Get Your Ideas Out Into the World, Early and Often

One of the most solid findings from creativity research is that you should externalize your thoughts early and often. By “externalize” psychologists mean to take your nascent ideas out of your own head, and create a visual or spatial representation. This helps drive creativity in several ways.

  • First, in most cases you have to transform your idea, usually a little but sometimes a lot, to make it visible. That transformation is always a productive creative process. Working hard to get your idea on paper makes you more creative than if you simply think harder and longer inside your own head.
  • Second, once your idea is visible, it takes on its own life. And then, you can start to interact with it, to engage in a dialogue with your work.
  • Third, this process drives creativity by helping to make it more clear what’s great, and what needs more work.

This research is so important that in my creativity advice book, Zig Zag, the eighth and final step of the creative process is “MAKE: How getting your ideas out into the world drives creativity forward”. Externalization is a core component of design thinking; it’s why design firms have white boards all around the room, and even silly putty and Tinker Toys on the table. In my chapter about this research, the first and most important creativity technique that I describe is “Draw a Picture.” I quote the American painter, Robert Motherwell:

In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.

Today’s Wall Street Journal (7/30/2014) reports on additional research showing that doodling has many cognitive benefits–all consistent with the creativity research I drew on in writing Zig Zag:

Research research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information…allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.

Jesse Prinz doodle faceThey cite a cool new book by Sunni Brown, called The Doodle Revolution. The WSJ article is published with some fascinating doodles that were done in meetings and during presentations, like this one at the right by Professor Jesse Prinz (we both used to be colleagues together at Washington University in St. Louis). Dr. Prinz tends to specialize in face doodles; others specialize in “font doodles” (writing down key concepts but using fancy elaborate fonts). This new research continues a long line of research that leads to the most important creativity advice I know of: Get your ideas out into the world, early and often.

Is the “Lone Genius” Finally Dead?

In 2007, I published Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, where I argued that collaboration is the most important driver of creativity. I called the book “group genius” because all of the research showed that the “lone genius” was a misleading myth. But what about those stories you’ve heard about solitary geniuses coming up with great ideas? Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, or Coleridge coming up with a poem in an opium-induced daze? These two stories, and others like them, are completely untrue. (As historians have known for many years.) When you scratch beneath the surface of any story about a big creative insight, you can easily find that the real story is one of collaboration and conversation.

I quickly learned that my one book wouldn’t be enough to kill the lone genius myth. The most powerful evidence of this appeared in 2012, when Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain’s claim that solitude enhanced creativity fed directly in to our deeply held beliefs about the solitary genius, and her book sold incredibly well. Since then, in 2013 and 2014, I’ve read many more stories in magazines and newspapers, all based on the belief that creativity is driven by geniuses–what makes someone a genius, what we can do to be more like them, and how we can help our children realize their genius potential.

I’m delighted that we now have another book presenting the overwhelming evidence in favor of group genius: Josh Shenk’s new book Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Pairs, excerpted July 20, 2014 in the New York Times in an article titled “The end of genius.” Shenk makes many of the same points, and cites some of the same research and stories, that I did in my 2007 book. Many of his stories also appeared in an influential 2006 book by Professor Vera John-Steiner called Creative Collaboration. (All creativity researchers know that creativity is always based in collaboration.) But the lone genius myth is still alive and well. Shenk attacks the myth right up front:

The lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: The creative network…or the real heart of creativity–the intimate exchange of the creative pair.

I show in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity that the myth of the genius is relatively recent: it emerged during the Romantic period. And pretty much all of the people we think of as natural, solitary geniuses were in fact deeply collaborative in their work: Shenk mentions Shakespeare, Freud, Picasso, and Einstein. For example, how many people know that Einstein did not discover the formula e=mc squared? It was well known to physicists already, years before Einstein’s 1905 paper about the formula, but the mathematical proof hadn’t been developed. It turns out that Einstein was a pretty bad mathematician, and he made lots of errors, and his proof wasn’t valid. (He often worked together with mathematician colleagues for that very reason.)  It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof. (Click here for more on this story.)

The evidence that collaboration drives creativity is overwhelming. Of course, some collaborations are ineffective and actually block creativity. To make sure your collaborations are the creative kind, it helps to read a book like Group Genius–where I draw out key lessons from decades of research–to help you make sure your collaborations are the creative kind.

I highly recommend Shenk’s new book Powers of Two. Given my own recent experience, publishing a similar argument that collaboration drives creativity, I am not that optimistic that Shenk’s book will kill the lone genius myth. But I hope so.