ten creative myths. Let’s walk through a few of these myths. Starting with the Expert Myth, aren’t trained experts the best source for creative solutions to dire problems?
Creativity doesn’t just love constraints, it thrives under them. David Burkus
Not always. In fact the research shows that many times professionals in a given field reach a peak early or mid-way through their career and then their contribution to the domain lessens. In Physics for example, it’s commonly held that PhDs will make their greatest discoveries before the age of 30. (Einstein was 26 when he published the paper that won him a Nobel Prize.) The reason is that expertise is important, but truly creative ideas often come from people on the fringes of a domain. They have enough experience to understand problems, but don’t have enough experience to write off “crazy” ideas without testing them. They don’t know what won’t work; so they try everything. The lesson is to keep learning and gaining experience in a variety of domains because you never know what field your breakthrough insight will come from.
Let’s talk about The Constraints Myth. You write “constraints shape our creative pursuits.” Give an example of how constraints encourage creativity.
We tend to assume that when we’re having trouble coming up with a viable solution to a creative problem, it’s because we’re too constrained. In reality, constraints actually help us find solutions. It’s impossible to solve a problem without understanding the structure around it. We can generate lots of wild ideas, but without the constraints of a problem, we’ll never know if those ideas are also useful. That’s why a lot of companies actually force constraints. Companies like 37Signals mandate small project teams and put limits on the amount of features their products can have. And it’s paying off for them. Creativity doesn’t just love constraints, it thrives under them. It’s like G.K. Chesterton suggested, “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”