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.

Group Genius: Radical in 2007, Conventional Wisdom Today

In 2007, my book Group Genius made a radical claim: The discipline of psychology could never explain creativity, because creativity emerges from collaborative groups and networks. In 2007, this put me at odds with most of my creativity research colleagues; they studied solitary individuals. And it was a bit cutting edge for the business world, too; most business books were still focused on enhancing the creative potential of each employee:

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; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7)

My timing turned out to be perfect for the business world. In 2007, top executives were beginning to realize that collaboration was the key to innovation. They were eager to learn about my seven key characteristics of effective creative teams and companies:

  1. Innovation emerges over time
  2. Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
  3. Team members build on their collaborator’s ideas
  4. Only afterwards does the meaning of each idea become clear
  5. Surprising questions emerge
  6. Innovation is inefficient
  7. Innovation emerges from the bottom up

In recent years, several new books have appeared that reinforce my argument: Great creativity always emerges over time, from collaborative pairs, teams, and distributed networks. I’ve just read two wonderful books that make a particularly strong case for collaborative creativity:

Both books are wonderfully written. They are true to the science and the historical record. Each of them have turned up surprising and little-known details about creativity. If you read these books, along with Group Genius, you’ll have a really good understanding of what science has discovered about innovation.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Johnson’s central claim is that good ideas don’t come from inside some genius’s brain:

If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. (p. 17)

In the last three chapters of Group Genius, I describe the “collaborative webs” that foster innovation, and the characteristics of environments that make them grow. Johnson’s book builds on my work, and adds in some really fascinating stories. (He comes to the same conclusion that I do about what sort of intellectual property law regime results in the greatest innovation.) Consistent with my seven points above, he argues that innovation emerges from tinkering and bricolage. The most innovative environments are like my collaborative webs:

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts. (p. 35) [These environments have] a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. (p. 51) The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table. (p. 61)

Johnson cites a lot of the same research that I do, and tells many of the same stories (Kevin Dunbar’s research; Gruber’s book about Darwin’s notebooks; brainstorming research; Burt’s research on structural holes; MIT’s Building 20). He echoes my concept of group flow with his term collective flow (both of us building on Dr. Csikszentmihalyi).

Johnson’s book is a fascinating read; he’s a great storyteller. In the last chapter, he comes to the same conclusion that I did in 2007:

A majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments. (p. 228)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators

Isaacson’s book focuses more narrowly–on the technology innovations that resulted in today’s tablet, smartphone, networked world. We sometimes take this world for granted, but it didn’t exist just a few years ago. I’m surprised to see how well Isaacson’s book is selling, because it’s highly detailed and very focused. Maybe there are more nerds out there that I realized! Personally, I loved it, because I participated in this history. I arrived at MIT in 1978, and received my computer science degree in 1982. I did my undergraduate thesis on MIT’s version of the Xerox PARC Smalltalk computer, the LISP Machine, so I was using a windows and mouse interface as early as 1980. I played the original video game, Space War, in the MIT student center. I remember how cool it was to use the Arpanet and log in to computers all over the world (one country I remember logging into was Norway). There were no passwords and no security; when I wanted to read a draft of Professor Marvin Minsky’s new book, I just went into his personal file folders and read his drafts. I met Richard Stallman, who tried to get me to participate in his “Free Unix!” project. Isaacson’s book was perfect for me.

Chapter after chapter, he takes up the core innovations: Computer hardware. Software and programming. Microchips. Video games. The Internet. The personal computer. And every single one emerged from collaboration:

The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or a garret or a garage. (p. 85)

The formation of ideas was shaped more by the iterative interplay within the group than by an individual tossing in a wholly original concept. The sparks come from ideas rubbing against each other rather than as bolts out of the blue. (p. 110)

As with Johnson’s book, Isaacson tells several of the same stories I tell in Group Genius: Xerox PARC, Richard Stallman and GNU/Linux, how the windows-and-mouse interface emerged from successive incremental ideas. He comes to the same conclusion I did in 2007:

First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. (p. 479)

Like any author, I hope that my book stands the test of time. Group Genius contains many stories that aren’t in these books: The creation of the airplane, the mountain bike, the Monopoly boardgame, emergency and disaster response teams, Honda’s motorcycles, basketball teams, the ATM cash machine, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and more. And, I tend to provide a bit more practical advice for how to use this research to be more creative. So if you like these two books, I hope you’ll read mine too!

It’s About the Group, Genius

But what about those moments when you have a sudden realization, you get an idea while taking a walk, you experience a flash of insight? Isn’t that still really about solitary processes within your own private brain? No:

Researchers have discovered that the mind itself is filled with a kind of internal collaboration, that even the insights that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations. (Group Genius, p. xii)

Forget the myths about historical inventors; the truth is always a story of group genius. (Group Genius, p. xiii)

Standing against this new consensus about how creativity and innovation work, many of my creativity research colleagues remain focused on individual creativity. If you skim the pages of the Creativity Research Journal, you’ll see almost exclusively psychological research that focuses on mental processes inside the minds of solitary people. But this narrow focus is holding us back, as I write at the end of Group Genius:

If you believe that creativity is reserved for special geniuses, you’re more likely to think that you can’t be creative. If you believe that creativity is an unexplainable gift that happens in a magical flash of insight, you won’t invest in the hard and sustained work that it takes to generate a long string of small sparks. If you believe that creativity happens to nonconforming, solo operators, you won’t work together with others to build group genius. (p. 225-226)

We need an interdisciplinary science of creativity, one that brings together psychologists with scholars who study groups, teams, and collaborative webs in organizations. Here’s what I hoped for in my 2012 overview of creativity research, Explaining Creativity:

Creativity research in the future will be increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing together scientists who are experts in multiple levels of analysis–neurons, mental states, groups, and organizations. An interdisciplinary science of creativity has the potential to provide a more complete scientific explanation of how new things emerge from human activity. (pp. 432-433)

Other books about collaborative creativity

My 2007 book wasn’t the first to emphasis the power of collaboration. I built on prior work by adding insights from my own scientific research, on jazz ensembles and improv theater groups, using interaction analysis methodology, and I wove it together with some cool case studies. Prior books that I loved include:

Some books after 2008 that jive with Group Genius include:

Happy Artists: New Research Finds that Artists Are Happier Than the Rest of Us

Artists have a reputation for being unhappy and depressed. We tend to believe that artists are more likely to have mental illness than the rest of us–whether depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and even suicide. But many scientists have claimed just the opposite: That artists are no more crazy than the rest of us. How could that be, when there are so many famous stories of mentally disturbed artists, from poets like Silvia Plath (suicide) to artists like Vincent van Gogh? What’s the real story–is there a link between artistic creativity and mental illness?

Probably not. Two new studies provide evidence that artists are more happy, and more psychologically stable, than the rest of us–exactly the opposite of our “mad genius” stereotype. The first is a massive study* using data from the European Value Survey, the British Household Panel, and the Swiss Household Panel, by a research team at the University of Zurich. The survey includes each person’s occupation, and then asks them to rate their job satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 10. The results show that “artists generally are happier than the rest of the population,” in the words of co-author Bruno S. Frey, the research director of the Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts at the University of Zurich.

A second study, from Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for the Arts, Entertainment and Public Policy, surveyed 13,000 graduates of arts programs. Examining these results, Curb Center director Steven J. Tepper says “Arts graduates are resilient and resourceful…they are happy with [the careers] they put together.” Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, seconds this conclusion: “Artists tend to be happy with their choices and lives.”**

So why do we continue to believe the false myths about crazy artists? Actually, there is a good historical and cultural explanation–but it’s too long for a blog post, so for that, you’ll have to read Chapter 2 of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. But in the meantime, the take-home message today is that artists are well-adjusted and happy.

*Bille et al. 2013. Happiness in the Arts.

**Grant, D. 2013. What does a fine arts degree get you? The punch line: Maybe a job. Wall Street Journal, 11/11/2013, p. R2.

Just Published: A Comprehensive Overview of Creativity Research

Now available from Oxford University Press:

Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, Second Edition

When I published the first edition of Explaining Creativity in 2006, it was the first overview of creativity research. Since that time, the field has matured significantly, with two more textbook overviews (by Mark Runco and Robert Weisberg) and several edited handbooks, and a lot more great research. So I’ve been hard at work these last two years, writing this second edition… It’s radically new, with seven new chapters, 8 new appendixes, and every other chapter rewritten. As Dean Keith Simonton (UC Davis) says,

Without doubt, Explaining Creativity is the most comprehensive single-volume presentation of what we know about the creative process, person, and product. Besides that, the book is extremely well-written.

Here’s a small sample of some of the more surprising things you’ll learn in this book, that aren’t collected in any other book about creativity:

Which famous creativity researcher first introduced Timothy Leary to psychedelic mushrooms?

  • Frank X. Barron (Chapter 2, p. 18)

In what year and location was the first patent granted?

  • 1474 in Venice (Chapter 2, p. 21)

The fourth-grade slump is a myth; creativity continually increases with age. (Chapter 4, p. 74)

In recent decades, the formerly observed drop in creativity in later years is no longer occuring; find out why on page 288. (Chapter 15)

Abraham Maslow’s graduate advisor, Harry Harlow, first documented that external rewards interfered with motivation, in a study with which animal species?

  • Monkeys (Chapter 4, pp. 78-79)

The story about Archimedes shouting Eureka in the bathtub is a myth; find out how we know on page 97. (Chapter 5)

When was the ten year rule first documented, and in which area of expertise?

  • In 1899 with telegraph operators. (Chapter 5, p. 93)

The story of Kekule dreaming of a snake biting its tail and then realizing the molecular structure of benzene is a myth; find out the story on pages 373-374. (Chapter 20)

The story of Mendel discovering modern genetics and then being ignored for 35 years is false; find out the real story on pages 378-379. (Chapter 20)

In what year was the first creativity training program?

  • 1937 at GE (Appendix A, p. 439)

Who designed the cover graphic of the Creativity Research Journal?

  • Mark Runco’s son, Chris Runco (Appendix C, p. 445) 

New Edition of Creativity Book

This summer, I’m finishing the second edition of my creativity textbook, Explaining Creativity. The first edition, published in 2006, had 16 chapters from a variety of scientific perspectives–psychology, of course, but also anthropology, history, and sociology.

I’m writing new chapters on the following topics:

  • Creativity and education
  • Assessment of creativity
  • Neuroscience of creativity (brain imaging studies)
  • Two chapters on the creative cognition approach

Also, I’m completely rewriting all of the other chapters to incorporate the latest research.

So for those of you who know the first edition, or for those instructors who have used it in a college course, what would you like to see in the second edition?

Teaching Creativity

I just returned from a visit to The Teaching Company.  You may have seen their ads in the Wall Street Journal or any number of other publications; they develop and sell videotape and audiotape courses by the U.S.’s best professors.  I was honored to be invited there to do what they call an “audition lecture” of 30 minutes.  We’re talking about developing a 24-lecture course in “cultivating creativity” that is research based.  What would you like to see in such a course?

My first thoughts are to use the outline of my book Explaining Creativity, an overview of the research about creativity.  I’ve just signed with Oxford University Press to write a second edition of this book.  Although it was just published in 2006, the research has progressed rather rapidly since then, and there are enough new findings that a second edition is necessary.

And on a related note: I’ll be on sabbatical from Washington University for the next 12 months, and will be in residence at three different locations:

1. Four weeks this summer at the San Francisco Exploratorium;

2. Three months, the fall term, at the University of Cambridge, England;

3. January through May 2010 at the Savannah College of Art & Design.

I plan to put these three experiences together and write a book about how to teach creativity.