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.

Shortcut: How Analogies Drive Innovation

For several decades, psychologists have been studying creative mental processes, and we have a really good understanding of what goes on in the mind when people are being creative. I summarize this research in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity, by grouping all of the research into eight “stages” or “habits of mind” that are involved in being creative. And in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I describe over 100 techniques to train your brain in these eight stages.

One of the most important cognitive processes is analogy–a comparison of two things that seem very different on the surface, but that have an underlying conceptual or structural similarity. A really fun new book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, tells some fascinating stories of history’s most important innovative analogies. The author, John Pollack, identifies four rules for innovating through analogy:

  • Question conventional analogies. Sometimes the most obvious analogy is a dead end. Trying to invent an airplane by copying how birds flap their wings never worked.
  • Explore multiple analogies. Usually, there are lots of different potential analogical comparisons. Don’t stop with the first one. (This seems closely related to the first rule…)
  • Look to diverse sources. The most radical innovations often come from what psychologists call “distant analogies”, where the analogy comes from a radically different industry or discipline. This is why so many great breakthroughs come from interdisciplinary teams.
  • Simplify. The best analogies make complicated things easier to use.

Pollack’s book restates much of what we already know about innovation, but it’s well written, and his stories add to our growing database of historical examples that show how innovation works.