wonder: marvel, ask, and question
part two: creativity functions, chapter 6
“Just because you can explain it doesn’t mean it’s not still a miracle.” — Terry Pratchett, Small Gods
When you think about something dark, you probably see in your mind an object painted in black. Or, you might think about the night sky — something more abstract, but still full of details. The room I entered, however, wasn’t just dark — it totally lacked any light. The second I went in, I lost any sense of space and direction. I didn’t know if I was standing in a tiny room or a vast hall; I didn’t know where the exit was; I knew other people were in there with me, but I had no sense of how many people are standing just a few inches away.
Usually, when you are in a dark space, your mind and your eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. You start to see some details, even if you can’t really make sense of them. Somehow, it relieves the feeling of disorientation. But this room didn’t allow me to adjust. Being totally dark, this room was designed to keep its visitors lost in space with no visual cue to hold on to.
Without any warning, white light floods the room. But “floods” is not really the right word. Flooding is a process; you can see it coming, even if it happens quickly. But this white light just appears out of nowhere, and for a split of a second, it fills the entire space. Before I can realize what just happened, the room is dark again, and I am left only with the ghost image frozen in my brain.
Two or three seconds pass, and the flash strikes again, and again, and again in a constant rhythm. Now, I know where I should be heading.
In the middle of the room, something is happening. With each burst of light, an amazing abstract sculpture is revealed. It is beautiful, full of details and movement, although it is completely frozen and hanging in the air. I can only enjoy it for a split of a second, and then, for two seconds, settle with the faint ghost image of it, before the flash strikes again, only to reveal a completely different shape, that magically appears in the exact same place.
It is an experience.
It is mesmerizing to observe.
And while this magic is happening in front of me, I notice the sound of water which I somehow managed to miss before. It resembles the sound of waves in the sea, but its rhythm is perfectly matched with the rhythm of the light bursts. This audible cue is a revelation. It helps me answer the question I didn’t realize I was asking myself: what is it I was seeing?
Soon after that, I realized that what I thought to be a magical sculpture was, in fact, water splashing and being captured and frozen, if only for a split of a second, by the strobe light. It was the ultimate dynamic sculpture: frozen but continuously changing. It was man-made but randomly shaped by gravity and light. It invited endless exploration because nobody could tell what unusual shape this stunning, volatile sculpture will take with the next burst of light.
What made this such an impactful experience, was the fact that it wasn’t a passive experience. It filled me with amazement, questions, and thoughts. From wondering what it is I was observing, to thinking what message it carries, walking into that dark room was not just an experience to store in my mind-pantry. It was a portal to a world full of questions — each of them an invitation to take a path to an unknown destination.
The Big Bang Fountain, by Olafur Eliasson, is a work of wonder. Its name is a perfect metaphor for the experience it creates: the experience of an unexpected singular event that opens a gateway to a universe of possibilities.
The Wonder Years
Olafur Eliasson is a symbol of curiosity and one of the best examples in modern art of how one can stretch the boundaries of wondering to create beautiful and meaningful things that affect others. Each of his artworks and projects is triggered by and spiced up with his infinite curiosity — of merely asking questions. The walls in Olafur Eliasson’s studio are covered with numerous small notes with questions he and his team are asking themselves1. Most of them don’t have a definitive answer yet, but they are part of the fabric of the studio, and their presence affects everything created in it and everyone working in it.
Creativity is born from questions, not from answers. Our eagerness to know and learn is essential to Creativity. But there’s more to it than just asking. Curiosity, which is often associated with Creativity, does not fully capture what goes on in the mind of a creative person.
Let’s take a trip to Stanford. The year is 2005, and Steve Jobs is delivering the most quoted speech in the history of the university. Many people refer to it as the “connecting the dots speech.” As promised, we will get to that too. But I find the first part of the speech no less essential to our understanding of Creativity.
“Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on,” Steve Jobs told his audience, and he went on to explain:
“Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
“[…] 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”
I am reading this paragraph, and I can imagine Steve Jobs as he admires the letters on the posters around the campus. I can imagine his expression as he learns the secrets of this art. The sense of wonder he must have felt is still radiating from the words he chose, years after his experience. And that is the secret ingredient that turns mere curiosity into a powerful engine that ignites Creativity.
Children are not just master explorers and observers. They are the ultimate wonderers. Young children ask dozens of questions a day, and they do so out of a real need to know and understand. For them, asking questions is the most effective way to learn about the world and get the relevant knowledge when they are interested in it. But there’s more to that than just learning about the world. When children are curious, it is often accompanied with admiration for what they see in front of them. They first have an emotional response to what they see, and then curiosity takes control.
Creative people practice their curiosity practically the same way. They are not just mechanically asking questions and recording the answers. The curiosity of creative people is derived from passion — from an emotional connection with the subject of their curiosity. Steve Jobs wasn’t just intellectually interested in calligraphy. He was amazed by the beauty of it. The questions in Olafur Eliasson’s studio are not waiting for a text-book answer. In fact, the answer to most questions might never come. These questions are the result of a real sense of wonder in its most profound sense.
Wonder is the third function in the Creativity Operating System. It encapsulates much more than just being curious. In fact, it has four distinct aspects, and all of them are essential to realizing our Creativity. When all elements of Wonder are combined, they become a powerful engine that feeds on what we experience and observe and uses this input to trigger new ideas by imagination and weaving. Wonder is the function that turns us from passive bystanders to active thinkers.
And this would be a perfect time to formally define what does it mean to Wonder.
Welcome to Wonderland
Let’s see what exactly is Wonder according to the Oxford Dictionary:
desire to know something; feel curious.
feel admiration and amazement; marvel.
This simple word enfolds so much, and that’s what makes it so powerful. We will dive into each of its aspects, but keep in mind that it is the combination of all four that boosts our Creativity.
Questions are the New Answers
We live in an era that sanctifies answers. We believe gaining knowledge equals getting answers, and since knowledge is obviously essential, we become impatient when it comes to the availability of answers. We need answers here and now, and the simpler the answer is — the better, even at the cost of depth and accuracy2.
I cannot count the times in which I Googled something and settled for the first couple of answers without giving it another thought. Answers are so accessible today, and the tools that provide them are immediately gratifying — they create a false sense of gaining knowledge.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot the power of questions.
Meaningful knowledge is gained by being curious and asking questions, even when we can’t answer them here and now. In fact, questions that are not answered instantly are more meaningful both to the learning process and to Creativity. When a question is hanging long enough, it triggers exploration and observation, and it turns them into experiences by giving them meaning. Leonardo da Vinci was not just a master observer. His observations were triggered by his endless curiosity. He wanted to know the details and the mechanics of every phenomenon he came across, and the result was his total dedication to observing the world. Da Vinci later used many of his curiosity-driven observations to imagine and create his artwork and inventions.
We already mentioned that the functions of the Creativity Operating System are not applied sequentially. The interactions between them are more complex, and at times, it might even seem arbitrary. Creativity is messy and unpredictable in that sense, and here lies its beauty. When it comes to the first aspect of Wonder, one can start with a question that will trigger observation or ask a series of questions based on something they observe. There’s no right order, and the feedback loop between these two functions is essential to Creativity.
When George de Mestral first observed the burrs clinging to his clothes, he wondered: what is it in the burr’s structure that makes them adhere. The observation was the trigger of curiosity. If the answer was immediate, he might have dismissed it as not important. Instead, it took him some time and effort to come up with an answer. In parallel to his exploration, George de Mestral asked himself what could be the possible applications of his discovery. It was a question of a second-order that ignited his imagination and led him on a journey that resulted in the invention of Velcro®. This feedback loop between discovery and curiosity, between observing and asking, amplifies Creativity, and eventually leads to breakthroughs.
From the act of asking, we proceed to the art of questioning. The second meaning of Wonder is focused on feeling doubt. No, this is not about self-confidence, but about the need to challenge everything, from the trivial to the unexplained, from explicit statements to hidden assumptions. Creativity is built on not taking anything for granted.
Furniture can’t fit into a private car. Can it? Until Ikea introduced Flat-Pack, this was not an assumption — it was a fact. But when Ingvar Kamprad saw the photographer of the IKEA catalogue disassemble a table so it could fit into the storage room, he wondered: can we make furniture that can be stored more effectively and even fit into an average car by design. Challenging what was a common understanding until that moment led to innovations not just in Ikea’s product and package design. Overcoming the assumption created a new, innovative business model and overall retail approach. From that moment, everything, from the shopping experience to the assembly instructions, was oriented to enable the customers to manage by themselves.
The ability to question what others (and until that moment also we) take for granted is a muscle that we need to develop. In the previous chapter, we already mentioned that our brain builds a mental model of the world and uses it to be more effective. But it is that very same mental model that dictates our assumptions on how the world operates. We “know” a table has four legs; we “know” something made of one piece is more stable and robust than assembling smaller pieces together; we “know” furniture cannot fit into the average family car. Only challenging these, and many other, assumptions which are hard-coded in our brain, can lead to breakthrough thinking and drive us to generate creative ideas.
If you are a musician and you are planning to write a hit song, you “know” you have to follow a typical recipe. The song has to be around 3-4 minutes long. It should have few verses, a chorus, probably a bridge, and their arrangement should follow one of a few proven structures. And of course, if you wish to record it, there are some technical limitations you need to take into account. All this does not mean you cannot express yourself and be creative, but the default assumption is that your creative space lies within these limits. Unless, of course, you are Freddie Mercury, and none of these assumptions apply to you.
When Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 1975, it was groundbreaking, and it still is today, because it challenged (or more accurately: ignored) all of these assumptions. Bohemian Rhapsody was not the first song that was longer than 4 minutes, and it wasn’t the first song that didn’t follow the widely accepted structure. But it took all these assumptions and challenged them one by one to the extreme. It’s not that Freddie Mercury had a mission to challenge assumptions — it is just that he didn’t feel the conventional “wisdom” should limit what he envisioned. And with that mindset, a masterpiece was created.
Of course, questioning everything isn’t enough. Merely tearing down every assumption will not necessarily lead to creative and successful results. Ikea’s products and packaging had to be well-designed — the concept of flat-pack should have been proven to be usable, cost-effective, and robust enough. It was the imagination, soul, and talent of Freddie Mercury that created a masterpiece that will affect generations to come. But without their ability to see beyond what everyone accepted as a fact, these breakthroughs would not have been possible.
When you question something, you open a gateway to a new world of possibilities.
Marvel the Simplest Things
The third aspect of Wonder is tightly coupled with the Experience function. We already know that the different skills that are part of the Creativity Operating System feed each other. Instead of a linear process, Creativity depends on the positive feedback loop created between the different functions. How Wonder and Experience are connected is yet another perfect example of that.
When we take the time to marvel at the things we come across, we turn arbitrary encounters into experiences. When we deliberately consider something as an experience, we create the bandwidth for ourselves to admire it. Wonder, in that sense, is inseparable from our ability to experience.
And yet, there’s a fine line we have to cross when we move from experiencing to marveling. Experience, although it is primarily a mindset function, is focused on obtaining input. The more we experience, the more ingredients we can collect and store in our mind-pantry. Wonder, on the other hand, is focused on how we emotionally connect to what we experience and observe. It is more than realizing that some detail is worth noticing — Wondering means to profoundly admire what we see. This emotional connection to the ingredients we collect makes it more likely that we explore them further and use them as part of future creation.
When I am on a creative exploration walk with my camera, I am, by definition, experiencing. I plan to dedicate this time to walk alone and mindfully look for things to collect. But this activity by itself, although it is an essential precondition, is not enough. Among the thousands of pieces of information I come across, only a few leave an impression. Like this piece of a wall, exposing a hidden layer of strong, red paint.
Had I not been in an experiencing mindset, I would have probably failed to see it. But seeing it is not enough. When I found this wall, I stood in front of it for a few minutes and really admired it: the contrast between the two colors, the different textures, and the almost violent border between the two parts. It has drama and beauty. As I stood there in the middle of the street, I noticed even more details, like the ghost of a heart floating amid the red, lava-like area. Above all, I admired the fact that this unusual visual experience was created by two people who didn’t plan any of it and were connected just by the impact time had on the wall each of them once painted.
This was more than a technical exercise in observation. You can imagine this is not the only expressive wall I saw during my walk. But this one left an impression on me. I marveled at it, and therefore it got a place of honor in my mind-pantry. The distance from that point to using this ingredient in future creative work has just become much shorter.
Take any detail that played a role in any creative process, and you will find that someone was there to admire it before it was used. It is true for the burrs George de Mestral came across in his hike as it is to the way the sunlight bounced back from different objects as Leonardo da Vinci saw it.
Marveling the simplest things — seeing the wonder in them — turns them from merely bits of information into invaluable raw material.
Expect the Unexpected
The fourth and last meaning of Wonder is feel surprise. We already discussed the power of being surprised when we talked about experiencing and observing. Expecting the unexpected and being taken by surprise has a powerful impact on our brain. When we are surprised, we are more attentive and observant.
But feeling surprised does not only promote experiencing and observing. Surprises play a major role in creating unusual links in our mind — links we will use later when we Weave ideas. Surprises make us wonder in more than one sense, but maybe the more fundamental question we ask ourselves when we are surprised is: what else could be possible? Surprises open the door to a vast imaginary playground.
During our last vacation in London, my son and I went to see the musical Hamilton. Now, given the hype around it, you might find it strange that I went seeing it while knowing practically nothing about it. All I knew is that it is supposed to be a great show and that it has something to do with American history. That’s it. No more and no less. Really.
So, here I am, sitting in a fancy English theatre, holding a glass of wine, with a clear mental model of how a musical should sound and look like. The lights are going out, and the first notes echo throughout the vast hall: two seconds of what seems like a marsh, military music, and then… and then the scratching of a record — something I am quite familiar with, but I am totally unprepared for here and now. Another second pass and the first words fill the vast hall, and to my amazement, they come out as rap.
If I was a better writer, I could probably find better words to describe how it felt. It was nothing less than mind-blowing, and this feeling didn’t fade away throughout the play. Being unprepared for it played a significant part in the experience. It enhanced my experience by order of magnitude. As we left the theatre three hours later, I remembered that my son had sent me some background material about the play before I ordered the tickets. He even shared with me the official album on Spotify. Somehow, (and completely unlike me) I hadn’t read or listened to any of it, and now, as I was walking out of the theatre, I felt so lucky! Had I been prepared for what I was about to see and hear, the experience would not have been so profound. I felt as if being totally unprepared for what I experienced changed something physically in my brain.
In the two previous chapters, we talked about regaining our ability to get lost and why we need to plan to be surprised. When we are thinking about feeling surprised in the context of Wonder, it is even easier to achieve that effect: you just have to do less. When we are caught by surprise (in a positive context), anything we experience and observe is enhanced. The impression it leaves is stronger, and the place it gets in our mind-pantry is more significant.
The Time Shifting Mirror
In perfect timing, one can only wonder about, as I was writing this chapter, Netflix released the second season of Abstract3, and the first episode was dedicated to the work of Olafur Eliasson. Upon its release, Olafur Eliasson shared in his Twitter account a short video from the episode in which he presents his Slow Mirror.
To make the most of it, I highly recommend you take a short break from reading this chapter to watch the short video. Don’t go searching any commentary or explanation about it — just watch it4.
Here’s a short recap of what you hopefully just saw:
Olafur Eliasson is standing in front of a perfectly round mirror with one arm stretched forward. Obviously, his arm is reflected in the mirror, and as he moves it, its reflection moves with it. Until something changes. At some point, the movement of the reflection is slightly delayed. With the next action, it is significantly delayed. And if that’s not enough, the next movement is seen in the mirror before Olafur does it in real life.
If you want to understand the true power of Wonder, this one-minute video is a perfect example. It starts with pure amazement and surprise. You cannot stay indifferent to what you see, simply because it is totally unexpected — it shatters our mental-model of what you expect from a mirror. You marvel at it just a fraction of a second before you become obsessed with figuring it out. And then, your curiosity takes over. Now, here’s the first major obstacle to realizing Wonder to its full extent in the 21st century: many people will just Google it or skim through the comments and will get the answer to “how it is done” in no time. But this does not make the most of the Wonder function — it will not help us practice this muscle. It might serve our curiosity for a very short time. But, chances are it won’t leave an impression — instead of becoming an experience, this video will be stored in our mind alongside thousands of other bits of information we come across. Avid Creative people would go for a slower path. First, they will question what they see. Assuming this is not a digital effect (which it isn’t), they will wonder first, not “how it is done?” but rather “what am I missing?” or “what am I falsely assuming?” It’s a subtle difference, but an important one — it is the difference between asking questions and questioning. Both are essential parts of wondering.
If you give it enough time, and you re-watch the video a few times, you will surely understand what it is you are seeing… at least to some extent. But here’s the thing: this is not where the wondering ends. At least not for me. Once I figured it out, I continued to ask myself some additional questions such as why could I be fooled so easily? What made my brain take some obviously wrong assumptions? And most important: can similar assumptions or illusions be relevant to other things I do or see? Is this a metaphor for something more significant in my life?
Now, all these questions might result in nothing profound. Or they could have mind-blowing implications. At this point, it doesn’t really matter. The Wonder muscle is all about being surprised, marveling, questioning, and eventually keep asking questions. Some of these questions will later lead to creative insights. Some of them will lead to other questions. And some will remain open forever. Each question is a potential door. Wondering is all about possibilities — what could be behind these doors. Failing to wonder means we are literally in a dead-end.
Luckily, just like Experience and Observe, Wonder is a muscle we can develop — it is nothing more than a habit we already practiced naturally when we were kids. All we need to do is re-ignite it.
The Next Step: Plan to Wonder
To master the Wonder 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 Wonder 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.
Curiosity, and even more so the ability to marvel the simplest of things, sounds to many as a character trait. In particular, the vast majority of people don’t think of Wonder as a muscle that can be practiced, developed, and enhanced. There are only two answers I can think of in response to this claim. First, almost 100% of us were once more curious and marveled at more things we came across. Hence the ability to Wonder is not a skill you either have or you don’t — I can guarantee it is part of your operating system. Second, there’s no need to discuss this question in theory. All you have to do is to deliberately try a few simple things and see the change for yourself.
Many of the simple activities listed below are tightly connected with the Experience function. We already discussed the connection between the two functions, and as we plan to Wonder, it will become even more apparent. Eventually, developing our ability to Experience and our ability to Wonder are not separate activities. Working on them together, as opposed to sequentially, will increase the effectiveness of the practice by orders of magnitude.
Embrace the Unknown
The unknown is a great source of Wonder. When we are unprepared for something, the chance of marveling it increases significantly, and with it, the opportunity of asking questions and challenging assumptions.
Remember The Big Bang Fountain installation I saw in London? Here is how it is formally described:
“Water, dyed blue and illuminated by a strobe light, is pumped up before the viewer in quick bursts. The strobe light catches the bursts at the apex of their trajectory, freezing them in the frenzied and globular form they take at the instant before they are pulled down by gravity. Rather than experiencing the entire arc of the water, viewers can only glimpse the final moment of each burst’s upward motion, a mesmerizing series of abstract forms. The fountain is housed within a black, circular room, to create a completely dark space against which the contrast of the strobe-lit water is made even more striking.”5
Now, I won’t say this description is not intriguing. Had I read it before I saw the installation, I would have still definitely wanted to see it. And yet… it leaves very little room for imagination. The semi-technical description prepares the viewers for what they are about to see. But with this preparation, the need to ask and question what we are about to experience dissolves. When the element of surprise ceases to exist, the sense of marvel is often reduced to the point of little effect.
All I had to do to experience Wonder to its full extent was to avoid reading this description in advance. It is the purest form of getting lost: avoiding knowing too much of what is ahead of you. And the impact of this practice is beyond imagining.
Here’s another example from the same visit to the Tate Modern, and once again, I should thank the master of surprising interactions, Olafur Eliasson, for the experience.
Imagine walking into an elevator holding a book called “The Secret Lives of Color” you’ve just bought, and realizing that all pages in the book, including its colorful cover, has just turned into black-and-white. I can’t express in words the amazement and the confusion, but you can imagine me asking out loud, “Wait, what?!” In retrospect, I realized that one of Olafur’s earlier works, Room for One Color6, was replicated in that elevator, outside of his exhibition — a fact that clearly contributed to the element of surprise. The thing is that if I had come “more prepared” to my museum visit, I could have read all about it before even landing in London. I would have expected to see this installation, and I would probably have read all the technical details about it. But if I had done that, I would have clearly missed the experience of sensing sincere wonder: trying to understand what I see in front of me — double-checking that I am not imagining — and then trying to figure out how this effect was created. That’s precisely the type of wonder that contributes to Creativity. Just reading about it in advance would not have created even a fraction of this impact.
So, to practice Wonder, the first thing we need to do is to leave enough space for surprises. Embracing the unknown means not just accepting it, but proactively creating opportunities for the unknown to enter our lives.
- When you are planning an experience, come less prepared. Avoid the urge to know everything about it before you actually experience it.
- Let others lead the way from time to time without knowing the details of the plan7.
- Capture in writing things that catch you by surprise, how you feel when this happens, and the questions that follow.
If this sounds familiar, it is not by chance. Getting Lost, the practice we discussed in the Observe chapter, and Plan to Be Surprised, which we discussed as part of the Experience chapter, are tightly connected to embracing the unknown. These three practices complement each other to the point that the distinction between them is not always clear. Nor should it be. Experience, Observe, and Wonder are three functions that work together more often than not. They feed one another and create a positive feedback loop. It is easier to understand, and to some extent practice, each of them separately, but eventually, in real life, they are inseparable. And this combination is essential if we wish to become more creative, just before we take all this wonderful input and start cooking our own creative dish.
How often does a question pop up in our mind and we rush to find the answer? I know this is what I do by default. But what if we just write the question down, think about it, maybe come up with additional, derived questions, and only then, after some time, start the exploration for possible answers? It sounds a bit mechanical and artificial, especially in this era, but this is how most habits feel when we start cultivating them.
Questions trigger our imagination more than their answers. At least most of them do. Our next stop in this journey will be the Imagine function, and to get there, we would be better off equipped with more question marks than exclamation marks. Like embracing the unknown, the immediate thing we can do to enjoy questions to their full extent is to avoid the shortest path to their answers. Most of us are already at a good starting point: we do ask questions. But if we wish to use these questions to trigger Creativity, we also need to give them the place they deserve. Instead of treating them as a necessary step toward obtaining knowledge, we should realize the potential embedded in the questions themselves.
“Curiosity has its own reason for existence,” said Albert Einstein. A deliberate delay between asking a question and finding the answer is an essential first step toward developing our ability to Wonder. The next step is to ask even more questions — questions that we probably wouldn’t have asked if we didn’t stall some time before looking for answers.
Pick any object you have near you — an object you are so accustomed to, that you practically take for granted. Try to come up with two or three questions related to this object — questions that you really don’t know the answers to. Such a simple exercise, assuming it is not followed immediately by a Google search, is a simple application of curiosity. It is practically going back to when we were kids, stopping dozens of times a day to wonder how the world works.
- When you come across a question, pause. Write it down and think of other related questions before you look for answers.
- Be aware of things you take for granted and take some time to reflect on them and come up with questions derived from them.
- Try to answer at least some of the questions before looking up the answers online.
Our ability to ask questions, to be truly curious, is liberating, even when it starts with a mechanical exercise. Asking is the power that drives us forward. Without it, we will forever stand in one place. Children “know” this — they are programmed to ask because it is their only way to discover the world. If we give questions the place they deserve in our internal monologues as well as in our discussions, meetings, and any other interaction we have, we might just become more open also to hear the answers. And we might acknowledge the fact that sometimes, there still isn’t a good one available.
The Art of Challenging Assumptions
Not every act of Creativity involves challenging assumptions — questioning what is familiar and acceptable — but plenty of creative discoveries do. The impact Hamilton had on me, and obviously on so many others, clearly had to do with more than just being surprised. It was a direct result of the play’s novelty, and the way it wisely and gracefully undermines assumptions in our mental model.
- On average, a Broadway musical includes 20 songs. Assumption: the audience cannot contemplate more than that — it’s just too much.
- By 2015, no Broadway hit was based on hip-hop music. Assumption: to create a Broadway hit, you’d better stick with music that fits traditionally into the genre.
- Between 2006 and 2015, 78% of the roles in plays on New York stages were assigned to Caucasians8. Assumption: if you are going to put on a musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founding fathers, you have all the reasons in the world to have a cast made of Caucasians. Nobody will argue “it doesn’t work”!”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and the composer behind the marvelous experience of Hamilton, managed to overcome all these assumptions and more. When he first thought about the concept of transforming Hamilton’s biography into a set of hip-hop songs, he was thinking of releasing it as a concept hip-hop album. That’s, after all, what you can do with hip-hop songs, isn’t it? But together with his friends who worked with him on an earlier musical, he magically created a three-hours long sung-through musical, with no less than 34 songs telling the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers of the United States (all as white as one could be) with African-Americans, Latinos and Asians playing all the leading roles. Oh, and it is an international smash hit.
When done right, all these assumptions were proven to be false.
Challenging assumptions and proving them wrong does not get the job done by itself. It took tons of talent and immense Creativity to create Hamilton and turn it into the phenomenon that it is. Someone else could have tried to challenge these assumptions and end up with nothing. But without wondering, “Are these assumptions correct? Am I bounded by these imaginary constraints?” Lin-Manuel Miranda would not have been able to realize his talent and Creativity. I’m not suggesting Miranda consciously thought to challenge these assumptions (although maybe he did). It is evident that the passion for the idea, the story, and how to tell it were there first. But had he caved in and aligned with the way others see the musicals industry, we would have lost this marvel.
All this may come very naturally to some people, maybe even to the extent that they don’t need to challenge assumptions — they just don’t see them as applying to their work. The rest of us, however, might need deliberate, even if artificial, practice in identifying and challenging assumptions. With time, this skill will become more natural and fluent.
- Write down assumptions, especially implicit ones, that affect you throughout the day.
- Ask “why?” in the context of things you do or observe.
- Reflect on the assumptions you wrote each day and consider: are they really applicable? How can I challenge them? What would be the implications? What could be the potential benefit?
- Every week, pick at least one assumption and actively challenge it — try doing things differently as if the assumption is incorrect or doesn’t exist. Make sure you have safety nets that will allow you to backtrack in case the assumption is correct.
Constraints are essential to Creativity. Creativity often flourishes in the face of limitations, and when working on developing our Creativity, we often add artificial constraints. But this does not mean that when facing real-life challenges and opportunities, we need to add imaginary barriers that will prevent our next breakthrough. Our assumptions — often, our false assumptions — are such barriers. Almost all breakthroughs in art, science, and technology were not possible without dissolving assumptions which were, until that moment, as solid as facts.
“Don’t Stop to Marvel”
It might sound like advice from a positive-thinking-new-age-guru. You might be tempted to think it is one of those generic statements that seem about right but cannot really be put into practice. But when you realize it was said by one of the most brilliant people who affected humanity in the recent century, you might just want to stop for a second and consider it.
When Albert Einstein, whom we will meet again in the next chapter, left us this legacy, he didn’t meant we should acknowledge the marvels of math or physics; he didn’t try to convince us we should worship science. Albert Einstein knew that regardless of what we aim to achieve or what we are going to do, amazing things can happen if we just keep seeing the world like children do — with amazement and admiration.
You might be tempted to think this is a matter of personality or character. It isn’t. We are wired to marvel, and it takes so little to re-ignite this ability. All we need to do is find something new in familiar things, and try to connect to it.
At the end of the previous chapter, we exercised deliberate observation: looking around us mindfully and writing down what we see and sense. To practice the Wonder function, we need to take that to the next level: we need to explore what we see further until we don’t just see it — we rediscover it.
- Observe an object, a phenomenon, or behavior mindfully and find something you didn’t expect to see or sense in it.
- Explore the new things you see, consider how you missed them before, and ask yourself what else you might be missing in the subject of your exploration.
- Reflect on your discovery. Ask yourself how it changes your view on what you observed.
- Write down what you discovered and your insights.
This simple practice can soon turn into second nature. You will notice more, and you will appreciate the things you see. Even then, continue to capture your insights — what you marvel and what you are curious about — and use them for reflection. These insights will be more than just ingredients for future creation — they can quickly become the core of your creative work.
The Alchemy of Creativity
Imagining is the heart of Creativity. Nothing can be created without being imagined first. The Imagine function is where the inputs we have collected are turned into a vision of a different, reshaped reality. This vision can be at any scale: from just one different detail that happens to solve a personal problem, to a groundbreaking creation that will change the lives of millions.
It is a magical process. No one can anticipate what ingredients will be used, how they will be melted together, and what shape will the outcome — the vision — take. We can, however, prepare the ground and increase the chance for this magic to happen. The more we Experience, Observe, and Wonder, the more ingredients we have to create unexpected Fusions — the seed from which possibilities and opportunities grow.
Fusion is the basis of any original thought, invention, and creation. It is where we move from collecting raw material and wondering to creating. If Imagination is the heart of Creativity, this Fusion is its heartbeat.
Spoiler alert: the term “connecting the dots” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of it.
1 Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, Tate Enterprises LTD, p36 ⤴
2 I dare say this is one of the reasons for the flourish of fake news. ⤴
7 A real personal challenge for me 🙂 ⤴