the prepared mind
part one: from process to setup, chapter 3
“There are different kinds of rules. From the simple comes the complex, and from the complex comes a different kind of simplicity. Chaos is order in a mask…” ― Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time
I have a confession. I love showers. Not the device or the specific space around it, but the activity, or more accurately, being in a state of taking a shower. I’m sorry for having to share this intimate detail with you, and hopefully you will not use your imagination to create a mental picture of this scene, but when I am closing my eyes under the running water, concentrating on the sounds, feeling the water all around me, it is like taking a break from everything. I often feel like taking a shower is helping me reboot. All systems are being shut down at first, and then gradually they start up again, without the clutter that was there a minute ago. So, what starts with taking a break and leaving aside everything I am occupied with, often ends up with a crystalized new thought — an idea that wasn’t there five minutes ago. It is as if from the steam around me that makes everything blurry, I suddenly see a clear, vivid vision of something. It can be a small detail that fits into a grand puzzle I am thinking of or a completely new idea for a project. The shower is my think tank. Literally.
But wait. Just a couple of pages ago I criticized popular headlines like “Want to be Creative? Take a shower!” backed up with research, with collective wisdom, or just the practices of famous creatives. And now I am spending your valuable time raving about the pseudo-spiritual epiphanies I have while my family wonders just how much time can one shower take. So, does taking a shower really taps into one’s creativity? Is a shower the optimal setting for generating creative insights? Let’s hold these questions for a second. I would like you to meet a manager I worked with a few years ago1.
David is one of the sharpest people I know, and working with him was a great experience in more than one sense. I learned a lot from him, and always felt he is challenging me in the best way possible. Some people always come up with a good question that triggers a discussion. Others repeatedly show up with a new idea or some thought that paves a different path in a project you are working on. Well, almost any discussion with David was a perfect combination of the two. And surprisingly, none of his creative ideas and challenging questions were crafted in a shower. You see, David loves running. Four times a week he wakes up while ordinary people are still having their best dreams, eats a minimal breakfast, performs a routine set of warm-up exercises and goes out with his dog for a one-hour run in the fields near his home. And apparently, somewhere along the route, when running becomes natural and seamless, and he is entirely “in the zone,” David crafts his best ideas and thoughts. It is as if his mind is free to connect the dots and find that missing piece of the puzzle when his body is fully occupied with running.
I learned a lot from David, but I could never understand how creative insights can be conceived while running. When I am jogging, I have only one thought that keeps popping up: the shower waiting for me when I get back home.
Chaos is Order in a Mask
Creativity is messy. Any attempt to define a repeatable process — a set of activities that given a particular input will result in a Creative Insight — is futile. In some cases it can even have a negative effect: someone might think something is wrong with them if they follow the process and don’t come up with an original idea. That is not how Creativity works. Creativity is unpredictable, surprising, and often frustrating. On the surface, it is almost always chaotic, and that is why processes, which are trying to create order by definition, just don’t work in the general case. But this does not mean we can’t improve the odds in favor of Creativity. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur, and this quote encapsulates the fundamental question in Creativity development: given that processes are far less significant than being “prepared,” how can we create the right setup for Creativity? How can we make our mind better prepared?
And that is the fundamental flaw in the ever so common “creativity tips”: at best, they are anecdotal. Many of them are indeed working… for some. Some of them are working for a few. But mostly, they are based on personal practices that we hopelessly try to generalize and apply to everyone and every instance of Creativity. George de Mestral didn’t invent Velcro® while taking a shower. Taking a shower might work as a Creativity catalyst for some, or even most people, but it is just an example of a practice that could potentially work. Each of us can have a different set of “best practices” that helps us tap into our creative core. But to discover which practices work best for you, and then refine them and make them even more effective, you need first to understand the functions that make your creative core. If we manage to define our creative kernel in terms which could be applied to any type of Creativity and to any creative act imaginable, we will be able to develop these functions and master them using a personally crafted set of practices and activities.
Instead of aiming for repeatable processes and practices, we need to focus on the infrastructure. Procedures and methods can be valuable, but they are individual and are often designed for specific cases or types of problems. A typical basketball team has a collection of tactics, special maneuvers, and maybe some tricks up their sleeves. Each team has a different set of exercises. But no matter which league you play, who is your coach, and what tactics you plan to apply, if you are a basketball player, you must have superb physical fitness. Being able to sprint across the field dozens of times in a game is a core function any basketball player in the world must practice and master. Being able to get the ball in the basket is obviously another core function. If you are on a professional basketball team, you’d better master this function as well. Tactics and specific exercises might come and go. Some of them are great for one team in one particular situation, and others are better for different teams. But unlike concrete practices, the core functions are essential to any basketball player on the planet. The core functions are applied in any basketball game. They are at the heart of being a basketball player. These are the functions that make the player’s Operating System.
That would be an excellent place to explain the term Operating System and why I chose to use it, just in case you are not familiar with Computer Science.
Let’s take for example smartphones. Smartphones are all running applications that help us (or entertain us) with a variety of tasks and activities. Each of these applications is designed to do something different. Each might look different. Google Maps seems to have nothing in common with Todoist2; WhatsApp is nothing even remotely similar to Spotify. And yet, under the hood, all these apps and millions of others are using the same underlying services provided by the devices they run on, or more accurately, by the Operating System of these devices. When Google Maps reminds you where you parked your car, it is using a location service. When Todoist fires a notification at the exact moment I arrive at my office, it is using the same service for a completely different purpose. And Spotify is using the location service for letting me know there are upcoming music shows near me by artists I love. Different Apps using the same underlying service for achieving various things.
Any modern computer-based Operating System is offering a similar set of services or functions to higher level applications. Knowing your location, for example, is a service provided by all mobile operating systems. And the better this service is, the more accurate the applications using it are. The function itself can be highly complicated to program, but to the applications using it, it seems trivial. They just have to ask the underlying Operating System for the current location, and that’s it. The programmers writing Spotify, Todoist, and Google Maps don’t have to know anything about reading GPS signals or manipulating coordinates. They rely entirely on the device’s Operating System, to provide them this information on demand.
The same applies to storing data and reading it later, interacting with the touchscreen, issuing notifications, taking a photograph, or sharing information between applications. All these (and many others) are core services which applications are using in different ways and mixtures to provide innovative value to their users. A good set of capabilities provides more opportunities to application developers to implement innovative tools, just like a good set of physical abilities enables a basketball player a greater variety of moves on the field. The applications, of course, provide the actual value. Some of them are amazing, while others are entirely unusable. But without a stable, robust, and well-thought-of Operating System, none of them will work.
The best applications are using many of these core functions together. It is the combination of these services that makes the Operating System so powerful. The ability to listen to your favorite artist on Spotify and getting information on shows near you requires at least two functions to work at the same time and provide value which otherwise would not have been possible. Taking a photo, applying a filter to it, sharing it and being able to pinpoint where it was captured, is another example of a powerful combination of core functions provided by your smartphone.
And that is precisely how Creativity works. The process might vary from one creative person to another or from case to case. But all creative acts in the history of humankind, in any domain and of any type and magnitude, are based on the same set of functions — the same services — provided by our brain. We have an Operating System designed for generating new ideas, solving problems, and creating things that weren’t there before. That is how the humankind made such advancement in art, science, and technology, and that is how we are overcoming challenges and turning them into opportunities all the time. The Creativity Operating System is the underlying infrastructure, programmed in our brain, that enables us to do all that. Getting to know its core functions will help us practice and develop each of these functions as well as fine-tune our creative processes and habits.
The Creativity Operating System
We are all born creative. Our mind is designed with this gift hardcoded in it. Watch young children play with nothing more than a cardboard box and you soon realize that they are no longer sharing the same reality with you, but have created a new one to play in. They take nothing for granted, they invent stories and magical devices, characters, and locations. The plain cardboard box can be a monster one minute and a castle the next one. The less they have to play with from an adult perspective, the more imaginative and surprising the world they create is.
But soon, this magic we are designed to create starts to fade. Research conducted by George Land and Beth Jarman confirms what most of us sense intuitively: our Creativity degrades as we grow up3. In their study, Land and Jarman gave 1600 five-year-olds a creativity test developed by NASA to spot innovative scientists and engineers. Surprisingly, 98% of the children scored in the “highly creative” range in the test. When repeated the same test five years later at the age of 10, only 30% of the same children scored in the “highly creative” range. At the age of 15, the number went down to 12%. When Land and Jarman gave the test to 280,000 adults, only 2% of them scored as “highly creative.” The researchers concluded that “non-creative behavior is learned.” This is not a typo: as we grow up we unfortunately learn how not to be creative. Our Creativity starts to deteriorate as soon as we do our first steps in the formal education system, and by the time we are young adults, most of us are far less creative than we were as children.
These numbers are alarming in terms of what they say about the way the traditional education system works (and we will touch that later). But, at the same time, I find this research encouraging. If 98% of the kids score at a genius level by NASA standards, we can safely say we are all creative. Creativity, according to this research, is as natural as walking, running, and jumping. We are designed to be creative as much as we are designed to run. Some might be better at running than others. Few runners are truly remarkable. But almost none of us was designed to sit in front of a screen all day. And that is why even after 30 years of practically zero exercise, I managed to practice and gradually regain my physical fitness until I managed to run 10km in 60 minutes.
If we can regain physical fitness, improve it, and maintain it for decades, we can do the same for our Creativity.
Identifying the core functions that make us creative — the kernel of our Creativity Operating System — is essential if we want to regain and build upon our natural Creativity. Once we have this blueprint in front of us, we can work on each of the core functions and the way they work together, train our brain to make them more effective, and eventually turn them into a natural part of how we operate in any aspect of our life. Just like improving physical fitness affects your overall quality of life and health, your creative-fitness brings value to any challenge you are facing.
It is vital we dedicate a few minutes to the word functions. When I just started to sketch this blueprint of the Creativity Operating System I decided to make sure I can describe each of its elements as a function — not a skill or a trait, not a capability or s state of mind. Describing what makes us creative as a set of skills or abilities is a valid approach, of course. I used the skills terminology myself in my talks, articles, and workshops. Today, however, I believe talking about functions is much more powerful: it doesn’t allow us the luxury of being passive. Of course, skills can be improved, and capabilities can be enhanced. But many people perceive skills and abilities as something you are either born with or not — something you have little or no effect on. “I am not the creative type,” “I have no imagination,” and in a different domain “I’m not built to run,” are all phrases that feed on the perception that what you can or cannot do is hardcoded in your genes. Well, obviously it is, but as the research quoted above shows, practically all of us have what it takes to be creative. We were creative. Describing the Operating System as a set of functions — as activities you do — is a call for action. Each of us can work on enhancing these functions on a daily basis, just like you can take a break from reading this book now and go out for a run. And working on and with these functions every single day is bound to strengthen your creative muscles and enhance your performance.
As we sketch each of the functions in The Creativity Operating System, we will also discuss how each of them can and should be practiced daily. I hope you will soon realize such a practice is not only effortless — it is also spicing up your day and has an impact on everything you do. When creativity functions become natural habits, they change the way you see the world. And when you see the world differently, anything can happen.
And some of it will.