How Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, And Maria Popova Got More Creative

To be more creative yourself, listen to lessons from the masters.

How Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, And Maria Popova Got More Creative

“We learn, from the time we’re little, the process of the scientific method–how to discover things–but we don’t teach the parallel art of how to invent things,” Stanford innovation scholar Tina Seelig told us, “That’s one of the reasons creativity seems so mysterious. We don’t, from the time they’re young, teach people the components of what you need to invent, as opposed to discover.”


And so we seek to discover how people invent, by dissecting their morning routines and unraveling the habits of what makes the Most Creative People–so that we normal folks may become more creative.

But as the ever-stimulating curator of interestingness, Maria Popova–herself a Most Creative Personcontends, creative work need not put the super into superlative.

It’s rather a matter of connecting dots–if you would listen to Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and the like.

Einstein: Creativity Is Combinatory Play.

Fast Company is no amalgam of Einsteins, but we’re smart enough to know that the German-born physicist knew a thing or two about knowing. As we’ve reported before, he had a delay-oriented form of problem solving: If given an hour to tackle a monstrous problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about it and five minutes putting the solution together. His insight into creativity was of a similar depth.

As Popova notes, Einstein thought of creativity as “combinatorial play” between the ideas brewing inside your mind:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought–before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

The next question, then, is what is being so creatively combined. For this, we turn to a certain founder of Apple computers, who once noted the way his undergraduate classes in calligraphy shaped the design sensibility that would make Apple Apple.


Steve Jobs: The Dots Will Connect.

While creativity strikes us as mysterious, after hearing Jobs talk about it, the components seem obvious: We can only draw from the experiences we’ve had–and draw the lines between them.

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.

The reason creative folks can do that, Jobs says, is because they’ve either had more experiences than other folks or have thought more about their experiences; they’ve developed, as a younger Jobs said, a big bag of experiences to carry around with them.

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences,” Jobs said, predicting our woefully stunted career vocabulary. “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.”

Getting your bag of experiences bigger

Knowing this, how do we get more of this raw material of creativity? One way is to have more expansive experiences–like, say, by using your vacation days to travel, as opposed to vacate.

Alternately, that expansiveness is available the next time you head out the door. To Seelig, the Stanford professor, the first step to becoming more creative is certain appreciative, inquisitive mindfulness: We need only to observe the world with acute focus.

As she trains her students at the to do:


I have my students go to the local shopping center for an assignment. They go into a whole bunch of stores and look at them with fresh eyes. We put together a detailed lab for them: Is the door open or shut? What is the font of the store’s name? How long does it take for someone to come and greet you? How high are the ceilings? What are the floors made of? What’s the soundtrack? What does it smell like?

When you realize that we’re influenced by so many things that we don’t even pay attention to, then you can start seeing the opportunities in your midst. If you don’t pay attention, not only do you not realize what’s affecting you, but you also don’t see the problems that can be turned into opportunities.

Hat tip: Brain Pickings

[Image: Flickr user John Verive]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.