Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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The Creative Process

Creativity is one of my favorite topics. I’m fascinated by what makes one person considered creative and another not. I believe that everyone has the inherent abilities to be creative, so what gives some of us the potential and others not? I think Steve Jobs is on to something when he says, “Creativity is just connecting things.” However, connecting things is not really something you can just throw around as easy. I mean, everyone can “connect things” in one way or another, and Jobs caveats his statement by talking about connecting diverse experiences, which gets us a bit closer to just what’s going on. But the question remains, if everyone can “connect things” and everyone has “diverse experiences” in one way or another, why are only some people considered creative?

I think there are two major steps that stand in between experiences and connecting that explain creativity. The first I’ll call digestion. A creative individual doesn’t take things at face value, they examine and dig, trying to find meaning, sometimes for a mass audience and sometimes just for their own good. Bruce DeBoer explains it like this in “What makes me creative?” (via Lifehack.org):

Information and experience are like food for the creative process. It’s raw substance. Information needs to be digested to brain-fat so it can re-immerge as mature creative energy. It’s as if it needs to be inculcated into our souls before we are free to randomize it into original creative expression. If we don’t digest it, a creative product – art, innovation, music, etc. – is sure to be more derivative that original. Creativity is using our unique inner selves to rearrange the raw material.

So if diverse experiences are the food, the creative individual digests it by attaching meaning. For those geeks out there, you can think of this as the metadata of the experiences. This allows the creative individual to come back later and search for that raw material using terms and ideas that are easily understandable. Another way to think of this would be as translating the experience into the language of creativity.

Following the digestion/metadata/translation I believe some grouping happens. This is is a lower level process than the “connecting” that ultimately makes someone creative. It’s about finding some basic buckets to throw your digesting experience into. In a way this step could be included as part of the basic metadata, and maybe should exist as a step before, but since I’m writing this by the seat of my pants, it exists as step three for now. A simple example of this would be your state of mind as you experience something. For instance, as I sat outside reading Emergence today, I was thinking in the bucket of creativity. In fact, the further I write this, the more I think this basic grouping process is more of a second step than a third, since it really is about the state of mind your in as you have your experience. (Anyway, you get the idea.)

Finally, after you’ve bucketed and attached your metadata it’s time to start connecting. Like I said, anyone can connect, but if you haven’t done the previous work, your connections will be less fruitful. Think of it as background research: the more you know before you begin, the more fruitful and efficient you can be when you actually get to working on your project. Now that everything is arranged and prepared, you can easily see where they connect to both each other and to new experiences. Connections seem obvious to a creative person because of this preparation they’ve done. They’re ready to connect everything together.

Which leads me to the final piece of the creativity puzzle: adaptability. I don’t think this is necessarily a step in the process as much as it is an overall state. Creative people can adapt to changing environments, in fact, many enjoy this adaptation. They enjoy immersing themselves in topics and ideas that are out of their regular comfort area because they realize they can adapt. When you think about, things outside your regular comfort area are probably only a few connections away anyway. So when you’re open to these new ideas and thinking critically about how they may connect to your old ideas and experiences, your creativity can flourish. Adaptability allows people to follow courses that may not seem to obviously connect with the belief that they will eventually find where the two roads merge. Without this constant openness/adaptability, the process I’ve laid out can’t succeed.

As expected, it all works together.

August 29, 2005