A few days ago, my friend Subi asked a question on Twitter which got me thinking. “Is creativity real or is everything just a modified copy of something else?” My response came almost immediately: “Creativity is being able to see the pieces of things out in the world and put them together in new/different ways.” I still believe what I said, but I have another theory which takes it a step further.
What if nothing is ever created, only discovered? Could it be true that creativity isn’t actually an ability a person possesses, but instead a description of the process we undergo to discover what already exists and has yet to be exposed to the world? The same way that a archaeologist discovers artifacts, a musician or artist or designer discovers their creation and then displays it to the world.
You was inspired by the world; allow the world to be inspired by your shit and to use your shit.
–J. Cole – Note To Self
I honestly believe there hasn’t been a single fully unique or original creation or invention in the history of the world. Originality comes from the combination of elements and ideas in a new way. It would be impossible to shut someone entirely off from the world and hope that they create something unique. Everything is a remix of some kind.
There’s a beautiful Steve Jobs quote from an interview he did in Wired. The quote is very, very similar to my tweet response to Subi. I don’t think the idea in my mind came entirely from Steve Jobs’s quote, because I know much of it came from personal experience, but it was surely bouncing around in my head when I tweeted it. And the ideas in Steve Jobs’s mind almost surely didn’t originate there, not entirely at least.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
–Steve Jobs in Wired Magazine
This is why it bugs me when people say they invented something, arguing that they have some worldly ownership over that thing. Yes, they brought a manifestation of those ideas into the world that was new and different, but without everything and everybody that came before them, it wouldn’t exist. A few years ago, President Obama got in trouble for stating a similar point. I was glad to see him bring the idea to national attention:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
–Barack Obama in Roanoke, VA on 7/13/2012
Now we get into a weird place with actual legal ownership and copyright. You’ll hear these arguments a lot in the world of music and software copyright, but right now the system isn’t structured in a way that accepts the world we live in. If you created a newly original manifestation of creative ideas, you should retain ownership of that in a way which allows you to sell it and make a living off it. However, you shouldn’t be able to block other people from borrowing from those ideas to create new ones. For example, I shouldn’t be able to copy your code directly and sell the same product. But I should be able to learn from it, just as I should be able to borrow pieces of sound or images from your artistic works and incorporate them in a new work.
The last track on J. Cole’s new album is a long thank-you and shout-out to everybody who helped bring the album to light. I love it. Part of me wants to do a similar thing for projects of my own. Nonetheless, I quoted part of it at the beginning of the post, but here’s a larger chunk which causes me to shake my head in agreement everytime I hear it:
And all the mothafuckin' samples that cleared, thank you, y'all be tryin' to give a nigga a hard time on the samples, man! I'ma go to the fuckin' Supreme Court and try to make this shit easier for niggas like me to clear these samples, man. If you made the fuckin' music, and you made the art, and you put it into the world, I should be able to use it however the fuck I want. I'ma pay you, I'ma give you a percentage, but you shouldn't be able to tell me I can't use it. Ya, that's fuckin'... that's fucked up nigga. You was inspired by the world; allow the world to be inspired by your shit and to use your shit.
–J. Cole – Note To Self
The so-called “creative process” can be perplexing. Personally, when I’m working on a project, the ideas are constantly churning in my mind, sort of like one of those tumblers that polishes stones. At the start of a project, a few ideas drop in from the world I already know and have experienced. Then I do some research, discovery, experimentation, and prototyping to toss in more stones. They're constantly churning, bouncing off each other, testing out combinations. And then finally, at some unpredictable point as to almost seem like magic, the right combination of ideas are in there and they hit each other and everything comes together pretty quickly. All of a sudden there’s a solution that feels obvious.
This “Aha!” moment is what people try to force. But it cannot be forced. Sometimes it happens in the shower, or when I’m walking to the office, or when I’m having a beer with a friend, or while I’m laying in bed at night, or while I’m laying in bed in the morning, or other times while I’m at the dog park, and sometimes... it might even happen while I’m in front of my computer actually working.
Just two weeks ago I had to design an iOS app icon for a client. It took something like 80+ variations to reach the solution we finally chose. Actually, it was probably even more than that! And who knows how many ideas I “designed” in my mind which were never actually put into the computer. But the point is that I didn’t really create the solution. It was discovered. I couldn’t have known what it was going to be until it was on the screen in front of my eyes. I did the work that brought those pieces together, but I couldn’t repeat that process again.
My goal going forward is to get better at creating these moments for discovery. That means working consistently (most days) for at least a few hours, forcing real ideas onto paper in some form. I’m allowing myself to take detours and to be surprised by unexpected ideas or solutions. I’m also trying to be more comfortable with not forcing a solution. This means having constraints for time and rules for what I can use and do, but also allowing myself to bend the rules when necessary.
And most importantly, I’m going to try to start over more often. If I accept that discovering ideas is like digging them out of the world like an archaeologist, then that means I might have started to dig a hole in the wrong spot. Once I allow (or even force) myself to start over from the surface, I might come across new directions that the original path wouldn’t allow. And that makes me pretty excited.