fuse: form harmonies
part two: creativity functions, chapter 7
“My job is to make things up, and the best way to make things up is to make them out of real things.” — Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
1972. It is just weeks before the “Gallery House” is about to be opened at Princes Gate in London, and the place still looks like a wreck. Old, abandoned buildings are always a source of surprises. Some of them are nothing but bad news (especially if you plan to open the building to the public), but every now and then, you just might stumble upon a real treasure, and in a couple of minutes, that’s exactly what is going to happen.
A young woman is working with her colleague on arranging the four-story building and turning it into a space hosting no less than fourteen art galleries. As they go from one room to the other, cleaning and removing anything that shouldn’t really be there, they come across an old, dusty, locked chest. They pause and look at each other, fantasizing if only for a minute on what they are about to discover. And then, they both lean over the chest as one, and they gently remove the dust, break the lock, and open it.
An old abandoned building is always a source for surprises, but what the two young people are now looking at is far from what they imagined. The chest is full of plates, cutlery, and some other stuff — nothing more than what you would expect to find in a cardboard box packed by someone about to move into a new house. It’s obviously old, but not old enough to be considered antique. And so, they are about to get rid of the chest and its content, when an old photo lying at the bottom of the chest catches the woman’s attention. It is a black-and-white photograph of a pianist smiling and casually playing the piano while a beautiful woman admirably looking at him.
Rosetta decides to take this old photograph, but she does not plan to keep it. She is about to give it as a present to her boyfriend, John. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is about to change his life.
Later that evening, John looks at Rosetta for just a fraction of a second before his gaze lies on the photograph she hands him. The photo seems strange, and at the same time, it looks perfectly normal. He takes it and sees a beautiful woman with an enigmatic smile watching over a pianist who appears to be sleeping. She seems to watch over him, or maybe she telepathically controls him while he, instead of being in control, plays the piano at her command. Something is not quite as it is supposed to be in this old photograph, and yet, the scene is so naturally composed as if the photographer meant for it to look that way. It takes John a few more seconds to realize he is holding the photo as it was handed to him, upside down.
He thanks Rosetta, and he walks to their living room with the photo in his hand. He finds a small stand and places the old photograph on their piano just the way he first saw it: upside down. And then he decides to never turn it back again.
In the five years that follow, John keeps his promise. The two characters in that frozen, upside-down scene hypnotize him. He is fascinated by the impact this minor, accidental intervention has, and how it completely changes the story the photograph is telling. He keeps wondering whether that small gesture is worthy of being called art, and after five years, he decides to share it with the world.
Cut and Paste Creations
All artworks are magical, if only for the fact that each artwork creates a world. Sometimes this world is almost a spitting image of the world we see around us, and it is just the decision to focus on some parts and leave out others that turns it into a creation. In other times, this manmade world is fantastical and seems as far as possible from the world we know. But the art of John Stezaker is more than magic — it is sorcery.
More then any other artwork I saw, John Stezaker’s collages live on the border between being a reflection of reality and being a portal to a surreal world. And they do so not by blurring the boundary between the two, but by making it as sharp as a knife. That is their power.
At first look, the works of John Stezaker are as simple as an artwork can be. Each of them is made of no more than two photos — photos he did not take himself — combined together. Now, when I say “combined,” you might think of some fancy photoshop work, sophisticated transparency schemes, or just numerous cuts turning each of the photos into a jigsaw puzzle. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. What John Stezaker does is as simple as making no more than two cuts in a photo (and sometimes no cuts at all) and placing the second photo on top or below of the first one. It is the most subtle intervention, but at the same time, it is brutal. Stezaker does not try to blur the borders between the two photos, and yet he manages to create a harmonious piece as if the two photos belong together. By using the most basic form of blending, John Stezaker manages to take two photos he just happened to find in a second-hand shop and create a magical new world.
Mask (Film Portrait Collage) CXCI, 2016
Mask CCVII, 2016
Stezaker’s collages are as profound as they are naïve. When I first saw his work, my mind kept jumping between “oh my god” to “wait, what?” How could two photos taken by different people at different times and in two completely different contexts complement each other so perfectly? How could two such photos not just “work together” but really turn into one intentional creation? When “a stone becomes a lip” and a crack on a cliff becomes a smile, the two photos affect each other. Each of them gives a different and more profound meaning to the other. And together, they are more powerful and surreal than anything an artist could have drawn or digitally create. The impact of Stezaker’s artworks is derived from his ability to leave the ingredients he uses almost untouched and at the same time to create a new whole that makes you forget the pieces it is made of.
We already know that nothing is created in a void — that anything ever created by humans, whether it is physical or mental, is created from previously collected ingredients. When John Stezaker comes across an old photo, he goes through an experience. Each photo fills him with wonder. Then he observes the images he has collected, trying to see beyond the concrete image. He tries to match them and unite them. To be able to do that, he has to imagine worlds and characters and to uncover their hidden stories — the stories behind the photos. Then, Stezaker has to carefully weave the two photographs together and to translate what he sees in his mind into a physical creation. The outcome is a direct result of practicing our next function: Fuse.
In the next chapter we will delve into the definition of imagination. We will see that at the core of Imagination there is always Fusion. Robert S. Woodworth defined imagination as “putting facts into new relationships.” To be able to do that, we obviously need to collect as many ingredients as we can, but we also need to master the ability to Fuse them — to create these connections that magically unite them into a new whole. Fuse and Imagine don’t just coexist — they depend on each other, just like Experience and Observe are tightly coupled. One cannot live without the other.
In the Mix: The Spark
Any act of Creativity is an act of blending previously captured ingredients, insights, and ideas. Sometimes the blend is visible, apparent, and hard to ignore — just like in Stezaker’s amazingly simple collages. In other occurrences of Creativity, the act of blending is hard to trace either because it involves so many ingredients or because it is made of multiple layers of conscious and unconscious fusions that take years to form. What makes a fusion effective (and creative), whether it is visible and straightforward or highly complex, is that the result is natural and harmonious.
To understand just how deep and extensive a creative fusion can be, let’s revisit Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and this time, we will start at the beginning…
If you’d ask Lin-Manuel Miranda how much time it took him to write his megahit musical Hamilton, he would probably tell you it took six long years: the time that passed between the day he conceived the idea and Hamilton’s off-Broadway premiere on 2015. But I think he would also agree that at a deeper level, it took him more than 30 years to create this remarkable masterpiece. And it started with the first sounds he heard as a child at his parents’ house.
Imagine a kid surrounded by dozens of original cast recordings of musicals, singing them, living them, imagining every movement and every gesture as if he is watching the play in a Broadway theatre. That was the soundtrack of Lin’s childhood growing on Washington Heights in New York. It is easy to imagine the sense of wonder that filled Lin when he saw a real musical, live on stage, for the first time at the age of seven. Not long after that, Lin started to participate in school plays, and when he was in high school, he already wrote short musicals of his own. But, as you can guess, all these experiences that Lin has collected as a child and later as a teenager are only one side of the story. To create a groundbreaking fusion as he was about to, a different type of ingredients had to be added to the mix.
Music was obviously a significant part of Lin-Manual Miranda’s life. While musicals filled the space of his home, practically everywhere else was filled with hip-hop music. And while most people would consider these two genres mutually exclusive, Lin was naturally connected to both worlds. He could quote and sing hits from West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Misérables, and at the same time, he became a living hip-hop encyclopedia as well as a rapper himself. All this time, Lin wasn’t just familiar with these two distinct worlds. He didn’t just feel comfortable in each of them. Lin-Manual Miranda truly and deeply loved these two playgrounds, and both felt so natural to him that it was only a matter of time until the idea to blend the two together would come up in his genius mind.
In 1999, Lin, now a college student, wrote his first full-length-musical: In The Heights. The play was mostly based on Latin music and included a few rap songs. In what would soon be his first commercial hit, Lin used salsa and hip-hop like spices to add color to the story and to some of the characters. Both these genres fitted naturally into parts of the story, which was set up in a Hispanic neighborhood in Manhattan. It was a kind of a controlled experiment in a new kind of blend. A gentle one1.
At the same time, 100 miles from where Lin wrote the draft of In The Heights, Ron Chernow, an acclaimed historian, started a new project. His goal: to tell the story of one of the less known founders of the American nation: Alexander Hamilton. To build the jigsaw puzzle of his life, Ron read thousands of pages of letters, articles, and notes Alexander Hamilton had written in his short life. He will later refer to Hamilton as “a human word machine,” saying he pushed the number of words a human can write in a lifetime to the limit. After working relentlessly for five years, Ron Chernow published the story he weaved from all the pieces he had collected — the story of an immigrant that wrote his way out of poverty and tied his life with the new nation about to be born.
In 2009, these two worlds will accidentally collide, and the spark of a game-changing creation will be ignited.
When Lin-Manual Miranda read the first pages of Hamilton’s biography, he had a vision. Literally. In his mind, he saw Alexander Hamilton as a character who embodies hip-hop. Lin imagined Hamilton as a rapper. He envisioned Hamilton, the Treasury secretary of the newly born United States, singing his life story — rapping it. This intuitive thought was the result of an unplanned fusion — a spontaneous spark. Only someone who lives and breaths both hip-hop and musicals could have come up with such a crazy idea. It was a spark that could only be ignited in the mind of someone who feels free to navigate naturally between these two worlds — someone whose mind-pantry is full of plenty and diverse ingredients from which he can make such a one-of-a-kind dish.
This mere thought was not just a fusion — it was nuclear fusion.
Lin later told Ron that as he read the book, hip-hop songs started rising off the pages2. The spark he had, made Lin experience the book through a different prism. Random pieces of the puzzle began to float in his mind as he went on reading the book. And eventually, an idea was born out of that unbidden spark: Hamilton’s story could be told using hip-hop songs. Lin realized what then seemed to almost everyone inconceivable: it wasn’t only possible — it was inevitable.
From a Spark to Harmony
There are three degrees of fusion. It almost always starts with a spark — a spontaneous idea of combining a few ingredients together — just like the ideas Lin-Manual Miranda and John Stezaker had. But this is rarely where it ends. To understand better the essence of creative fusion and its three levels, let’s start with the definition of the verb Fuse:
join or blend to form a single entity.
coalesce a group of atoms or cellular structures.
Please allow me to go deeper this time, and define Blend as well:
form a harmonious combination.
The most important word in these definitions is Harmony. Harmony is the key differentiator between a random collection of dots (or even establishing some connection between them) and a real, effective, and creative fusion. And although we intuitively understand what Harmony is, I find its formal definition enlightening:
the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.
the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
This last definition takes us to a new realm and introduces a new metaphor: music. And it is a beautiful metaphor that can help us decipher the essence of powerful fusions. If we think about the ingredients we collect as notes, the first level of fusing them would be to combine some of them to chords. And as anybody who ever tried to play the piano knows, real chords — pleasant chords that can be used to compose music — are not created just by any random combination of notes. If we take this metaphor just slightly further, chord progressions — the combination of chords that form musical phrases — also need to connect “correctly” to establish harmony. Simply combining notes and chords together randomly is likely to create nothing but noise. The only significant difference between composing music and creative fusion is that the number of basic elements (notes) when writing music is limited3. With creative fusion, we are limited only by the size and content of our mind-pantry.
To create fusion, we must have the right ingredients first. Experience, Observe, and Wonder are the functions that help us build our mind-pantry and fill it with semi-random pieces of information, insights, and ideas — ingredients we cannot plan in advance how (and if) could be combined to produce value. Merely combining these ingredients randomly or iterating through all their possible combinations is not realistic, and even if it was, it wouldn’t be effective. Not if we aim to create harmony — a combination that seems so natural in retrospect, that its ingredients become inseparable. A creative fusion connects the ingredients at a molecular level: it affects each of its parts as much as it creates a new whole. A perfect fusion can happen by the simple act of placing one photograph on top of the other — it needn’t always be overly complex. The point is, it cannot be done with any two photos. John Stezaker forms perfect harmonies. His collages manage to create new situations and new characters by merely blending two, until then entirely unrelated, scenes. The spark that ignited this idea in Stezaker’s mind was spontaneous and unplanned. But to create a collage, John Stezaker must invest time, effort, and energy. The idea might seem to come out of nowhere. The real creation, however, is often a delicate, almost surgical work.
Many people describe Hamilton the musical as a fusion between two genres: musicals (naturally) and hip-hop. But this doesn’t even begin to explain the genius of it. The mere thought of a hip-hop musical was far from being evident at the time before Hamilton became a megahit. But imagining the biography of one of America’s founding fathers and the story of the American revolution — a historical saga from the 18th century — as a play made solely from hip-hop songs is nothing less than visionary. It is this combination of three ingredients, which until then was inconceivable, that makes the idea groundbreaking (even before we go into how well it is executed). This is precisely where Fusion and Imagination blend to the point that any attempt to distinguish between the two is futile. Lin’s vision of creating something so different — an alternate reality — is based purely on the fusion of, until then, unrelated ingredients. At the same time, realizing such a fusion is possible, and seeing it in your mind even before a single verse is written, requires a remarkable imagination.
This spontaneous spark is what the phrase “connecting the dots” often relates to. It is a vision of the fact that specific things can connect to form something new — something that still doesn’t exist. But a vision is rarely the end of the story. In most cases, an idea is just an exposition. After having a vision based on an unplanned, non-trivial spontaneous fusion, Lin turned writing the opening number of Hamilton into a deliberate, conscious project. Every rhyme and every note were to be intentional. Every verse had to embody meaning. Every syllable had to fit in place with ultimate precision. It had to be perfect, and so Lin dedicated almost one year to write that first 4-minute song. One whole year to write 539 words that, according to Ron Chernow, managed to accurately capture the essence of the first forty pages of his book. It was an achievement created by Lin’s ability to dismantle the text and reconstruct it, to blend in references to events, characters, and, on a different level, hip-hop songs and musicals. It is a carefully crafted fusion that doesn’t just work — it gives the story and the song new meanings and depth.
Fuse often starts at a spontaneous, associative level. We can create the setup to promote it, but we cannot really control if and when it will happen or where it will lead us. To turn that spark into real harmony, we must continue to fuse, blend, and weave at a finer level. We have to verify ingredients are not only connecting but also affecting each other — elevating each other. We must ensure we are creating a new whole with value that didn’t exist in any of the separate ingredients, just like water has a unique value that oxygen and hydrogen alone will never posses.
As magical as creating harmony is, the most impactful creative fusions don’t stop at that either.
From Harmony to Symphony
Until not long ago, the following flow of events was in the realm of science fiction. Let’s say I order plane tickets for my upcoming vacation in London. I get the confirmation to my email account, and soon after that, I start to get offers for things to do in London. If one of them is, let’s say, seeing Hamilton, some system somewhere in the infinite space of the Internet knows already what show dates to offer me, and with a simple gesture, I can order the tickets. A couple of days before the show, I get a notification about the upcoming event. If I’m already in London, I might receive information on how to get from my hotel to the theatre. And two days later, the minute the show is over, I am asked to rate it — a rating that will be used to help others get recommendations as well as refine the recommendations I receive.
Now, obviously, this kind of flow is not the work of one person or even one company. But it is an excellent example of more than just a simple harmony. Such a flow is enabled by multi-layered orchestration of data, services, and devices. It is pretty much seamless and natural today, but it took years to conceive, build, and refine. It is a symphony in which each ingredient is essential, and every connection between two elements plays a significant part. But none of them comes even close to the experience we get from this new, innovative whole where everything just plays perfectly together.
Hamilton is more than just a harmonious fusion of musical genres and a historical story. It is a symphony in which dozens of elements of different types and domains are fused together on multiple levels.
It starts, of course, with hip-hop and musicals. Lin-Manual Miranda and Alex Lacamoire, the musical director of Hamilton, didn’t just blend together two genres, which until now didn’t manage to be part of a greater whole. Almost every song in the play includes references to specific hip-hop tracks as well as songs from other musicals. Some of them are so visible that they are hard to miss. Others are so subtle that you must have in-depth knowledge (or read some internal commentary) to identify them. Overall the play includes dozens, if not hundreds, of references from West-Side Story to The Notorious B.I.G, from Chicago to Beyoncé. Some are musical phrases, some are textual, and some are a blend of both. Together they create an impossible collage, or a kind of a strange anthology, of musicals and hip-hop music. What might be less apparent is other musical references and influences from The Beatles, classical music, and more. Like spices carefully added to a dish, they contribute to the sense of wholeness of this creation. If you identify some of these references, it pushes a button — it makes you take an active part in the act of fusing. It activates you as an audience. But even if you are not aware of the specific ingredients, you get to experience a unique, carefully crafted harmonious whole — one that cannot be created otherwise.
On a slightly different level, literally, a couple of feet below the stage, you will find the orchestra pit. The music in Hamilton is played live every night by ten talented musicians. Half of them play classical instruments that, according to Alex Lacamoire, capture the spirit of 18th century music. The second half is a perfect pop section, including drums, percussion, guitar, bass, and keyboards. And just like the tunes and the lyrics, the musical orchestration is a magical fusion of styles and instruments. A live string quartet coloring a rap section, scratching effects spicing-up a classical-oriented tune, and Baroque counterpoints blending in a song heavily inspired by The Notorious B.I.G.4 — this is just a fraction of the numerous styles and references weaved together throughout the play. The two sections of the orchestra and the parts written for them complement each other and create a harmonious new, unique sound experience.
Hamilton is also a fusion between past and present. It tells a historical story from the 18th century, based on real characters, real events, and a very specific context. And yet, Lin-Manual Miranda managed to wisely make the story and the message it delivers relevant and applicable today. And he does that by repeatedly weaving elements from the present into this historical epic. First, there’s the musical style and energy, and then, there’s the casting. The conscious choice to have all the main characters, which were 100% Caucasian in reality, played by actors of all colors and origins, creates a powerful fusion that gives almost every line in the text new meaning. It is more than a political statement. As Lin phrased it: “It’s a story of America then told by America now.” After experiencing dissonance in the first two minutes (especially if like me, you are living on Mars, and you don’t know what to expect), it becomes so natural, you cannot imagine it done in any other way.
Like life itself, the play also weaves together a few storylines. The personal story of Alexander Hamilton and his military and political tales are weaved with each other. And then, the story of a person is blending again with the story of a nation5. The different storylines become inseparable. Together they create a rich mosaic of Hamilton as a person and his life at that specific time. Which brings us back to the book that inspired the play: the biography of Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow’s book provided more than the general storyline, and it was more than just a reference. Throughout the play, you can find phrases from the book hidden in the songs. It is as if Lin managed to carve from the book textual gems and embed them throughout the play6. Once again, such a fusion affects not only the new whole but also its ingredients. If you saw Hamilton on stage or heard the album just once, you will probably not be able to read the book without seeing Hamilton as a relentless rapper and Aaron Burr as “the damn fool that shot him.” You will most likely find yourself humming songs from the play when you come across their origin in the book.
And finally, there are numerous points in the play where the text, or the music, or both reference themselves — where one song is blended into another just like everything we experience, see, and do in life affects in some way everything else7. This kind of re-blending creates a sense of wholeness — one body of work that has more impact than just the accumulation of its pieces.
All these elements — the different bits of information, the various inspirations and references, the styles, the times, the characters and the actors, the musical instruments, the storylines, and the quotes — all these could have easily turned into incoherent noise no one would like to see and listen to. In less capable hands, this mixture would have ended as an anecdote in the history of theatre. There is an enormous distance between the idea of this improbable fusion of hip-hop, musicals, and a story from the 18th century and its flawless implementation. It is the distance between a spontaneous spark, full of imagination, and a delicate, accurate symphony built on top of multiple layers of harmony — each of them a beautiful fusion on its own merits.
Nobody can really fathom this abundance of details, connections, references, inspirations, and hints when watching the play. But nobody really should. The point of creating such a perfect, seamless fusion is not that the viewer would be able to identify its ingredients (although sometimes, if you can, it enhances the experience). The goal of this fusion is to create a new whole that affects you. You can enjoy this rich blend even if you know nothing about Eminem, Bach, and Les Misérables, even if you didn’t read Chernow’s book, and even you are not aware of the nature of the musical instruments playing in the background. It is a standalone creation, different and more prominent than any of its ingredients. And it looks, sounds, and feels like nothing else before it.
When I saw Hamilton on stage in London without knowing anything about it, I was amazed. I didn’t realize why exactly, but I felt I was experiencing something magical. After listening to it dozens of times since then, always revealing something new, I can say it is the depth and scope of this multi-layered fusion — this symphony which was crafted with immense talent and wisdom — that makes it magical. Every time I hear the album, with visual flashbacks from the play, I laugh, I cry, I wonder, and I awe. Like any great work of art, Lin-Manual Miranda’s creation is not only built on perfect, harmonious fusion — it creates an emotional fusion. You cannot watch it or listen to it without getting weaved into the story. Without the story being woven into you. And when this happens, it affects you. It becomes an integral part of you.
The Next Step: Plan to Fuse
To master the Fuse function, please refer to the Core Practices defined in the c.os model. The following activities are an excellent place to start, though. They are designed so you could experiment with Fuse in lab conditions. To lead a creative life, your next challenge would be to implement all the Core Practices, turn them into habits, and seamlessly apply them in everything you do.
When it comes to developing and later applying the Fuse function, our mindset is probably the most challenging pitfall to overcome. The assumption most of us have regarding being productive and professionals is that it requires us to focus on the target we have ahead of us. And this, in turn, is translated in most cases to doing the predictable things — the things we can easily define in our plan (or the ones that people around us expect us to do).
If our goal is to write a musical, most of us will approach that with the conventional tools and based on the conventional, collective wisdom. We would probably watch a lot of musicals, learn the typical structure and flow of musicals, and of course make sure we know how to compose and arrange one. Now, these are not just comfortable, default things to do. These are all genuinely essential parts of getting the job done professionally. Lin-Manual Miranda practically did this for 30 years before he started to work on Hamilton. And these prerequisites are far from being trivial. Being able to write and compose a good musical requires a high degree of professionalism and cultivating that level of expertise obviously requires years of work. But while many would confine themselves to that expected, predictable space, a creative breakthrough as Hamilton is possible only when you expand the boundaries of that space to unexpected domains, inputs, and influences. You must create the setup for fusion to occur.
Each of us comes with their own baggage. Our mind-pantry gets filled with raw material, whether we experience, observe, and wonder consciously or not. But proactively aiming for creating surprising blends yields significantly better results for two reasons. First, when you acknowledge the potential of fusion and its ability to generate groundbreaking ideas, you become more conscious of opportunities to collect a wider variety of ingredients. When you realize the value of diverse experiences, knowledge, and insights, you can plan to accumulate more of those. And second, when you recognize the value of fusion, you allow yourself to experiment more. You can overcome the urge to stay on track without looking sideways when you consciously know that breakthroughs often require mixing different domains, and you consider exploring these domains to be part of your mainstream course of action.
That is precisely what we are aiming for when we try to build the habits that will promote the usage of the Fuse function and will help us place it at the top of our toolbox.
Create Fusions in Lab Conditions
Like most of the skills we practice, we start with what might seem to be an unnatural setup. We practice in “lab conditions” before we use our new capabilities on real challenges and opportunities.
What we are going to do is super-easy to set up, but it is not trivial to accomplish because it requires us to get over our default mindset. We will try to make a deliberate leap from one domain to another and make both of them work together. Ready?
What you’ll need is some text you can print. An article would work perfectly for this exercise, but you can also try part of a story or any other text. Now, we are going to set the ground for blending it with something else… physically. How? By slicing it randomly, of course. You can slice the text horizontally, vertically, or in any other way. Now comes the fun part. Use a random trigger — a Seed — to complete the text. The stranger and unrelated the Seed is, the more challenging the fusion will be, but your goal is to make it as natural as possible.
There is more than one way to approach this strange exercise. You can try to find ways to connect the Seed as a topic to the pieces of the original text. You can use the Seed as a metaphor and weave it into the text. You can write something inspired by the Seed, slice this new text too, and try to mix all the pieces together. Or, you can create a new text altogether and use the Seed, your associations, and parts of the original text, as building blocks. Whatever you choose to do, the result should be seamless and coherent.
The same idea can be applied in a visual context. Print a photo or a drawing, slice it to a couple of pieces, and use a Seed to rearrange it and complete it — to create a whole new visual fusion.
- Play Sliced Text and Sliced Drawing
- Make sure what you create is seamless and coherent — that it creates a new whole
Obviously, this is an artificial exercise, because it is not the result of a spontaneous idea. Our goal here is to habituate our mind to explore places other than those we know to have a direct connection to our immediate goal. We want our minds to question the main track and see the value in going sideways.
Surprisingly (or not much so), a similar technique can work not just for practicing in “lab conditions,” but also for real-world creative challenges.
Cut Up and Mix
Slicing a text you didn’t write and trying to weave the pieces back together with other random associations is an excellent practice of our Fuse function. Physically tearing up a text may seem artificial or even dramatic, but many artists actually use this technique when creating songs, plays, and books.
David Bowie described on several occasions how he used to cut up pieces of poems, articles, and sentences from books, blend them together, and then randomly pick a few of them. The strange, sometimes impossible, connections between the pieces ignited his creativity.
“If you put three or four dissociated ideas together and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes, quite provocative.”8
Even if it was not created quite the same way, I can visualize Hamilton as a vast collage made of cut-up pieces of the biography written by Ron Chernow, hip-hop songs, facts, events, characters, and numerous other references. And, of course, every single work by John Stezaker is the ultimate reminder of how powerful the combination of dissociated pieces that never meant to live together can be.
We can use a similar technique to generate ideas not only in the context of creating art but practically for any challenge that requires creative solutions. It’s not that these random connections will necessarily lead to good ideas. Even if some of them will seem to be good leads, they will rarely be polished enough to be useful as-is. Fusion, as we saw, is a delicate craft — creating harmony at a molecular level. The role of randomly mixing bits of information, insights, and ideas, as done by David Bowie and many others, is to create triggers for potential fusions. A lot of energy and talent will have to be invested later to create harmony, let alone a symphony, from these random connections.
So, here is a fun way you can use for generating unconventional ideas that might just be fantastic leads for further development.
Let’s say you are facing a challenge (or the way I prefer to call it: an opportunity). As any challenge (and opportunity), it probably has a setup, some constraints, maybe a few assumptions, and you might also have some initial ideas on how to approach it. First, write all these pieces of information on separate notes with as few words as possible on each. Alternatively, you could write it all on a sheet of paper and then cut it up as we did with the Sliced Text game.
At this point, you can mix the pieces, or draw some of them randomly. Rearranging them in different ways might just spark new ideas. But you can do even better than that by adding other, completely unrelated pieces to the mix. One way of doing that is by taking one or more random Seeds and write down associations inspired by them. Adding these associations to the pool of notes or pieces is bound to create non-trivial combinations — combinations that can spark ideas for you to develop.
- Pick a challenge or an opportunity you would like to generate ideas for.
- Write down on separate notes pieces of information, assumptions, constraints, and ideas derived from your opportunity.
- Pick a few Seeds and write down on separate notes random associations derived from them.
- Mix all the notes together, pick a few notes and develop ideas based on the connections between them.
Again, this technique might seem artificial, especially when you compare it to stories like Lin-Manual Miranda’s — where a spontaneous spark was the trigger for a marvelous fusion. The more abundant and more diverse our mind-pantry is, and the more open we are to the possibility of improbable fusions, the higher the chances are for such a spark to be spontaneously ignited. But this doesn’t mean we can’t try to ignite it deliberately as well. Eventually, it is not the way the idea was conceived that matters — only the value of its realization.
Create Space for Fusing
We can develop all the Creativity functions we discussed until now with deliberate, even if somewhat artificial, practice. At the same time, we should create a setup — an environment — that enables them to flourish and intensifies their impact. The Fuse function is no different.
A creative spark that blends together unrelated pieces of information and insights can be ignited at any time and in any context. However, providing our mind with the bandwidth for letting things sink in and connections to be made can significantly increase the chances of that. Remember the research claiming that showers promote Creativity? Remember how for other people running provides a perfect setup for generating ideas? And the novel idea George de Mestral had while taking a hike? The one thing all of these setups have in common is that they let your mind wander, reflect, and introspect while setting it free from any immediate, pressing issue to process. These and similar setups promote Creativity and, in particular, they set the perfect conditions for our mind to Fuse.
When our mind is running forward, it has less chance of looking sideways for surprising connections.
The challenge (and the reason I don’t like “The One Thing That Will Make You Creative” pseudo-tips) is finding what works best for you. Your mind’s “idle” mode — which is far from being idle, but rather full with subconscious activity — can be activated while running, or taking a hike, or washing the dishes, or any other action that doesn’t need you to be focused on a concrete outcome. Only you can find out what works best for you. It can be a simple setup based on an everyday activity, or a setup you will have to actively create, like sitting on the beach watching the ocean and listening to the sound of the waves.
Eventually, you will have to experiment with different types of Zen-like activities and various setups. There are, however, a few guidelines that could point you in the right direction. The most important one is that both the activity and the setup should be decoupled from the regular tasks, projects, and challenges your brain is occupied with. Sitting in your office with your task list just a glimpse away, and random notifications keep popping up on your smartphone, is less likely to be an effective setup for spontaneous fusion to occur. So, any activity and any environment that physically prevents you from being bombarded with distractions9 and goal-oriented stimuli is a fit candidate for creating a fuse-promoting setup. That’s why monotonous physical exercise, an aimless walk, or a shower can all have excellent potential to work in this context. After all, most of us are not in front of a distracting-by-design device when we are taking a shower or when we go out jogging. Most of us.
After finding the right setup, the next thing to do is to actively clear your mind. We are not trying to kill any thought. On the contrary, we want some pieces from our subconscious to surface and connect. But we don’t want to start with a predefined lineup or a particular goal set. A spontaneous spark such as the one we are hoping to have is unpredictable, and not just in its details. We cannot know in advance which problem or opportunity it might help us address. George de Mestral didn’t plan to find something that will inspire the invention of Velcro®, and Lin-Manual Miranda didn’t expect to come up with the idea for his next musical when he picked Hamilton’s biography on the airport. Clearing our minds from any expectations or plan to find a solution to a challenge we already know of is the key to allowing surprising fusions to come up.
- Experiment with different setups and activities that allow your brain to fuse.
- Clear your mind and try not to think on anything concrete.
- When something does find its way into your thoughts, don’t push it away — flow with it and see where it leads you.
- Don’t try to direct your thoughts to find a solution to a problem or a novel idea. Let your thoughts lead the way.
These two last points are essential. If you are not accustomed to creating surprising fusions, and you still don’t fully realize their potential value, it is easy to dismiss a spontaneous connection as a whim — as something too radical to work effectively. Honestly, at that point, no one can know if the idea for a blend you came up with will work or not. Therefore, it is crucial to flow with creative fusions and see where they take you. At this point, you are still not implementing anything, and you are investing only your brain-power. Playing with the idea, letting the fusion evolve naturally, or even trying to intentionally and consciously take it to the next level, could make the difference between a groundbreaking idea and a missed opportunity.
Fuse creates the core of an idea and can later be used to enrich the idea, widen its scope, and make it more meaningful. All acts of Creativity, from inventing a world-changing product to coming up with an idea for making your morning routine more effective, start with collecting ingredients; Fuse is where you magically use some of these ingredients to generate a new creative insight.
The spark created by Fusion is just the first generative action in the flow of Creativity. It is an essential part of creating a new, reshaped reality — of having a creative vision. To create something, anything, in the real world, you first must create it in your mind. You have to imagine it.
1 At least until the seventh song is starting. ⤴
2 The American Revolutionary, by Jody Rosen, The New York Times Style Magazine ⤴
3 Not taking into account the infinite potential instruments that can produce sounds and bring the composed music to life. ⤴
4 Biggie Smalls – Ten Crack Commandments ⤴
5 This specific fusion between the story of the person and the story of a nation is beautifully encapsulated in the logo of the musical in which the silhouette of Alexander Hamilton completes the star that symbolizes The United States of America. ⤴
6 It is incredible to read a phrase such as “she could never be satisfied” in the biography and realize it was handpicked by Lin-Manual Miranda who weaved it into one of the songs in the play, even if the song takes it out of context into another episode. ⤴
7 To get a better sense of how complex and delicate this fusion is, I recommend watching this brilliant analysis, even if, like me, you can’t even play the simplest tune. ⤴
8 How David Bowie used ‘cut ups’ to create lyrics – BBC News ⤴
9 In some resources, you will find what seems to be an opposite description, according to which these setups work because they distract us. Regardless of the phrasing, the essence is the same: distracting us from our main goals to allow our subconscious to work and build connections. When I use the term “distractions,” I refer to the external events that cause our subconscious to halt and bring us back to reality, whether it is a random notification or a phone call we just have to take. ⤴