An artist is like an archeologist. After you’ve found one bone, your job is to construct a dinosaur. For a composer it could be a simple motif, for a painter a particular color could do the trick. Salespersons know this, too. You can’t incept a thought in somebody’s mind out of nowhere. You have to find the hook that’s already there—for example a fear or a desire—and exploit it.
Once you’ve found the first bone, whether it is an opening line or an idea of a character, you’re left with an endless number of possibilities. Where to go? What next? This is why I think that ultimately, creativity is the ability to make choices. We all have ideas, but only a few have the skills to make the right choices and develop a simple idea into something meaningful.
For example, if you’re tasked with making a chair, you have an endless number of alternatives. A chair can have one, two, three, or four legs. You can make it out of wood, metal, or plastic. It can be blue, striped, or partially transparent. Imagining the possibilities isn’t hard. People we admire for their creativity are good at making choices. The idea of right and wrong answers doesn’t slow them down. A flat chair with one leg that is partially transparent and made of metal may not necessarily be the best combination. In terms of ergonomics, a shape that conforms to the human body might be better, and a one-legged chair is not the most stable. Except ... what if we stretch the chair taller, make the leg round and stable, choose a heavy metal to give it a feeling of quality, and make the seat section transparent—then we have a bar stool!
Creativity is ultimately quite simple. It is the ability to make choices and distinguish the most promising ideas from among thousands of possibilities.
As we age, we usually lose our ability to think creatively the way children do. Children are brash, silly, and hilarious, and they don’t start out by classifying ideas as good or bad. Children are excellent prognosticators of the future and great problem solvers, because they haven’t become locked into any specific pattern of thought. We should strive to maintain that creativity. The ability to think like a child, without inhibition, is the wellspring of creativity. In the world of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robotics, we need creativity in addition to logic. Picasso said that he learned to paint with the technical skill of Raphael in 15 years but then spent the rest of his life trying to learn how to paint like a child again: freely, creatively, without pressure.
We adults try to be smart, clever, and inventive to demonstrate our competence, but often our goal is to find the right answer, and when it is, our goal is not to be creative. The culture of right and wrong answers we learn in school suppresses independent thought. When we reward the right answer instead of the process, we begin to care only about the final result instead of the method.
We need to unlearn this outcome-oriented approach and the framework of right and wrong answers it entails, because it is poison for creativity. Creativity is improvisation, which doesn’t give you time to think about right and wrong. I once walked into my composition lesson and said that I don’t know how to start or what the beginning should be like. My teacher answered with a question. "Are there some rules as to what an opening can’t be like?"
In making choices, intuition helps a lot. Intuition is like a personal assistant for the creative person—it helps with routine activities. A person in Silicon Valley who worked closely with Steve Jobs told me they had observed that Steve had developed a unique ability for intuition in decision making. The leaders of large corporations must make many choices every day, and they don’t have the option to become deeply informed about every issue. Because of this, they must trust their intuition. Steve Jobs had managed to develop such a subtle intuition that he usually made the right choices. Through many good decisions, the company he led was able to create more successful products than their competitors. Was that because Jobs was a great visionary or because he was a master of small choices?
The old adage that the more options there are, the easier it is to find a good idea still applies. If you invent 10,000 different ideas, you may find one true lightbulb. However, we know from experience that choices are easier to make when there are fewer options. When there are two jars of jam on the supermarket shelf, the choice is easier than when there are four different flavors in three different sizes. If all possibilities are open, making decisions becomes burdensome. Creativity is a paradox. The more options there are, the better our chances are. Making a decision between all those options, however, becomes very difficult.
Creativity is activated when tools, resources, and options are limited. If someone were to simply tell you to make something creative, you might have a hard time getting started, but if they ask you to do something specific, such as making a chair, that gives you a set of preconditions, and beginning is easier. So it’s a myth that complete freedom would help us progress. The opposite is true. Choices are easier to make when resources are limited.
Lego blocks are a good example. A basic Lego brick is a very simple object, and there aren’t that many ways you can set one on top of another. Overlapping or sideways. That’s pretty much it. And this is the great genius of Lego. Bricks with limited possible uses make starting easy but force you to seek out new solutions when you want to build new structures.
The leadership at Lego often refers to an example where participants in a group are asked to build a duck with seven pieces. Apparently, they never get two the same. Building with Lego bricks is a highly creative activity, whereas pure freedom does not challenge us to create.
The mental block you feel when staring at a blank sheet of paper may make you think you aren’t creative, but that’s false. Creativity is making small choices with limited resources. And believe me, resources will always be limited! You just have to start.