Ideas and creativity

Tags: musings, research

Developing ideas is the central aspect of many professions, including—but certainly not limited to—academic research and software development. It is my impression that we often consider ideas, or creativity in general, to be some magical binary property: you either have ideas and are a creative mastermind, or not. The purpose of this article is to challenge this assumption and discuss aspects of ideation, i.e. the process of coming up with ideas. We will look at some all-too-common fallacies before taking a quick dive into time-tested creativity techniques.

Creativity is not a binary property

Many people believe that there is a line that separates ‘the creative ones’ from ‘the mundane ones’. This type of thinking is too restrictive. While it is true that certain people are more creative than others, the same could also be said about knowledge, for example: some people are more knowledgeable (in certain subjects) than others, but just as there are ways of increasing your knowledge, there are also ways of increasing your creativity. We all have the potential to be creative; if you do not believe this, think back to when you were younger, or, if possible, watch toddlers playing with toys—their imaginations are boundless and they are able to imbue even the most mundane objects with a sense of wonder and magic.

A toddler playing with an activity toy

A time when we are all highly creative

If you consider this to be some pabulum, please do read on! This is not one of the articles in which the author says that ‘we must be like children’ again. I know perfectly well that toddlers are not primarily known for their creative solutions to software design problems. I merely want to illustrate that creativity appears to be something innate to each of us, but over time, not many of are privileged enough to exercise that particular muscle1. The cliché that there are creative people and others has accompanied our species for some time now. Even Shakespeare mentions this incorrect (!) dichotomy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

These lines are spoken by Theseus, the duke of Athens, and I am reasonably sure that Shakespeare uses him as the voice of the ‘realists’, the ‘disgruntled ones’ that seem to watch the creative process from the outside and, not being able to replicate it, scoffing it for something that belongs to the realm of ‘madmen’. Yet, this quote also contains a hidden remedy: the lover is able to see the beauty of Helen of Troy2 in his beloved because of a shift in perspective. As we shall see, these shifts—and playfulness—are precisely what drives creativity!

Good ideas do not have to be completely novel

Before looking into some creative factors, I want to dispense with another falsehood many people believe, viz. that a good idea has to be ‘entirely novel’. In academia, novelty (or the perceived lack thereof) is the bane of every author—a reviewer may tell you that your paper lacks clarity and you might just accept it, but the statement Your paper lacks novelty can be soul-crushing. This quest for novelty can lead to self-censorship in the worst case, because budding researchers are stopping themselves from further developing their ideas.

However, in almost all scientific domains, many new discoveries are achieved by combining existing ideas3. In some sense, almost all new ideas are achieved by a combination or (small) extension of existing ones. This is even reflected in the origins of some of the words that we tend to use in these contexts. For example, the word cogitate has its roots in the Latin word cogitare, which means ‘to consider something together with something else’. Similarly, the word intellect comes from the Latin word intellectus, whose verb form intellegere also has the meaning of ‘to choose between’. We are rarely aware of these surprising meanings that lurk under the surface of our daily language4.

A stack of rocks

Good ideas can also be generated by combining existing ones

Of course, not all potential combinations of ideas are worthwhile to purse. A hallmark of creativity is the knowledge or intuition of picking ideas that make suitable combinations. This intuition needs time and exercise to grow, though. If we briefly adopt a reductionist perspective, we see a manifold of examples around us that are created by combinations—and sometimes, this reductionist perspective can be helpful and strip away the veneer of ‘creative genius’ that we tend to liberally apply5:

  1. A smartphone is ‘simply’ a combination of a myriad of other devices that preceded it: a calculator, a music player, a phone, …
  2. A Swiss Army knife is ‘just’ a combination of several other small tools, packed into a single unit.
  3. An electrical car is ‘merely’ a car that is powered by a large battery.

The list goes on and on. A trite observation about machine learning, for example, is that it is ‘just’ function optimisation with extra steps, or ‘just’ curve fitting. The many air quotes in this section are meant to indicate that combining something in such a productive manner is absolutely creative and requires enormous amounts of imagination. At the same time, these examples also demonstrate that novelty can always be achieved, even through the combination of that which exists.

A blank paper notebook

The page is blank for now, but your mind is filled to the brim with ideas

However, do not fall into the trap of second-guessing every idea you have. If your mindset is ‘this has all been done before’, you will already decrease your chances because you approach the problem with a negative angle. Instead, you should follow the ‘Yes, and…‘ approach of improvisational comedy: take your initial idea and expand on it—tweak some things, add some things, and generally play around with it.

Time and other creative factors

Our unconscious plays the crucial role in creativity and problem-solving. Almost everyone encountered a situation in which they were chipping away at a problem for hours and hours to no avail. Yet, after taking a walk, a bath, or a good night’s sleep, suddenly the solution presented itself. Both Henri Poincaré and G. H.  Hardy, two of the most pre-eminent mathematicians of the last century, allotted time for unconscious processing in their daily routines: they only spent about four hours (!) each day on mathematics as such; the rest was spent on reading, correspondence, taking a walk, or sports. Even though not everyone has the luxury of a four-hour workday, the role of our unconscious is often not highlighted to a sufficient extent. If you have a certain problem fully embedded in your mind and do something else, your brain will chip away at the problem without you being aware of it. The same is true for ideas—if you let your ideas simmer, they are sure to bear fruit and germinate into something else.

A road flanked by trees

This is where your next idea might be born

Of course waiting for inspiration to strike while walking might seem a little bit reckless. Luckily, there are also other strategies that influence your creativity. Louis Pasteur stated that ‘In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind’. How can you prepare your mind? One way is to read a lot or in general, to draw on many different sources for your inspiration. If you are a researcher, try to read widely—both inside and outside of your field. If you are a software developer, read a lot of code in a lot of different languages. Whatever you do, do not restrict yourself by narrowing down your focus too much6. It is a mistake I often observe: in the interest of being productive, time for inspiration and for self-driven learning is cut down to almost nothing, leaving your mind a barren wasteland that is desperately in need of inspiration. Drawing inspiration from several different sources will also lead to more ideas because you will be able to see connections between different concepts more easily.

As a last point, I want to stress the need for playful exploration. Whenever you encounter a new concept or a new article, you could scour it for ideas and then start playing around with them. Above, I mentioned that good ideas can be combinations of existing ones—the converse can also be true. What happens to a concept if you take away certain key characteristics? Do you end up with something more generic or something that makes no sense at all? A very neat example would be the car, which is what you get when you take a horse-drawn carriage and remove the horses7. As another classical and more mathematical example, consider how the concept of hyperbolic spaces in mathematics arose: researchers were wondering about the necessity of the axioms of ordinary Euclidean geometry. Specifically, they removed the parallel postulate8 and found out that, against all common sense, the resulting geometries were useful and fascinating.

Conclusion

I hope this little article demonstrated that anyone can become (more) creative. If you feel ‘stuck’ at a problem, consider the techniques mentioned above, or try out some others—there is a plethora of different brainstorming techniques or ideation techniques out there. As a starting point into this vibrant field, I would recommend the book Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko; his website is also chock full of interesting exercises and short techniques for getting your imagination running. For the mathematically-inclined, I definitely also recommend reading the book The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field by Jacques Hadamard that was already mentioned a few times in passing. To this day, it is a uniquely interesting and timeless book, discussing a variety of creative techniques that are used by leading mathematicians and physicists. Its contents are fully accessible for any layperson, and I would urge all researchers to at least skim it.

A neon sign showing the encouraging message 'things will be fine'

Just follow the sign

That being said, do not worry about your ideas too much—in time, you will have lots of them, and we all know that having a good idea requires having a lot of bad ideas first.

Acknowledgements

The photos are kindly provided by Unsplash and the following photographers:

unsplash-logoMarkus Spiske unsplash-logoAshley Edwards unsplash-logoStephen Leonardi unsplash-logoMatt Flores


  1. I count myself among the extremely lucky ones here, and not a day passes that I do not feel immense gratitude for being allowed to be in such a position.
  2. Famed for her beauty, Helen was also known as the face that launched a thousand ships.
  3. This was aptly observed and analysed by Jacques Hadamard in his insightful book The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.
  4. Both of these examples, in slightly varying forms, occur in many books on creativity, including the aforementioned The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.
  5. I have to emphatically state that this does not make these ideas any less valuable. I merely object to viewing other people’s ideas as ‘magical’, arising from some idealised ethereal space that is not accessible to most humans.
  6. Your work should be focused, of course, but no one—including yourself—should impose limits on where you get your inspiration from.
  7. I am not claiming that this is how the car was developed in the end; I am only using this example to point out that playing with existing concepts can lead to fascinating results.
  8. Without going further into the (fascinating!) details, the postulate is equivalent to stating that two lines that are parallel to the same line must by necessity also be parallel to one another.