[R01] Three basic principles

For many people, creativity is something reserved for scientists or artists. But this is to ignore the fact that we are faced with countless problems in our daily life, and it is precisely creative thinking that helps us come up with solutions to these problems. We need to make use of our creativity whether we are thinking about how to earn more money or how to make our our loved ones happier.

Many people also seem to think that creativity is a matter of waiting for inspirations. How inspiring ideas come about is however regarded as a rather mysterious process, and it is just a fact that some people are more creative than others. But it would be a mistake to think that creativity is a passive state of mind. While it is true that there is no special algorithm for creativity, there are thinking skills that can be taught and things one can do to enhance one's creativity. But to begin with, we need to understand these three basic principles that underlie creativity.

Principle one : New ideas are composed of old elements

Critical thinking is mainly about correct thinking. Creativity is mainly about alternative possibilities - how to come up with new and useful ideas. A new idea might be a new theory, a new product, a new solution to a problem, or a conception for a piece of art.

To come up with something new is to produce something that is distinctive and special. The practical implication here is that in order to be creative we must be ready to deviate from the ordinary and the traditional. Many people have the habit of following instructions and are afraid of challenging the status quo or exploring anything new. This implies a certain courageous exploratory attitude and curiosity in one's character.

But where do new ideas come from? The simple answer is that new ideas are actually old ones rearranged in a new way. So there is a sense in which it is true that "there is nothing new under the sun." This applies not just to the creation of concepts or theories but also the launching of new fashion or cultural trends.

How do we generate new ideas from old ones? Roughly speaking, ideas are usually composed of diffrent elements, and we look for new combination of ideas by joining different ideas together, deleting some elements, or replacing some elements by other ones. Consider the idea of a mobile phone. This idea is of course the combination of the idea of wireless information transmission and the idea of a telephone.

The first principle also has a practical implication - the ingredients for creativity depends on the store of ideas that are available for recombination. If you have a limited domain of knowledge, you will have fewer resources to draw from in forming new ideas. This is why intellectual curiosity and a wide knowledge base can significantly enhance one's creativity - one has in one's possession more concepts, theories and experience to choose from. This is also why it can be useful to try to solve a problem by consulting other people with different expertise.

So creativity does not come from a vacuum or sheer determination. We have to start by absorbing lots and lots of ideas before we can come up with one ourselves. As the famous comedian John Cleese says:

You say, "I'm going to write something completely new and original and very funny." You can't do it. It's like trying to fly a plane without having any lessons. You've got to start somewhere and the best way to start is by copying something that is really good.
John Cleese, comedian

Principle two : Not all new ideas are on a par

Creativity is not simply a matter of coming up with new ideas. The kind of creativity that is valued is the ability to come up with new and useful ideas, ideas that serve an important need or creates a new trend that makes an impact.

Creativity might be divided into cognitive and artistic creativity. Artistic creativity consists in the creation of artwork and expressing one's ideas and emotions through various forms of art. Critical thinking as such is not opposed to artistic creativity, but the enhancement of critical thinking skills obviously might not improve one's artistic creativity. However, critical thinking is a necessary condition for cognitive creativity. Cognitive creativity is a matter of coming up with solutions to practical or theoretical problems. This includes for example creating a new scientific theory, or lauching a new commercial product.

Cognitive creativity has two parts - the generation of new ideas, and the evaluation and modification of new ideas. When we need new ideas to solve a problem, critical thinking is necessary to help determine the relevance and effectiveness of the idea. To build a rocket that flies to the moon, one should not violate logic or the laws of physics. The evaluation of any proposal to solve a problem must involve good critical thinking.

It is sometimes suggested that creativity often requires going against the usual conventions, and that new and important ideas might be lost if one is too critical. But good critical thinking does not mean that one must always be critical. If experience tells us that it is useful to brainstorm, that sometimes it might be productive to suspend one's critical judgment and list out new ideas before evaluating them, then it is of course rational to do so. This is certainly not inconsistent with the principles of critical thinking. It is thus a serious misconception to regard critical thinking and cognitive creativity as opposed to each other.

Principle three : Creativity is enhanced by the ability to detect connections between ideas

Our store of ideas provides the ingredients to generate new ones, but it is important to remember that useful ideas might come from unexpected sources. A successful marketing campaign might appeal to certain psychological studies and relate to particular trends in the society. This involves seeing a connection between the subject matter one is interested in (the marketing exercise) and other subjects (sociology and psychology) which might seem somewhat remote.

As a concrete example, consider the so-called "fastskin" swimsuits that was introduced by the company Speedo around 1996. One of the key consideration in designing a swimsuit for athletes is to reduce the total amount of drag over the surface of the swimsuit. The company's researchers noticed that sharks are able to move very fast in water in part because of V-shaped ridges. Researchers designed swimwear fabric emulating sharkskin that produced less drag and turbulence. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, 28 of 33 Olympic Gold Medal winners wore this type of swimsuit, testifying to its success.

So if we want to be creative, we must be ready to explore connections between different areas. First, this means we should have a wide knowledge base. Creative people are usually people who read widely, who have a great sense of curiosity, and are often willing to explore topics which do not bring about immediate benefits. Second, we should ensure that our learning processes should aim at a deep understanding of the connections between key concepts. Studying is not simply remembering bits and pieces of unrelated information. We should make sure that we look at the information we have from different angles, reformulate them systematically in a way to achieve better understanding.

Here is a nice quote from Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

From "Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing" WIRED (http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/4.02/jobs_pr.html)

Famous scientist and author Isaac Asimov also talks about the importance of detecting connections between ideas. He wrote a special report about creativity where he says:

The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

From https://www.technologyreview.com/s/531911/isaac-asimov-asks-how-do-people-get-new-ideas/
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