Skip to content

5 Principles of Creativity

2011 August 10

Back in the 1880’s, Frederick Winslow Taylor was able to make dramatic gains in efficiency by timing workers performing rote tasks.  His efforts spawned the idea and practice of scientific management.

Alas, these days routine jobs, even white collar ones such as bookkeeping, legal research and basic medical diagnoses are increasingly being automated by computer. Others fall prey to globalization and are outsourced.
So to compete in today’s marketplace, you have to be able to create. That’s much different than just working faster or harder or longer.  The good news is that, while we can’t all be a Picasso or a Mozart, there are some simple principles we can follow that will enhance our ability originate ideas that are truly new and important.

1. Define and Distill The Problem

Einstein once said that “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.” It’s important to build in constraints that will frame a possible solution and, as Robert Weisberg points out in his book Creativity, brainstorming often fails for exactly this reason

Moreover, as I pointed out in an earlier post about technology, the things we create are not monolithic, but combinations of components.  So if your are searching for creative solutions, it’s important that you frame and target an area ripe for innovation.

Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is only valuable in service of some goal, whether that is a particular idea to be expressed in a painting or a poem, value created by a new business model or the brand to be promoted in a marketing campaign.  Simply throwing around crazy ideas never accomplishes anything.

2. Learn The Rules Before You Set Out To Break Them

While we commonly view creativity as the product of brilliant flashes, the reality is exactly the opposite.  This paper details a wealth of research that suggests that creativity comes only after years of preparation.  Harvard’s Howard Gardner reported similar results in his study chronicling seven of histories greatest geniuses, Creating Minds.

And it’s not only a matter of putting in your time.  As Anders Ericsson describes in his highly cited, decades long study, it takes deliberate practice, which involves working on weak areas, seeking out feedback and continual improvement.  No day at the beach!

There are, of course, stories of brilliant innovations coming from seemingly instant insights.  However, as this article shows, in reality either the innovator in question had been working on the problem for a long time or that they had intense knowledge of the subject matter that alerted them to the significance of a happy accident.

The evidence on this point couldn’t be clearer.  Successful creative people spend years learning their fields before they begin to change them.  So if you want to create something truly new and different, your best bet is to start by learning your field extremely well.

3. Cross Domains

While deep knowledge of a specific field is important, it is not enough  In fact, research suggests that many professionals actually get worse over time.  Just as familiarity breeds contempt, constant exposure to similar fact patterns produces lazy thinking.

As I’ve written before, breakthrough innovation happens when ideas are synthesized from more than one domain.  Pick any important discovery, whether it is Darwin and natural selection, Picasso and cubism, Einstein and relativity and invariably they used concepts from two or more fields.

Increasingly, real world innovation is reflecting this reality.  Some of the world’s most exciting research is happening now at the Sante Fe Institute, which was set up specifically for interdisciplinary investigation.  In a similar vein, most software today is developed using Agile and Scrum methods, both of which emphasize cross-functional teams.

If you’re looking for answers to hard questions, it always helps to broaden your search.

4. Hedge Your Bets

We often see great innovators as big dreamers, who through caution to the wind and bet everything on one big idea.  The reality is much more complicated than that.

Probably the greatest burst of creativity the world has ever seen was Einstein’s miracle year in which he unleashed three papers which changed the world.  In one, he proved the existence of the atom by explaining Brownian motion.  In another, he described the photoelectric effect and proposed the existence of light quanta.  The third was his famous paper of special relativity.

The impact of these papers was almost unimaginable.  They spawned innovations such as nuclear power, lasers, i-Pods, GPS devices, and much more.  However, there was a fourth, often forgotten paper that described how to determine the number of molecules in a liquid.  It was an important paper for the time, but in context it hardly seems worth the effort.

Why did he bother?  Because he still hadn’t earned his doctorate and needed a more conventional idea for his dissertation.  After all, his primary objective wasn’t to change history, but to get a job as a university professor!

5. Keep At It

Creativity is not something that comes easy, even to geniuses.  Immanuel Kant toiled in obscurity for most of his life when reading David Hume “awakened him from his slumbers.” Hume himself saw his first book, A Treatise on Human Nature flop before he gained fame decades later (and today his Treatise is considered a masterwork)..

At the age of 35,the poet  Charles Bukowski lay penniless and near death in a charity ward from a bleeding ulcer that was caused by more than a decade of heavy drinking, tawdry rooming houses and questionable women.  Later, after he gained fame and fortune, a reporter asked him to what he owed his enormous success.  “Endurance,” he said.

And the evidence is not just anecdotal.  A study of musicians found that the number of masterpieces produced is highly correlated to overall productivity.  The more work you do, the better your work gets.

Finally, any serious review of paradigm breaking creative accomplishment is sure to find a pattern of constant revision.  Creative geniuses tend to be less the ones with the quickest answers and more the ones who keep working till they get it right.

– Greg

20 Responses leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011

    As the extensive links in your excellent post shows, these points are well known and basically proven. What I find interesting is that people tend to believe the opposite picture.

    There’s a cloud of archetypes surrounding creativiety which, if combined, would probanly paint the picture of the lone eccentric creative genius who:
    – comes into a field new
    – ‘gets it’ in a flash, without any years of perserverence, or even of thinking about the problem, or boundary conditions
    – creates something new because “he didn’t know it broke the rules”
    – gambles everything on his/her insight
    – only has one insight, and never does anything else noteworthy in the field

    Why do we believe these archetypes? Do they correspond to some romantic vision which we’d prefer to believe in? Do they make good movie characters, or newspaper stories?

  2. August 10, 2011


    It’s true. Facts often get lost in the quest for a good story. What’s unfortunate is that so many professionals fail to check facts.

    – Greg

  3. August 10, 2011

    I actually think there’s a paradigm in operation here. People believe these false archetypes, and so that’s how they expect to see creativity in action. Even if the journalist sees the actual truth, the clichés make for a better article…

  4. August 10, 2011

    Yes. It is somewhat reflexive.

    – Greg

  5. August 12, 2011

    Humans tend to romanticize everything. History, Technology, Science. Any sort of achievement. This is one of natural drives that is hardwired in us. Notwithstanding our rather complex system (brain-mind-feelings-neural signals network), everything sensational, easy-to-grasp, and simple has a better appeal to us. All important and deep details will necessarily, as Greg clearly shows in his post above, get lost because they are a) boring and seemingly unnecessary, b) require some insights and thinking, c) do not fit in our stereotypes/notions of how this world works from times past till now (not as romantic as our stereotypes and linearily built history tells us).

    Not surprisingly everything popular is actually popular, as it appeals to grand masses. Not surprisingly also, the term “vulgar”, while in bearing a negative connotation in its modern form, meant “popular” in its original Greek.

    My 2 cents.

  6. August 12, 2011

    Thx. Didn’t know the entomology of “vulgar.” Nice one.


  7. August 13, 2011

    Great post, Greg! Creativity surely comes from experience. Otherwise one would most likely invent things that either already exist or have no merits.

    It is the same with intuition or “gut feeling”.

    A big investor in Bulgaria once told me that he usually trusts his gut feeling when it tells him he has hit on a great investment opportunity. I said, ‘Your gut feeling probably comes from experience.’ ‘Sure.’, said he,”Twenty years ago my gut feeling indicated only purely physiological needs.’

  8. August 13, 2011

    Thanks Stan. btw. I wrote about “gut feelings” a while back:

    – Greg

  9. August 14, 2011

    Phew – and Don’t I know it – slog slog slog is the way forward but the more you slog the more insights you gain. When you have really worked at it long and hard people start saying you are wrong – they have no idea how hard you looked into things.

    Some people that have listened tell me that I am now so far ahead that I am not able to explain what I know in simple terms – and if I cannot do that then I will not get any recognition in my life time.

    Thus I have worked for a decade trying to cover everything AND write it in a language that people can understand. I’m getting there! It is about the financial structures that we use and how to change them to stop the economy going out of control. I now have it down to simple principles.

    My earlier innovations were much easier – I just did it and everyone copied me in due course. But the ideas evolved slowly and in one case at least the outcome was two decades during which my client’s investments (the index of them that was monitored) never fell in value in a calendar year.

    But all are based on hard and deep thought with lots of u-turns and deviations, asking questions, testing ideas and observation day in day out. And I started as an engineer studying among other things, control systems and structures that could enable machinery to behave well.

    I never published my essay on ‘The Feasibility of a Thinking Machine’ which was the result of three years’ constant observation and testing more or less non-stop. I got stuck on how to limit what the machine would be thinking about, and how to motivate it – would it need feelings? and would it need to be conscious? I never found a glimmer of a hope of making it self aware as what I would recognize as a conscious entity. All this was in 1960s. Today the leading theorists found what I found – designing a conscious thinking machine tends to lead to an endless pursuit that can never be completed. But others disagree. Well we will see – meantime I am looking at problems that I can solve. I was told in the 1980s by a patent agent that my ideas on this were, at that time, ten years ahead of their time.

    So if you want to create, be passionate, never stop thinking and follow the guidelines set out above. They are right. and above all be passionate about your pursuit of a solution. Like me you may not always find one, but sometimes you may.

    Does that help anyone? I only told a tenth of my story and only in outline. And I am working on some other far reaching concepts – have been working on those for years too. No clear way forward yet but I am hopeful…

  10. August 14, 2011

    Good stuff Edward. Keep at it.


  11. Robbie permalink
    August 14, 2011

    Terrific article, thank you. I agree that we need time to learn, that will in turn provide the knowledge to implement creative and (more importantly) successful ideas, but I have too often seen employees over time become “comfortable” and loose their creative drive, opting instead for a repetitive existence.

    How do I avoid becoming one of those people? Should the employer look at ways to try prevent this from happening?

  12. August 14, 2011

    I think the key is to retain a passion for problems. Everybody rates you on your solutions, but it’s the quest for interesting problems that keeps you moving.

    – Greg

  13. Gene McNaughton permalink
    August 15, 2011

    Bravo Greg. My first time reading your post and i am highly impressed. keep up the great work —


  14. August 15, 2011

    Thanks Gene. Hope to see you again!

    – Greg

  15. August 22, 2011

    Great point, this article really drives home a good point that many people either don’t know or have forgotten. Most geniuses work feverishly for many years with little or no recognition until they reach success, then are heralded as “creative geniuses” who saved the world. One such genius who comes to mind is Thomas Edison, who actually said “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, due to his many thousands of hours toiling in his lab. Oh, and thanks for the reference to the book by Robert Weisberg, I ordered this (from my library) and can’t wait to check it out.


  16. August 22, 2011

    Thanks Derek. Long live Henry Chinowski!

    – Greg

  17. August 29, 2011

    Coming back to the archtypes I mentioned earlier, I just spotted a relevant Fast Company article about the Myths of Creativity. Here’s a quote about the ‘garage myth’ (HP, Apple, YouTube, etc.):

    “all of us crave the excitement of these creation myths… Give us the garage. In fact, the story would be even more satisfying if Jobs and Wozniak had built the garage first. Out of toothpicks, scavenged from local restaurants.
    Because we eat these stories up, ideas tend to evolve to suit our fancies.”

    more here:

  18. August 29, 2011

    Great! Thanks.

    – Greg

  19. June 19, 2012

    Definitely some interesting ways of looking at creativity, and indeed creation, as a necessity for making it in this new environment. It’s definitely not easy, but I guess when it’s the only option, you just have to make it happen however you can.

  20. June 19, 2012

    Very true.

    Btw – Love your site – I’m a big Bukowski fan:-)

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS