“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas.”
— Rosamund Harding
In a beautiful article for The Atlantic, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, writes:
[C]reative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. … Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.
The same point of view is offered by James Webb Young, who many years earlier, wrote:
An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.
A lot of creative luminaries think about creativity in the same way. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.
In I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, editor George Beahm draws on more than 30 years of media coverage of Steve Jobs in order to find Jobs' most thought-provoking insights on many aspects of life and creativity.
In one particularly notable excerpt Jobs says:
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.
The more you learn about, the more you can connect things. This becomes an argument for a broad-based education. In his 2005 commencement address to the class of Stanford, Jobs makes the case for learning things that, at the time, may not offer the most practical benefit. Over time, however, these things add up to give you a broader base of knowledge from which to connect ideas:
Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.
While education is important for building up a repository for which you can connect things, it's not enough. You need broad life experiences as well.
I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words is full of things that will make you think.