The Science Behind Creativity: Be More Innovative & Hack Your Inner Genius
I’ve always wondered where creativity came from. In a sense, why was Michael Jackson able to create some of the best-selling albums and songs when there is a plethora of talented singers and songwriters? Why was Steve Jobs, who never even finished college, able to come up with revolutionary technology related innovation when there are a ton of computer scientists and engineers? Of course these are just a couple of names on a list of over hundreds, but these individuals are legends in their fields simply because they were able to separate themselves from their competition by being more creative. As a personal development junkie I set out to research the science of creativity and how I can inject that into my daily life to be more innovative. I was inspired after listening to my favorite podcasts Art of Charm to write this one.
Innovate or die, we live in an age where people feel really pressured to be innovative, it used to be publish or ‘perish’ in the academic world but now its innovate or die experience where people feel the only way to move up or forward or get noticed is if they do something amazing or bring the “new” to whatever their job is and expected to have an idea that’s a breakthrough and to be doing something in a different way. This used to be the privileged space of the “innovators”, the Edisons or the Fords who used to paradigm shift everything but now we are expected to shift the paradigm at a very low level. We are living at a time in history where technology has put so much power into individuals’ hands. For example, you are able to read this article while I’m not a published author, yet, if this article goes viral, I have the ability to reach millions of people for completely free of cost. Now I don’t need access to a publisher, print hundreds of books, or spend thousands of dollars on marketing, it can be done in a home on my laptop with as little as $10/year for a website domain. Since we democratized and decentralized the work experience we have also done that to the expectation of anybody to come up with the next disruptive breakthrough concept.
There are couple of myths surrounding innovation and genius ideas:
- First, is the thin air myth that innovation comes out of thin air. That is absolutely not true, innovation is often the same idea applied to different fields or the tinkering or small tweak on an already existing idea in the same field. For example, Uber didn’t invent the concept of a taxi or car service, but now it is worth more than any car service in the history of car services. If you look at the light bulb, steam engine, they were work on pre-existing innovations.
- Second, everyone wants to hear 1, 2, 3, Breakthrough! So let me be honest with you, there is not a ‘1,2, 3, breakthrough,’ but there are steps you can take to highly increase the chances and set the conditions that can cause a lot more breakthroughs that you can induce them.
- Third, there is this methodology that breakthroughs happen only to very special people, that they come randomly and whenever, there is nothing you can do. It’s just the domain of the geniuses and the rest of us just don’t have it. Like Elon Musk apparently was just sleeping in a park one day and when he woke up he had come up with the idea of Tesla and was “enlightened”.
What Is A Breakthrough?
Breakthroughs aren’t accidental they are induced. Breakthroughs are that “ah-ha!” or those epiphanies’ or “eureka!” moments, that’s a breakthrough. The field is irrelevant, it’s the brain process that matters and those can be induced. You can split breakthroughs into a three different categories:
1. Paradigm Breakthroughs
These are the Einstein revolutions, that’s when you have one insight that will change the world forever. Now these are as much a question of timing and luck as they are of genius. And if you look at Einstein, he stood on the shoulders of a gazillion giants. So, chasing after a Paradigm Breakthrough is a recipe for misery. Those really happen once per generation, and these aren’t the ones you should be chasing after. So lets puts these aside.
2. Eureka Breakthroughs
These are the ones we know the best. For example, the famous story of Archimedes in the bathtub - The King assigns him with a task to find the weight and measure of his royal crown and ‘Eureka!’ he puts its under water during his bath and measures how much the water level had risen. These breakthroughs tend to be a very concrete answer to a very concrete problem. For example,
Concrete Problem – “How do you measure an irregularly shaped object?”
Concrete Solution – “You submerge in water” and so on.
3. Metaphorical Breakthroughs
Metaphorical Insights are some of the most important breakthroughs you can have but they don’t happen in the same instant ‘Eureka!’ way. Metaphorical insights tend to happen through dreams, through metaphors. The invention of the sowing machine for example, Elias Howe, dreamt that he was captured by an indigenous tribe and was intrigued with the spears that they had. Think of a normal sowing needle, you have one pointy end and one blunt end with a hole. If you look at the sowing machine the hole is actually at the pointy end and that’s what actually injects lock stitching which revolutionized stitching which is why you can wear what you’re wearing today. So he had that through dreams, Metaphorical Insights are breakthroughs where your brain speaks to you in dreams, metaphors and then you have to interpret it to the specific problem you’re trying to solve. So basically a part of your brain has the answer and is saying, “Hey! Listen conscious brain, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m going to rain elephants into a pool of jello until you realized you have put memory foam on your mattress.” Or whatever, you get the point.
Neuroscientists are pretty clear now what part of your brain is all the source of human creativity, all human innovation, and all human genius. And this part of the brain never been revealed to the lay public and mass market before. It’s a network composed of 10-13 different areas of the brain and together they are called the Default Mode Network or DMN.
So here comes the real science, we all can have breakthroughs, we all have the same brain architecture for it. We are all born with a breakthrough attribute it is in every single one of us. And what happens is we just kind of get out of shape. Our brains are actually very structural, its our ability to physically build new neural connections that will be able to allow us to have more breakthroughs. And you get out of practice doing new things. When we were kids we were imaginative, everything was new that we encounter and as we grow up things start to become more repetitive for a lot of us. We literally get our brains out of shape and someone saying they aren’t able to get breakthroughs or thinking they’re not ‘creative’ is kind of like sitting on a couch for a year, total couch potato. And then someone says, “Go do 10 pushups” and you can’t even do one and then you’re like, “Well that’s, that! Guess I’m not wired for pushups!” It’s the same thing with your brain in terms of being creative and having breakthroughs. If you’re not in the flow of it the brain is out of shape.
What Hold Us Back From Being More Creative?
The two big things keep us from genius ideas are the fear of failure or really it’s the fear of shame, and the other is the fear of uncertainty. Those are the 2 big black monsters that are keeping blocked the genius ideas in your brain.
If you’re not willing to deal with uncertainty, innovation by its very nature is uncertain. Then you’re only going to work on things that already work, therefore not contributing to uncertainty. Why are we afraid of uncertainty in the first place? Have you been in a situation where you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and would almost hear bad answer then being left in suspense? So uncertainty registers in the human brain almost as physical pain as a tension, gap, where the brain cannot be at easy again until it has been resolved, different parts of the amygdala light up. Everyone has different comfort levels with uncertainty. If you’re an entrepreneur by definition you have a higher level of comfort. One example, the founders of start-ups are very comfortable with uncertainty, understandably as they entrepreneurs. But then they grow into this 1500-person organization and the employees that join a 1500 people organization aren’t the same that would join a 20-person start-up. Then the founders expect everyone in their organization to have the same level of comfort with uncertainty and that’s not going to work. If the employees were that comfortable with uncertainty they wouldn’t have joined a company that big in the first place.
We are one vast magma of instincts and emotions with a thin veneer of civilization on top. And we tend to either go into fight, flight or freeze. And when you see people with the “deer caught in the headlight” expression on their face they have gone into freeze mode. Everyone has different thresholds and when you hit your maximum comfort level of uncertainty your brain goes into fight or flight mode. That’s when the primal part of your brain hijacks control and shuts down all of the more emotional or cognitive reasoning abilities you might have. Either your inability to handle it, or your fear of stepping into it, or your tendency to made premature decisions because your so uncomfortable with it, that will only lead you to not leaving enough time for the cauldron to bubble for the genius idea to to bubble up essentially. Teaching yourself to better handle uncertainty that’s one of the first things you should do.
But How Do You Start To Go Down That Road To Innovation?
Because before researching I felt like I only stumbled upon ideas by accident. And all jokes aside alcohol has a part to play in it sometimes. Why is that? What happens is that Executive Mode is the social inhibitor. It’s the social monitor. And don’t get me wrong we need it, this is the one that makes us civilized. The famous example of Phineas Gage the railroad employee, who had an accidental lobotomy by getting a rod shot through his brain. And in the weeks following that accident, his pre-frontal cortex was damaged and he lost his social inhibitors. So out of no where he was coming up with the most inappropriate, incestuous-like comments that were horrific. However, if you look at people who have social disinhibition, a couple of ways you can have it are:
1. You can be born one with it and that will lead to a fantastic amount of creativity, but it would be tough to function in the normal world.
2. It can be the deliberate turning off of social inhibitors by way of alcohol or drugs. So that’s one way to go about it.
3. Or you can do it without alcohol or drugs by still playing chemist with your own brain but in different ways like meditation & exercise.
Your Default Mode Network is called Default because it is always on. Its constantly operating in the background. The problem is that though its constantly operating in the background, it needs to be in the foreground to communicate what it has found. For example, your DMN is what makes you think “Oh I want to go to Hawaii!” and your Executive Mode is the one that buys the tickets, books the flights. The problem is that most of the day, in our modern world, the Executive Mode is what usually is operating. So your DMN is important because something transformational is going to happen, etc. and the Executive Mode is important cause it gets you from point A to point B. The problem is that they both can’t be operating at the same time, its not how your brain works.
So obviously we want to get our DMN to work even more or come through even more. Think of the DMN as a magic cauldron. You are the alchemist and inside your brain you have a magic cauldron. That magic cauldron is your Default Mode Network. And if you’re going to make a magic potion you’re going to need to go outside, get the magic ingredients and fill it inside the cauldron, light the fire, distill it, and then go sell that potion around the court. That’s exactly what you have to do to get genius from your brain. That’s how you induce an insight, a breakthrough, an epiphany. A world shaking earth life shattering whatever, step by step. So we have to foster that, you do and you CAN. And something that is fascinating with human innovation is that until now, the process was left pretty much up to chance.
For example, if you look at the invention of the tin can, it was invited by a Frenchman named Philippe de Girard for army in order to hold food for long periods of time. How long do you think it took for someone to to invent the can opener? More than 100 years! Crazy right? What they would do before is bash the can on a rock or use knives which would result in injuries, etc. And in many ways that’s what happens in your life because you’re not consciously guiding that process of breakthroughs. That’s what constantly happening in your brain right now, where your DMN, your magic cauldron, is constantly coming up with this revolutionary idea for your life and then, because you are not directing the process, it is not until 10 years later you put two and two together and suddenly realized “Gosh, why did I not think of this earlier?” This is why.
Exact Steps To Increase Creativity:
Be more innovative - Now if you start guiding the process deliberately, you can start to constantly churn out creative ideas. Let’s take an example of Google X. The head of the program literally guides their people step by step from going and ‘getting the ingredients,’ to lighting the fire of the magic caldron and that’s why Google is able to churn out genius ideas one after the other
1. Create A Ritual –
Look at the most genius artists, writers, innovators who you think are wildly creative, so many of them have taken their entire day from breakfast till brushing their teeth at night and they have dropped it into a sacrosanct redundant routine that never ever varies. And that is what is loading the certainty bucket so that in those areas where they need to be able to have complete uncertainty a blank page/canvas, they can go for it. Because will-power is a finite resource and you should reserve it for what’s important. You’ve got an uncertainty threshold like everyone else so if you know when to be able to handle uncertainty in a specific area of your life, don’t use it up and use that uncertainty handling capacity elsewhere. There is a reason creative artists like Jay-Z or Tom Hanks infamously will never take a meeting after 7pm no matter how urgent/profitable.
2. Live A Choice Minimum Lifestyle –
By reducing the choice in every possible thing that’s not an important choice so that you have got your full brain capacity still available for the areas where you want to be able to. The paradox of choice really harms innovation. For example, if a morning before work you have to stop by Walmart and decide between 20 brands of laundry to pick your 1 detergent, you’ve just used up your ‘paradox-of-choice-multiple-uncertainty-handling-comparison-ability’ brain, and you’re not going to have as much of that available when you’re going to try to find that genius idea which will solve a heart surgery revolution – simply because of laundry detergent. This is why eminent CEO’s like Mark Zuckerberg & Steve Jobs are memorably known to wear the same outfit every single day.
3. Play More Poker (Think More Probabilistically) –
Poker is a fantastic way to get comfortable with uncertainty differently. You stop looking at things in black and white, or ‘will it succeed’ or ‘will it fail.’ Instead you will look at things probabilistically which is the right way to go about it. When you are deciding between two options, you are, whether or not you are realizing it, assigning each option a probability of success (you are playing metaphorical poker right then and there) and all games of chance are really good training for handling uncertainty. If you combine that with meditation and the awareness of what your brain and body are going through this is when you really speed creativity up. Once you’re increasing your comfort level with uncertainty plus you’re saving your capacity for handling uncertainty for the moments where it really matters this is where you start getting really good. And once you solve that obstacle you’re ready to tackle the heavy ‘how to handle failure’ shame and all that jazz.
4. Meditation, No Seriously Meditate A Lot -
If you’ll sadly never be a good poker player, the other way to tackle this is through meditation – Go on week long or 10-day longer meditation retreats because when you’re throwing yourself into the void you’ve got nothing to distract yourself from the contents your own mind. No pen, no paper, no books or electronic gadgets. Even if you just meditate just 5 minutes a day, for those 5 minutes you are walking into the complete uncertainty of not knowing anything of the internal experience you are going to go through and you really get the opportunity to communicate with your brain on a level that you will not be able to while you go through your daily motions of life.
5. Intentionally Do Mindless Tasks -
Now we need both parts of the brain, we need both modes and both networks. Its just that we are in a time/era where we no longer day dream. So the DMN has a back log of genius ideas right now. It never gets a chance to speak up because you’re constantly putting your Executive Mode to work and run the show. So when does the DMN gets its moment in the spotlight? When the Executive Mode is distracted with something just enough to keep it busy. Such as a repetitive mindless task that we know very well. Such as washing in the shower. The reason why we all get great ideas in the shower is because, your Executive Mode is kept just busy enough and your DMN can pop up with all these genius insights.
6. BONUS TIP - Technique To An Endless Stream Of Creativity –
Do these types of intentionally mindless tasks without other distractions so your brain has the time to produce to the forefront the backlog of genius ideas. When was the last time you ate food without watching TV? When what the last time you took a long drive without listening to music? When was the last time you folded laundry without calling a relative to make sure you don’t get bored? To purposefully induce a breakthrough, simply, intentionally think of the problem you have right before you begin that activity - for example think about that presentation problem you have before stepping in the shower and you will most likely get an answer.