How to Fly a Horse

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Creation is not extraordinary. Everyone creates — that’s what makes us human. There are many romantic notions about the nature of creativity, and they are false. We must reject them and accept that to create is perfectly ordinary.

Creative thinking doesn’t exist. There’s no magic. There’s just the ordinary process of thinking, and creation is one possible product of thinking.

Insights are not real. They’re an outcome of regular thinking. Observation and deduction. We see what’s in front of us, we reject things that are impossible, and with small steps, inevitably, we’ll sometimes step on the right (and novel) answer.

Incubation probably doesn’t exist. (See also: Originals. My intuition is that incubation is real in so far as the mere exposure effect is real. Having seen an original idea before makes us more comfortable with it, and less likely to reject it.)

Success is measured in number of steps, not leaps. Leaps of achievement ≠ leaps of thinking. Both in scientific discovery, and even in art, success is caused by iteration, observation and deduction, and plain ordinary thinking.

Standing on the shoulders of generations, not giants. The giants stand on the shoulders of their giants. If you take any invention or scientific discovery, they are all based on previous work, which was inspired or enabled by what happened prior to them. Again, creativity is iterative.

Failure, failure, failure. Invention takes time. All that’s left is work. Lots and lots of work. Be comfortable with this.

Invent a better mousetrap and no one will beat the path to your door. The thing to expect from invention is rejection. (The urge to reject is an evolutionary feature, taming our opposing urge to try new things.)

Inattention blindness. The more experience we have, the less we see. We pay selective attention. Instead of carefully thinking, we rely on patterns gained through experience. We become efficient by filtering out unlikely possibilities. And thus we become blind. (Literally, experienced doctors will not see a clown pasted into an X-ray image.)

Beginner’s mind. The thing that makes us efficient as an expert is also the thing that will lead us astray if the assumptions we make are wrong. (See: the discovery of stomach bacteria)

Paradigms. The nature of scientific revolutions: a paradigm becomes established, and we work within its limits for some time. But then the paradigm turns out wrong or incomplete, and we inevitably get stuck. And it takes a generational change to get unstuck, because the paradigm gets so deeply entrenched with experience, incumbants will reject the new paradigm.

Certainty vs confidence. We should become comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing, and yet pushing through and trying things. That’s confidence, and it’s a good thing. But you should be extremely wary of when you start to feel certain. Psychics are certain of their abilities, and so were some 19th century astronomers about Mars canals — yet they’re wrong.

Human brains seek to avoid cognitive dissonance. When we become certain about an idea, we will reject any evidence to the contrary.

Reward doesn’t always help creativity. In fact, it very often interferes with it. However, the relationship between the quality of creative work and external motivators is quite unclear. One hypothesis is that rewards can help in work where there’s a single correct answer, but are destructive in creative work. Another compelling theory (with some evidence to back it up) is that choice transforms the role of rewards in creative work. If we don’t have a choice, rewards make things worse. If we do have a choice, rewards make things better.

There is no “before I begin”, only a failure to begin. Just start. Our first draft will be average and dull, but what makes it beautiful is that it breaks the empty page. Hold back criticism, and simply write your first draft. Then let the critics in your head out, let them be loud, revise, and edit the draft. Then start again, and write the second draft.

There’s no “writer’s block”, only “write-what-I-like block”. If you believe that creation only happens in a moment of inspiration, you’ll be led to believe that writer’s block is real. What’s actually blocking you is the perceived quality of your output. But it doesn’t matter, because creation is iterative. Write whether it’s good or bad, revise later, or throw it out and start again. Inspiration comes from creation

”Show me” and intellectual safety. Many ordinary people in organizations feel intellectually safe. They know what they know, and are comfortable with the fact that they rely on other people with what they don’t know. Very capable individuals also tend to be intellectually safe. It’s often the middle managers who are not intellectually safe. When challenged with creativity — ideas and people who break the mold — they reject them because they feel their status threatened.

The right response to a novel idea is “show me” — a sign of intellectual safety. “I might not think this is a good idea, but I might be wrong, and I’m OK with that.” Instead of debating or pulling rank, let the creator just try their idea and prove that it’s good.

Invention has unforeseen consequences. This is inevitable. We should not stop creating, rather we should strive to discover the consequences of creation as soon as possible — and if they are undesirable, create something better instead.

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