The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. (One of my favourite fake Einstein quotes.)

What is it about creativity that makes so many otherwise sensible people say such silly things?

Most of us can only watch in awed wonder as the truly creative turn out one marvellously realised idea after an other. There’s a tendency to see it as evidence of some sort of mysterious, spooky ‘otherness’ which us normal folks just don’t possess, but it’s largely agreed that creativity is, if not directly teachable, at least possible to foster. The trouble is, being creative at say, making Lego models, doesn’t make you creative at writing poetry or software design. And being a creative mathematician is no guarantee  you will able to unleash your creativity as a fashion designer, flamenco dancer or comedian. Creativity, like so many traits we wrongly assume can be transferred from one area to another, is domain specific.

So it really annoys me when I see well-intentioned but badly misleading graphics like this:

Bad ideas never die

Bad ideas never die. Source Visual Thinkery

Firstly, I’d dispute the idea that school is ‘for’ preparing students for a world we cannot envisage. No one can imagine anything they can’t envisage and imagining a thing brings it into being. The best we can do is prepare students to flourish in a world we can envisage, but even this is dubious. I can all too easily envisage a post-apocalyptic hell where all the trappings of the modern world have ceased to be but I’m damned if that’s the future I want my children prepared for. Far better to equip students with the best of what’s worked in the past and hope that they, like all previous generations have managed, muddle through. And if we’re lucky, maybe they’ll even manage to improve things a little.

There are several reasons we get stuck. One of the main ones is emotional. Sometimes, when we’ve struggled before, or lack confidence we shut down emotionally and go into panic mode. Our inner voice says, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! And guess what? We can’t. This is not a state in which many people find themselves doing their best creative work. What can sometimes help is to change the emotional atmosphere and realise that if we just calm down and think a little*, perhaps we can. The other big reason we get stuck is because we don’t yet know enough. Trying to hold on to all the variables of a new problem can send us into cognitive overload and, if we’re not careful, we end up laying the ground work for the first kind of stuck. The only way out of this is either to know more, or to have the help of an expert.

What’s unlikely to help is someone suggesting you just think. About what? Well, if you’ve committed lots of stuff to memory then you can think about that, but if some well-intentioned idiot has convinced that remembering stuff is just sooooo 2015, then you’re scuppered. We can only think about something we know. If you doubt me, try it: think about something you don’t know. If I asked a roomful of art historians to think about quantum biology they might have a rather unfulfilling experience. If they were able to think about quantum biology that would be because they knew something about it. If, on the other hand, I asked Jim al Khalili to think about quantum biology, then we’d get some creative fireworks. The more we know the more interesting our thoughts become. The links and connections we can make become increasingly sophisticated and the possibility that we can be creative is suddenly, magically there.

And it all depends on the quality and the quantity of what you have remembered. So, instead, what about this?


Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 11.19.38

*If we have something to think about that is.