To Be Creative, Read a Lot

You’ll be more creative if you fill your mind with a variety of information. It helps you make those distant combinations that lead to bigger and more surprising creative ideas.

So I loved reading this new article in Science Magazine, by Julian West, a doctoral student in organic chemistry at Princeton. I’ve excerpted the passages that resonated with me.

I aggressively curate and monitor the notifications I receive about newly published papers, and I read those that strike my interest, even if they’re not directly related to my research. Perhaps the biggest question is why I make the effort. The short answer is that I read widely to prepare myself for whatever might come along in the lab. My biggest fear is the one that got away, the important discovery that I missed because I couldn’t see it for what it was.

Reading only in my subdiscipline would limit the kinds of connections I can draw.

Time and again, strange observations in the lab reminded me of a paper I had read in some far-out journal, or a seemingly irrelevant visiting speaker’s talk suddenly led me to understand a result that had been bugging me for weeks.

My advice: Read widely and voraciously.

One of the key lessons is that it’s not easy. It takes time and effort. It’s easier to stay focused on one thing, to work on what everyone else is working on, to read all of the same articles that your colleagues are reading. But creativity? You’ve got to work at that, to do things your colleagues aren’t.

Fast Company: 50 Most Innovative Companies

Fast Company has just published its annual list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. It’s easy to be skeptical, given that they change the list every year; I’m sure that all 50 companies don’t change their level of innovation every year…but the magazine has to make it newsworthy. Anyway, all fifty companies are definitely innovative!

Here’s what I found most interesting–in  the top 50, a lot of innovation is based in collaboration. The highlights:

  • Facebook’s CEO Sheryl Sandberg says “Creativity’s never been so important.” (ranking: #6)
  • Slack and its collaboration app ranked #23.
  • Glossier (#24) collaborates with customers to create cult cosmetics. (“Collaborating with Customers” is the title of one of my chapters in Group Genius)
  • Adobe (#35) for pushing its creativity suite into the cloud

FYI the number one most innovative company is Amazon.

Bumblebees Can Learn

Check out this cool new study published in SCIENCE Magazine. The study proves that bees can learn, and they can adapt what they’ve learned to new situations.

The researchers created some really clever tasks for the bees, and the descriptions of what the bees had to do are pretty complicated. First, the researchers showed the bees a small yellow ball at the center of a blue circle. The ball had a sugar solution inside, and the bees learned to go up to the ball, and get the sugar, pretty quickly (within 48 hours).

Next, they put the yellow ball outside the blue circle, and the bees could only get to the sugar after they pushed the ball into the center of the circle. The researchers started by showing the bee how to do it–they made a stick with a plastic bee at the end, and the manipulated the stick so that the plastic bee moved the ball into the center. At first, the bee could eat the sugar once the plastic bee had finished, but after a few times of this, the bee had to move it himself to get the sugar.

14 bees figured out how to move it themselves within 10 tries. The researchers got rid of the four dumber bees who couldn’t figure it out. Then, the researchers gave the bees a much larger blue circle, and all of the bees still could move the yellow ball to the center, ten tries in a row. The bees kept learning; on each of the ten trials they took less time to finish, and their path to the center become more direct.

Next the researchers put the bees through a complicated task that’s hard to describe briefly. In short, they showed that the bees learned best when they could watch another bee doing it, compared to another learning situation where they didn’t have another bee to watch. That’s social learning–learning from watching and imitating someone you recognize.

Then, with yet another complicated experiment, they showed that the bees aren’t just copying what they see another bee do, but that they learn to adapt what they’ve learned to new situations. For example, if they were shown another bee moving the farthest away ball, they knew to move the closest ball instead of that farther one. And second, if the ball color changed to black, they could still do it.

The researchers point out that these artificial tasks are way harder than anything bees have to do in the wild. Evolution didn’t require this adaptation (of being able to learn this way). This means that animals can end up smarter than they need to survive in the wild. (We’re talking about you, human beings!)

Here’s their conclusion:

Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities.

What Happens Next? (The Problem with Plot)

Novelist Marisa Silver describes the creative process, in the Sunday NYTimes book review:

My particular writing methodology, if it could be called that, might be summarized this way: Go inside a dark tunnel filled with conflicting, incongruent ideas, paw around for a few years. Finally, figure out how to crawl toward a pinprick of light that might be an exit.

What a great description of the creative process! In every field, it’s a wandering, unpredictable path. You don’t know at the beginning where you’re going to end up. You just have to engage in the work, and wait for the questions and ideas to emerge from the process.

And Silver writes this about plots in novels:

I find plot the most fascinating and vexing element of fiction for the simple reason that its artificiality can feel difficult to mask. After all, if there is any plot to a life, it can be organized only in retrospect. We are all, for the most part, pawing around in the dark looking for evidence of light, floundering from here to there. We don’t have an author choreographing clear conflicts, rising tensions and satisfying denouements.

Creativity Keynote at Rice University

Yesterday, I gave a big public lecture at Rice University in Houston, one of the top universities in the U.S. Like many universities, Rice is trying to foster a more creative and entrepreneurial culture across campus. The centerpiece of the effort is a wonderful new building, the Moody Center for the Arts, that’s just opened right in the middle of campus. It’s my kind of architecture–I like the boxy contemporary style.

I was honored to learn that a thousand people signed up for my talk! So they moved it from the small space at the Moody Center (my talk is one of the center’s inaugural events) to the much bigger Stude concert hall, which seats a thousand. I loved performing in the Stude; the acoustics were incredible. I probably could have done my 45 minute talk without a microphone (but I’m glad I had one!)

My core message was that creativity isn’t about having a brilliant insight. Instead, creativity is about having small, everyday insights–ideas that all of us can have, if we engage in research-based creative habits. And it’s important that we realize that creativity follows an unpredictable, wandering path. You can’t know where you’ll end up, and this can make people nervous. You have to learn to trust in the process, and let the creativity emerge from the work.

Match These Taglines With The Right Company

I’ve been watching the Weather Channel every morning with my son, Graham. A while back, I started writing down the taglines from the advertisements. The tagline is the catchy slogan that comes at the end of the commercial, after the company name. I started to notice that many taglines could work for lots of different companies. It’s not always easy to match the tagline with the right company! Try to match the number with the right letter:

  1. “Together all the way”
  2. “I can do this”
  3. “To help life go right”
  4. “What’s in your wallet”
  5. “Fine products made to last”
  6. “Show more of you”
  7. “Ready for the workday”
  8. “Experience an original”
  9. “Get yours”
  10. “Be good at life”
  • A. Cintas
  • B. Met Life
  • C. Otesla (a drug)
  • D. Cigna
  • E. State Farm
  • F. L. L. Bean
  • G. CNBC
  • H. Capital One
  • I. The Mattress Store
  • J. Met Life (yes, Met Life has two taglines on the list)

And here’s a creativity exercise for today: Create a tagline for you, that captures your personal brand.

Answers: 1D, 2J, 3E, 4H, 5F, 6C, 7A, 8I, 9G, 10B

The Path to Creativity

In Austin, Texas, “Voice and Exit” is a cool gathering of tech visionaries and experts in human flourishing. At 8:30 Friday night, I kicked off a series of 10-minute talks, in front of 300 hipsters, in a converted produce market in Austin’s East Side–surrounded by fair trade coffee tables, massage artists, virtual reality rooms, and hammocks. Here’s how I started the 10-minute talk. It’s the core message of my ZIG ZAG creativity advice book:

Creativity is not mysterious. Creativity is not a rare insight, that comes to you suddenly, once in a lifetime, to change the world. It’s just the opposite. Creativity is a way of life. It’s a process. The process starts with an idea. But it’s not a big insight–it’s a small idea. And that small idea can’t change the world by itself. In the creative life, you have small ideas every week, every day, even every hour. The key is to learn how to bring those ideas together, over time, and that’s the essence of the creative process. The latest creativity research shows the daily practices that exceptional creators use to keep having those small ideas, and how to bring them together in a creative process that consistently leads to successful creative outcomes.

For the whole talk, wait a couple of weeks and the video of my talk will be posted online. I’ll let you know!