Zigzag Inventions

Amanda Foreman, in the Wall Street Journal, describes a list of inventions that followed a zigzagging path:

In 1875, Thomas Edison invented the electric pen. It was a motorized stylus that worked like a stencil: it could punch words through a stack of up to 100 pages. This was supposed to replace copying, which back then was really time consuming. Edison said “There is more money in this than telegraphy.” But users hated it; it was almost impossible to use.

The zigzag: In the 1890s, tattoo artists started using the pen technology for the first electric tattoo needle.

In 1860, the first mechanical carpet brush was invented. But it was horrible; it just threw dust and dirt up into the air. In 1898, John Thurman of St. Louis invented a gas-powered carpet cleaner with a canvas bag, designed to catch the dust as it was thrown up into the air. This idea turned out to be even worse; huge clouds of dust filled the room.

Hubert Cecil Booth learned about Thurman’s invention, and had the idea of turning it into a sucking mechanism instead of a blowing mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner.

And check out this zigzag: Thurman’s gas-powered blower became the technology behind the leaf blower.

It’s the path to all great inventions: The zigzag that transforms the original idea into something completely different.

The Brick Test: The Most Unusual Use EVER

One of the oldest tests for creativity is the “brick test.” It originated in the 1950s, and it’s pretty simple: Take five minutes, and write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick. It’s called a divergent thinking  test, which means it measures your ability to generate lots of ideas. And, you get extra points if your list has brick uses that most other people don’t think of. These are called unusual uses.

My wife and I had an interesting experience with bricks recently, and it confirms a central finding of creativity research: The more knowledgeable you are about something, the more likely you are to be creative with it. Even bricks.

Here’s how it happened. For some reason, the house we’re renting has a big stack of red bricks in the back.

WP_20160131_001After a few months, my wife and I started thinking of ways use the bricks. The first was when my wife volunteered to organize the annual Halloween dance at my 11-year-old son’s school. To decorate the school gymnasium, she bought some large inflatable witches and scary monsters. They were over ten feet high. But they’re light and unstable, and they fall over really easily (especially with kids dancing around). The solution? Bricks to weigh them down. But, young children could bump their toes on a brick and get hurt. So, wrap each brick in bubble wrap.

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Here’s another use. We had an ice storm recently, so we got our generator ready just in case we lost power. To make sure all of the fuel would flow into the engine, we need to tilt the generator. A red brick is just what we needed: WP_20160131_003

 

 

 

 

A third use: At Christmas, my wife arranges a display of Christmas village buildings. She wanted the houses in the back of the display to be elevated. Bricks work great:

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I saved for last the most unusual use EVER for a brick. Drum roll please! I recently started repairing accordions. One of the first tools you need is a test bellows. You find an old accordion bellows, put boards to seal up both ends, and drill a tiny hole in the middle. You use this to direct air at one selected note in a reed block. To make the bellows work, I needed something really heavy inside, to hold down the bottom board. Here’s mine, with a red brick inside. (It’s so unusual it probably doesn’t make sense unless you repair accordions). Here it is:

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Here are a few more uses. I’m sure we’ll think of more soon. “Necessity is the mother of invention”–necessity, plus a pile of bricks.

 

 

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Books About Complexity and Emergence

I thought the market for complexity books had been saturated, but here’s another one: A Crude Look at the Whole  by John H. Miller. (WSJ  review here.)

The first wave of complexity books was in the mid 1990s:

The heyday of complexity books was just after 2000 (my own book appeared in 2005):

In just the past few years, we have

According to Ronald Bailey’s WSJ  review, Miller’s book covers familiar ground. Like my 2005 book, he argues that “societies are complex systems”; that social phenomena “emerge unpredictably from components”; that “simple parts interact in complex ways to create an emerging whole”. His examples of emergence from complexity are familiar from these earlier books: biological evolution, markets, the Internet, political protests. Bailey’s review is politely critical of the book; he says “it’s hard to see how complexity science is much help to current policy makers or citizens.” I disagree; I think that understanding complexity and emergence has incredible value, especially in understanding social systems. Maybe Miller’s book isn’t the first one you should read, but the long list of earlier books (and their strong sales) demonstrates that this research is helping lots of people.

Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.

Inventology: a new book by Pagan Kennedy

Creativity researchers have shown that serendipity plays a big role in creativity, and that serendipity is more likely to happen when you seek out new experiences and become more aware of what’s going on around you.  My 2013 book ZIG ZAG  is filled with creativity advice based on this research. One of my chapters is called “LOOK: How to be aware of the answers all around you.” I start the chapter with several examples of serendipity: how Velcro was invented after George De Mestral became curious about why burrs got stuck in his dog’s fur; how Hasbro got the idea for a toothbrush that played a two-minute song, to make sure that a child would brush for at least two minutes.

Inventology coverThe book Inventology  builds on this research, and Pagan Kennedy emphasizes the same theme as my book chapter: Serendipity is critical to creativity. (See the excerpt in today’s New York Times.) I love her examples of inventions that are inspired by LOOK’s awareness: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, and X-ray imaging. Kennedy’s main point is that you can spot these surprising connections systematically.

My 22 techniques for serendipity* are grouped into three practices:

  • Use Fresh Eyes: based on research about mindfulness and about how people systematically become more lucky.
  • Grab New Sights and Cool Sounds: with exercises about how to consistently experience new things that help you spot unexpected connections.
  • Render It Visible: exercises that help you translate what you see into creative action.

The techniques are each based on creativity research. For example, I describe the fascinating research by Richard Wiseman on what lucky people do that’s different from unlucky people.

Kennedy ends her article by calling for a new field of “serendipity studies.” Fortunately, scientists already have a great start on understanding luck and serendipity; creativity researchers and cognitive psychologists have been studying this for many years. They don’t call it “serendipity”; they use more technical terms like analogical reasoning, distant connections, and remote associations. (If you want to delve deeper into this research, there’s a pretty extensive review in my book Explaining Creativity.) After reading the NYTimes excerpt  today, I look forward to reading Kennedy’s book. She’s hit on one of the most important findings to emerge from creativity research: If you systematically seek out new experiences, sights, people, and places, you’ll be more likely to have surprising new creative insights.

*Two of the techniques in ZIG ZAG  that foster serendipity:

  1. Flip through strange magazines. Buy a magazine that you’d normally never read (hunting, hot rods, tattoos, musical instruments…) As you flip through it, look carefully and you’ll be drawn to a few photos or stories. Think about how you can apply what you see there to your own problem.
  2. Cultivate your senses. Put yourself in an experience that you don’t know much about. Visit an art museum, attend a wine tasting, watch a children’s cartoon, try a new fast-food restaurant. Make an effort to figure out what’s going on, how everything works to create a complete experience.

ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards Now Available!

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December 15, 2015

I’m excited to announce the release of the ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards!

The card deck has 48 cards, and each one has a different creativity exercise. There are also four cards that describe how to use the cards alone, in groups, and when you’re facilitating a workshop.

The cards are perfect for everyday use. You can do each technique in a few minutes, and use the cards throughout your day. The card deck comes in a hard plastic case so you can take it everywhere (cardboard boxes fall apart pretty fast). It’s time for a new set of creativity techniques that’s practical for everyday use, with exercises that are grounded in the latest creativity research.

The 48 techniques are taken from the book ZIG ZAG: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. They’re grouped into the eight stages of the creative process:

  1. Ask: how to ask the right question
  2. Learn: prepare your mind
  3. Look: spot the answers around you
  4. Play: imagine possible worlds
  5. Think: how to have great ideas
  6. Fuse: how to combine ideas
  7. Choose: make good ideas even better
  8. Make: make your ideas visible

The 8 stages are based on creativity research (for a summary of the research, see my creativity textbook, Explaining Creativity.) ZIG ZAG  is a practical, hands-on application of that research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are two sample cards, with their techniques. If you’d like to see more cards, the card deck web site has a Daily Creativity Card that changes every day.

Card ASK 5

 

ASK is the first step toward greater creativity. Each of the 8 stages has its own color, and has six cards numbered 1 to 6. The six ASK cards help you make sure that you’ve identified the right problem. (This one is number 5.) Often when you’re stumped, and you can’t think of a solution, it turns out you’re asking the wrong question. (Kudos to artist Robert Cori for the illustrations, and to Nyla Smith for the graphic design.)

 

 

 

Card LEARN 6

 

 

The third step is LEARN, preparing yourself for creativity by filling your mind with a variety of information. I love to learn a little bit about lots of different things! It doesn’t take long to learn to juggle, or to play the harmonica. In the past year, I’ve been teaching myself how to repair old accordions! (And yes, I’m still a dilettante, you shouldn’t trust me with your accordion.)

 

 

 

 

The card deck is available from Amazon.com for $19.95. Visit the card deck web site, www.zzdeck.com, for more techniques and games–for individuals, teams, and workshop facilitation.