In Charles Duhigg’s new book on productivity, Smarter Faster Better, he devotes a chapter to how innovation happens. The answer? Generally not as lightning out of the blue.
One analysis of scientific papers found that the most creative ideas contained deeply conventional ideas, but also combined things in ways that they hadn’t been combined before.
One of the researchers on that project, Northwestern University professor Brian Uzzi, told Duhigg, "A lot of the people we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen." That is, "They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries or groups. They’ve seen a lot of different people attack the same problems in different settings, and so they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work."
So how do you become an intellectual middleman?
"People become creative brokers," Duhigg writes, "when they learn to pay attention to how things make them react and feel." You are a human being, and your emotions and experiences can provide fodder for doing old things in new ways. He attributes the creative hit theme song from Frozen, "Let It Go," in part to songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s experience of feeling judged at times, and not thinking she should apologize for not being perfect. As Frozen writer Jennifer Lee told Duhigg, "‘Let It Go’ made Elsa feel like one of us."
Keep a journal. Take notes. Get your head out of your phone. All of these increase awareness of the world and yourself. When you find yourself reacting to different things in the same way, take notice. There may be something there.
You can’t combine ideas from disparate fields if you’re not cognizant of disparate fields, or even of distant branches of your own industry. "Large fields tend to have different communities, even though they’re part of the same field," Uzzi told me in an interview.
"These sub-communities rarely ever cross talk." So go figure out what’s going on elsewhere. Follow experts in other fields on Twitter. Buy new-to-you magazines in an airport bookstore if you’ve got time to kill. Go to the library and pick up books in a section you don’t normally browse. Attend a new conference and see what you find most interesting, or attend a new-to-you track of a conference you already frequent. While you’re in a town on business, take a quick swing through a museum that’s a bit out of the box for you. You never know where interesting ideas will come from.
This is harder than it sounds. The modern world is good at putting us in little bubbles. We naturally seek out kindred spirits, and even if we pride ourselves on achieving some metrics of diversity (friends and colleagues from various racial groups) we can miss others.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote that he and others had been blindsided by the alienation that white, working-class Donald Trump supporters felt. "We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough," he writes. "For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country." You have to consciously put yourself in places you would not normally go, and seek out conversations you would not normally have, including with people who disagree with you.
"It’s really about maintaining diverse relationships," Uzzi told me, with a focus on the relationship part. "To be creative with someone you really have to trust them," he says, and "the people most unlike us are the people we have the hardest time trusting." Figure that part out, though, and you can become a much in-demand intellectual middleman.
Unfortunately, simply stringing together concepts from disparate fields will not guarantee good ideas. You’re just as likely to get what sounds like a bad improv sketch. ("What if we played basketball underwater?") But creativity is also a numbers game. Next Galaxy CEO Mary Spio writes in her book It's Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success, that "the more possibilities you imagine and the more knowledge and experience you gain through following your curiosity, the larger your information database and the greater your chances of connecting never-before-connected dots."
Ideas tend to multiply, and if you come up with a lot of combinations, eventually there will be some decent ones in there.