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.