Nothing is New, and That’s A Good Thing

One of the ideas that inhibits creativity is the notion that it must always come as a flash of genius or an amazing “aha!” moment where they discover something totally new and unheard of in the history of mankind. They sit at their desks all day, trying to will their muse to magically appear and inspire in them an otherworldly idea, and when nothing new or inventive enough comes to them, they feel frustrated and grow more and more convinced they are simply not cut out for creative work. Eventually, they abandon all attempts at trying to lead a creative life, leaving it to the artists, inventors, and “true creatives” to do the hard task of coming up with something totally original, preferably a masterpiece of sorts.

But here’s what those great artists, inventors, and creatives have known all along: nothing is completely original. Every new idea has roots from somewhere else or is an outgrowth from a more primitive “parent idea.” What we call “original” actually came from preexisting themes and ideas that have only been reimagined or combined in new ways. Yes, we might even use the word derivative.

As artist Austin Kleon put it, no idea exists by itself in a vacuum. Thus, the challenge of creativity is not so much about dreaming up a truly original thought, but about figuring out which preexistent ideas are worth stealing, borrowing from, modifying, or altering.

This quote has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, as well as to T.S. Eliot, though the idea itself is likely to have originated elsewhere—thus proving its own point that nothing is truly original.

So yes, nothing is new. But why is that a good thing? It’s because knowing that nothing is completely original takes the pressure off of you to squeeze your brain dry trying to come up with something totally innovative. It allows you to redirect your mental energy from the hugely challenging but futile task of sparking an original thought to the more manageable charge of looking at what’s already present and then rearranging its elements in new and interesting ways.

See, you don’t have to produce the ingredients from scratch yourself; you already have the ingredients all around you, and now you just have to cook up something with them. You don’t need a specific muse or point of inspiration—they exist all around you if you look at them in the right way. In a sense, this realization also points you in the right direction. Look at existing things, ideas, and concepts and use everything around you in plain sight as inspiration; don’t look into an empty void and hope for something completely new and novel.

Creativity thus has little to do with conjuring new things from thin air and everything to do with uncovering new ways to see and use what is already there. You have to stand at a point where you’re aware of the elements and ideas that already exist and you see the potential of those to be made into something else, something worthwhile, valuable, and actually feasible.

This point is what Steven Johnson describes as the adjacent possible in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. For an idea to work, it almost has to be founded in something that already works—that’s the type of validation you need for its value as an idea. The adjacent possible is what you can realistically expect an idea to turn into after moving forward. Being creative means being able to push an idea into the next stage it has the potential to evolve into.

Take for example the automobile. It could not have come into existence unless the wheel, the horse-drawn carriage, and the combustion engine were already invented. Each of those prior inventions must have occurred first, in succession, before the time of the automobile finally came. The automobile was the adjacent possible that grew out of those earlier creations, and it would have been impossible to invent it before the invention of the wheel or the carriage. It can certainly be said to be adjacent possible to the horse-drawn carriage!

But of course, it would’ve still been possible for someone to imagine the automobile—a wheeled machine powered by steam or fire to transport people—before the idea of the carriage came to life. In fact, many great inventors had dreamed up machines before it was possible for them to be constructed in reality—thus earning even these great minds the reputation not of being creative, but of being too ambitious and in some instances just plain crazy. Da Vinci’s own primitive helicopter comes to mind—a spiraling, cork wheel of a vehicle that may or may not have ever been actually tested.

Creativity is about building on what is already there. It’s filling in the gaps between what exists and what can exist but doesn’t yet—that is, being able to perceive the adjacent possible and turning that possibility into reality.

Take for instance how various security systems have evolved and built upon one another. The door lock-and-key system is an ancient technology grounded in the idea of a person having the sole means to open something by possessing an object with a unique structure (i.e., the key) and matching the lock to the access point (i.e., the door). Newer initiatives have built on this old idea ever since.

Now, locks have so been fashioned such that the “object with a unique structure” doesn’t even have to be something separate from the person—it’s the person himself, with the “key” being his fingerprint or his retina scanned at the access point. This idea has also evolved to apply to lock mechanisms for mobile phones and even start-up systems for cars. It’s only a matter of time before someone invents the next big thing building on these ideas by contemplating its adjacent possible and turning it into reality.

A great innovator of the tech age, Steve Jobs, agreed with this view of what creativity is all about.

Creativity is less about originating something and more about spotting the potential of certain things or ideas to be combined in a fruitful way. So cut yourself some slack and allow yourself to peek into what others have already come up with. Open your eyes and soak in all the great ideas you can from the world around you. Decide which ones are worth keeping, then figure out connections and combinations among them that would be likely to work. Remember that even great artists and inventors have stolen ideas from somewhere, and you would do well to take a leaf out of their book.

Recognizing that creativity is less about coming up with something from scratch and more about seeing the old in new ways, you take the first step toward obtaining a new set of lenses to help you see all the creative possibilities around you.
Building Block 2: Inspiration Is a Myth; Creativity Is a Skill

One of the most widespread destructive myths about creativity is that you have to wait for inspiration to strike before you sit down and do creative work. We imagine great poets hearing the whispers of their muses as they write their exquisite rhymes, novelists being woken up by imagined characters in their heads suddenly inspiring them to write an epic plot twist, and inventors experiencing a flash of genius while taking their shower and then running out naked shouting “eureka!” In fact, the myth of “eureka” moments is damaging in itself.

Basically, you’ve heard that there is a prerequisite to creativity and that you can’t will it into existence. This is what creativity looks like to most people, and though popular, such a view is simply misguided. Recall how, in an earlier example, Terry waited endlessly for inspiration but ended up suffering the consequences as he saw the deadline pass him by with inspiration still nowhere to be found.

Of course, such moments of inspiration and sudden sparks of insight may in fact occur—but they do so very rarely, if at all. Many of the instances we hear about turn out to be myth or legend, such as Isaac Newton sitting under a tree, getting hit by an apple, and then conceiving of the concept of gravity.

Sitting back and waiting for such divine moments to come to you before you decide to do any work is guaranteed to leave you unproductive, frustrated, and even angry at your imagined muses. There is this wholly romantic view of the creative life being a carefree existence where you simply close your eyes a few moments, and then feel your creative juices push your hand to paint inspired brushstrokes on a canvas. But the reality of what a creative life truly looks like is far less dreamy than that image. Creativity is not a supernatural power; it’s a skill.

And like any skill, creativity needs to be developed and cultivated through consistent, dedicated, and painstaking practice. You can’t just sit back and listen for your muse’s whispers; you’ll have to create the lines yourself. You can’t simply wait for a flash of genius; you’ll have to manufacture it yourself—and the good news is that you can.

So just how do you manufacture your own inspiration?

First, get comfortable with the feeling of confusion. One of the reasons why people sit around all day and wait for inspiration to strike is that they’re not looking forward to working in a state of confusion, of not knowing what to do or where to take an idea. It’s uncomfortable and, most often, decidedly not pleasurable. The thought of getting a flash of genius that informs you exactly how to do things in an instant is way more attractive than getting your hands dirty and trying to find the information yourself. The latter just seems too messy, and this is what hinders most people from progressing with creative work.

And so if you are to have any hope of achieving your creative goals, you’ll need to learn how to persist through the mess and confusion that any worthwhile creative task necessarily involves. Such persistence is what Michael Gelb, in his book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, calls confusion endurance.

This concept teaches that in order to be creative, you must have the ability to endure the confusion that comes with the task. This confusion may come as a result of not knowing where to start, being perplexed at how to attack a problem, having a muddied view of what you’re trying to achieve, wondering what resources are available and relevant to the task, and the like. Confusion endurance is all about being able to stay with a task and persisting in trying to work out a creative solution instead of just abandoning it when things get too difficult. It’s about being able to persevere when you have the uncertainty and confusion of juggling multiple balls and not knowing where they will all land. It’s the feeling of coming to a fork in the road with ten paths and having to analyze each one.

Say you’re standing in the middle of a messy room filled with boxes upon boxes of clutter to move and organize. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be surrounded by essentially chaos. You’ll need to get creative with organizing the interior of the room in order to have enough space for everything you need to store inside it. If you don’t have the ability to endure the chaos created by the mountain of disorganized stuff around you, you’ll never stay with the task long enough to figure out a viable solution.

Hence, you’ll need to have enough confusion endurance to withstand the initial disarray you’re faced with, as well as the personal bewilderment you may feel from not knowing where to start or how to get the task done. As you learn to sustain your efforts to categorize, organize, and structure the things around you, you also get closer and closer to the creative solution you need to accomplish the job.

Confusion endurance is about having the stamina to get down to work and keep working through tough times, instead of just waiting for inspiration to strike. See, creativity isn’t the art of passively expecting a magical lightbulb moment to inspire you. Rather, it’s finding ways to turn the spark on yourself, even if it means rubbing two sticks together for quite a while, so to speak. It’s hard work.

You’ll need to develop the self-discipline to just get started and get working, even if you don’t feel inspired or motivated in the moment. Because here’s another creativity building block that professional creatives know and the amateurs don’t: inspiration and motivation come after you get started.

As Pressfield highlights in his book The War of Art, the main difference between the amateur and the professional is that while the former talks, the latter acts. While the amateur chatters incessantly about the many brilliant creative ideas he’s dreamed up over the years, the professional simply puts his head down and his butt up, silently working until he actually delivers something concrete and substantial.

The professional finds his inspiration and motivation while working, as he feels his ideas build on each other in better and better ways the more he keeps persevering with his creative efforts. It’s in the middle of the process that he experiences a rush of creative juices flowing, as he opened himself up to imminent inspiration by simply starting.

This again shows how creativity is a skill that needs dedication and discipline to master. Before you can reasonably expect to create something worthwhile, you’ll need to put in the hours and the effort laying brush on canvas and pen on paper and putting ideas to the test. You’ll need to show up to work even if you don’t feel like working, because that’s what a professional does. While the amateur has her head in the clouds, fantasizing about the accolades she’ll get after she’s created something grand, the professional has her feet on the ground and her hands busy working on project after project until something sticks.

Of course, not every single one of the projects a professional attempts is destined to be gold. In fact, many of them are bound to be junk. Out of the ten paintings an artist does, only one may end up in the showroom. Out of the fifty pages an author writes, maybe only five are actually useable. Nonetheless, these professionals know that all the junk created in the process of painting that one piece or writing those five pages was to be expected and was even necessary.

Often, it takes going through a lot of wrong strokes and bad ideas first before you can know how to best develop a creative project. But remember the prior point—that creativity almost always builds upon something else. You are building your own foundation to draw upon when you simply put your head down and get started with producing and creating.

In the pursuit of a creative goal, bear in mind that freely occurring inspiration is a myth. If you want a great idea to “strike” you, you need to work for it and at the very least put yourself in a position for it to “strike.” Much like in other professions and fields, it’s hard work and perseverance that matter most in the arena of creativity. Stop waiting around for inspiration and instead start working. The ideas will come to you while you’re hard at work, and the only way they can keep coming and get refined is if you persevere with working.

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