Cooking is a brilliant analogy for creativity: a chef’s talents hinge on his ability to bring ingredients together to create things. Even the most inspired chef in history did not make bacon appear by mere concentration, nor suggest to the divine forces that a ripe tomato should be on the list of evolution’s desired outcomes. Faith in the creativity-as-combinations view of the world helps creators in many ways. It means that if at any time you feel uncreative, the solution is to look more carefully at the combinations available to you, or to break apart something to see how it’s made. Increasing creativeness doesn’t require anything more than increasing your observations: become more aware of possible combinations. Here’s a test: quickly pick two things in front of you, say, this book and your annoying, smelly friend Rupert. Now close your eyes and imagine different ways to combine them.
If you’re stuck, here are three:
• Rupert with a table of contents
• An annoying, smelly book about innovation
• Reading a book on, or making one out of, Rupert’s face
Now while these combos might not be useful, good, or even practical, they’re certainly creative (and if you think these are stupid and juvenile, you have confused bad taste with lack of creativity). Adding a third element, perhaps a gallon of cappuccino, might yield even more interesting combinations (a caffeine-overdosed, smelly book infused with Rupert’s annoying personality).
Over time, creative masters learn to find, evaluate, and explore more combinations than other people. They get better at guessing which combinations will be more interesting, so their odds improve. They also learn there are reusable patterns that can be used to develop new ideas. For example, musicians throughout history have reused melodies, chord progressions, and even entire song structures. The national anthem of the United States was based on the tune of an old British drinking song. The Disney film The Lion King is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare was likely influenced by the early Greek tragedies. Study any creative field, from comedy to cooking to writing, and you’ll discover patterns of reuse and recombination everywhere. It’s an illusion that when an artist makes a painting or an author writes a novel it appeared magically into her hands from out of nowhere. Everything comes from somewhere, no matter how amazing or wonderful the thing is. The Mona Lisa was not the first portrait any more than the Destiny’s Child song “Survivor” was the first four- minute R&B hit.
I’m not suggesting you steal something someone else made and put your name on it. That’s theft, and a fairly uncreative kind of theft at that. Instead, the goal is to recognize how much in the world there is to borrow from, reuse, reinterpret, use as inspiration, or recombine without breaking laws or violating trust. Every field has its own rules and limitations, but creative fields are more liberal than you’d expect.
- Scott Berkun
If you're striving to be absolutely original, you're engaging in an act of futility. The most original works of art, be they paintings or musical compositions or novels, draw from what has gone before. On the other hand, the way you see the world is yours and yours alone; it is inevitably unlike anyone else's. The trick is to be able to highlight your special angle of vision, to offset it from conventional perceptions. After all, in the words of the distinguished writing teacher Sidney Cox (Indirections For Those Who Want To Write), "The only thing that makes you more than a drop in the common bucket... is the interplay of your specialness with your commonness."
- Fred White