One of the most common questions I am asked at my seminars is “Why are some people creative and others not?” In my life observations about creativity, the key question isn’t “Why are some people creative and others not?” It is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where and how was our potential lost? How was it crippled? Why does education inhibit creativity? Why can’t educators foster more creativity instead of less? Why is it that the more expert people become in their fields, the less creative and innovative they become? Why is it that people who know more create less, and people who know less create more? Why are people amazed when someone creates something new, as if it were a miracle?
We’ve been educated to process information based upon what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, and what exists now. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. The Spanish word for “to answer” is “respuesta,”respuesta, and it has the same etymological root as “responso”responso (responsatory), the song people sing to the dead. It’s to say: to what has no life, anymore. In other words, when you think you know the answers, based on what has happened in the past, your thinking dies.
This is why, when most people use their imaginations to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Creative thinking requires the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects, creating new categories and concepts. We have not been taught to process information this way.
The key to creatively generating associations and connections between dissimilar subjects is conceptual blending. This is a creative thinking process that involves blending two or more concepts in the same mental space to form new ideas.
Imagine, for a moment, that thought is water. When you are born, your mind is like a glass of water. Your thinking is inclusive, clear, and fluid. All thoughts intermingle and combine with each other and make all kinds of connections and associations. This is why children are spontaneously creative.
In school you are taught to define, label, and segregate what you learn into separate categories. The various categories are kept separate and not allowed to touch each other, much like ice cubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen. For example, once you learn what a can opener is, whenever someone mentions “can opener” you know exactly what it is.
You are taught, when confronted with a problem, to examine the ice cube tray and select the appropriate ice cube. Then you take the ice cube and put it in a glass, where your thinking heats and melts it. For example, if the problem is to “improve the can opener,” the glass will contain all you have learned about can openers, and nothing more. You are thinking exclusively, which is to say you are thinking only about what you have learned about the can opener. No matter how many times the water is stirred, you end up creating, at best, a marginal improvement.
Now if you take another cube (e.g., vegetables) and put it in the same glass with the can-opener cube, your thinking will heat and melt both together into one fluid. Now when you stir the water, more associations and connections are made and the creative possibilities become immensely greater. The vegetable cube, once blended with the can opener cube, might inspire you to think of how vegetables open in nature. For example, when pea pods ripen, a seam weakens and opens, freeing the peas. This might inspire you to come up with novel new ideas. You could, for example, manufacture cans with a weak seam that can be pulled to open the can. You cannot get this kind of novel idea using your conventional way of thinking.
What happens when you think simultaneously, in the same mental space, about a showerhead and a telescope orbiting the earth simultaneously in the same mental space? When the Hubble telescope was first launched into space, the scientists were unable to focus it. It could only be salvaged by refocusing it using small, coin-shaped mirrors, a solution devised by commercial-optics expert Murk Bottema. The problem was how to deliver the mirrors and insert them precisely into the light bundle behind the main mirror. The NASA experts thought the problem was unsolvable, and the multi-million-dollar Hubble seemed doomed.
Electrical engineer James Crocker was attending a seminar in Germany when he heard about the problem. He pondered over it all day. Tired, he stepped into the shower in his hotel room. The European-style shower included a showerhead on an arrangement of adjustable rods. While manipulating the shower, Crocker realized that similar articulated arms bearing Bottema’s mirrors could be extended into the light bundle from within a replacement axial instrument by remote control. Simultaneously thinking of the Hubble telescope and the showerhead, in the same mental space, conceptually created this remarkable solution.
Crocker was startled by his sudden realization of the solution that was immensely comprehensive and, at the same time, immensely detailed. As Crocker later said, “I could see the Hubble’s mirrors on the shower head.” The NASA experts could not solve the problem using their usual linear way of thinking. The problem was solved by creatively combining the attributes of Hubble with the attributes of a showerhead in the same mental space.
Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, medicine, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending of dissimilar subjects. When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas.
Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have with the processes of reading and writing? In France, in 1818, a nine-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later, the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pinecone scales with reading and writing, and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way, Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind.
Braille made a creative connection between a pinecone and reading, two totally unrelated subjects, to create a way for the blind to read. Leonardo da Vinci was the first to observe that it is not possible to think of two subjects simultaneously without a connection being made no matter how dissimilar or unrelated. He recorded this observation in his notebooks and regarded it as the secret to his creative genius. He painstakingly wrote about his discovery backwards which produced a mirror-image script making it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone who discovered his notebooks to read.
When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects, your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene, even though there is no dog or leash. In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea. This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge.