How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.

Marc Andreessen on Group Genius

Marc Andreesen, the Silicon Valley investor, has just published a free e-book containing his blog posts from 2007 to 2009. This excerpt from the book was just published in the Wall Street Journal–titled “retaining great people”. It’s really advice about how to build an innovative organization:

Don’t create a new group or organization within your company whose job is “innovation”. This takes various forms, but it happens reasonably often, and it’s hugely damaging. It sends the terrible message to the rest of the organization that you think they’re the B team. Instead, focus on boosting the innovation culture of the entire company.*

How do you get the whole company to innovate? I give the answer in my 2007 book, Group Genius:

Many companies say that they believe in empowering their employees through participation. But too often, participation is little more than a strategy to increase employee job satisfaction or to get their buy-in for senior management decisions. Real participatory companies are collaborative, improvisational, emerging from the bottom up. It’s a radical rethinking of the organization, and most companies aren’t willing to go there just yet. But as innovation becomes ever more important, there won’t be any other choice. (p. 155)

The reason you have to spread innovation throughout the organization is because innovation today isn’t linear. That’s why you can’t separate out the “idea stage” from the “execution stage”:

The skunk works model places all its hopes on one big flash of inspiration that must come from a select group of special people. In fact, successful innovative companies keep these small sparks coming from individuals throughout the organization, each spark inspiring the next one. (p. 159)

In Group Genius, I tell you the ten features of the most innovative organizations, grounded in this emergent, up bottom approach to innovation. That’s why Andreesen is right; not (only) because the skunk works approach damages morale, but because it never actually generates innovation.

*Andreeasen, The Pmarca Blog Archives.

The Monopoly Game: An Example of Group Genius

1906 Lizzie Magie production copy
Lizzie Magie’s 1906 Landlord’s Game

Today’s New York Times has an article by Mary Pilon, excerpted from her new book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. It’s a great story:

Parker Brothers lied when they claimed that Charles Darrow invented the game Monopoly in 1934. In fact, Darrow stole the game from a group of Quakers who played their hand-made game in Atlantic City. Similar versions of the game had been played, up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest, since 1904, when a Virginia Quaker named Lizzie Magie was awarded a patent for a precursor game she created to teach the virtues of an economic philosophy known as the “single tax system.” She called it The Landlord’s Game. (She self-published the version at left in 1906 after Parker Brothers passed on it.)

This story isn’t so new anymore; it’s been told in many books and articles. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, because it’s a great example of how wrong our “solo inventor” stories are, and how invention really emerges from collaboration and social networks. When I was writing my book in 2006, it was easy to find the real story. It first came to light in the 1970s, when Parker Brothers sued Ralph Anspach to force him to stop selling his game Anti-Monopoly. Parker Brothers picked the wrong fight: Anspach fought back, and won his lawsuit by having some very old Quakers testify that they’d been playing the game long before 1934.

Charles Todd's handmade game, stolen by Charles Darrow
Todd’s 1933 Handmade Game, Stolen by Charles Darrow

One of them, Charles Todd, stated under oath in 1976 that he personally made a copy for Darrow–and, at his request, wrote down the rules (they’d only been transmitted orally prior to Darrow’s request). After stealing it and patenting it, Darrow hid from Todd whenever they crossed paths; when you read Todd’s 1976 court testimony, you can still tell he’s angry over 40 years later.

I learned the story in 2006 from several sources:

(If you really want to go deep, the best source for historical details is this web site:

Pilon’s book covers familiar ground, but it’s a fascinating story that bears retelling. I’ve told this story in keynote talks around the U.S., and audiences are always surprised, so I agree the true story isn’t well known. Pilon’s been working on the book for a long time; she wrote a similar article in 2009 for the Wall Street Journal. She’s uncovered a lot of fascinating historical detail, and has a lot of biographical info about Lizzie Magie that I didn’t know; turns out, she was extremely unconventional for her time (it goes way beyond advocating the single tax).

Pilon ends her New York Times article by asking a question that I answer in Group Genius:

Who should get credit for an invention and how? The Monopoly game raises that question in a particularly compelling way.

The answer is, the collaborative web should get the credit:

The game of Monopoly that we know and love today was created over many decades–with contributions from Quakers, fraternity boys, economics professors, and one radiator repairman. It unfolded in cities from Indianapolis to Philadelphia. Monopoly emerged from a collaborative web, a diffuse and informal network of people dedicated to the game. Each group of players modified the rules as they saw fit, but no one ever owned anything. The ideas spread around freely, and the ideas that worked best survived. Parker Brothers contributed by spotting the potential, and by packaging and marketing it to success. And even after Parker Brothers printed the official rules, players continued to make up their own rules, a tradition that continues today. (Group Genius)

If that sounds like an open source community, you’re right; read my book to learn the key features of collaborative networks, from 1904 to today.

The Monopoly story is endlessly fascinating. In fact, Parker Brothers initially rejected Darrow’s game, and he eventually convinced them to change their minds: you’ll have to read my book to learn how he did it! (Hint: entrepreneurship…)

Montessori, Collaboration, and Creativity

WP_20150214_003I had a great time giving this morning’s keynote at the annual Montessori teacher’s conference (NAMTA). They invited me to talk about how to foster creativity and collaboration in high school classrooms.

In my keynote, I gave an overview of the core lessons from my creativity research, combined with my learning sciences research:

  • Creative learning is active
  • Creative learning is collaborative
  • Creative learning engages with projects in real-world contexts
  • Creative learning is artfully guided and structured by the teacher and the designed learning environment

Then, I gave some practical advice for how to make this happen by overcoming challenges faced when you try to do this in any school environment. I provided a few case studies of learning environments that are doing creative education very well (like the San Francisco Exploratorium).

One of the things I always associate with Montessori is the distinctive custom-designed manipulatives, most of them created by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. So I had fun browsing the vendor displays, where you can buy famous things like the pink tower (it’s at the left).WP_20150214_002





My message resonated loud and clear with the audience of Montessori educators. Many of them came up to my afterwards and said “You really helped me understand better what we need to do when we use Montessori methods to teach adolescents.” My latest book, Zig Zag, sold well at the book signing after my talk. I hope the creativity techniques in the book will give teachers ideas for how to help their students be more creative!WP_20150214_004