Most People Who Struggle With Creativity Are Making This Simple Mistake

H Heyerlein on Unsplash

One of the most common reasons we struggle to make connections comes from the way we tend to think about objects. Imagine I asked you the question

“What would you get if you crossed a dog with a skyscraper?”

That’s a classic creative thinking puzzle. Give yourself 5 minutes, now, to write down as many, and as original, answers as you can. OK, so how did you get on? Specifically, how did you think about answering? What was going through your head when you started? And how did that become an idea, and another idea, and so on?

If you’re like most people, especially those who struggle to generate new ideas fluently in these circumstances, you will start with a mental image of a particular dog, and maybe also a particular skyscraper. And then you will spend some time placing those two images next to each other — quite possibly without asking yourself why or what you’re trying to get out of doing so. A substantial part of the time may have elapsed before you start to realise that instead of answering the question asked you were trying to mash up Spot the Dog and the Burj al Arab. And when you think of it like that, it’s no wonder you weren’t getting very far.

So what was happening? It comes down to a distinction between what’s called “type” and “token.” “Type” is, as you might imagine, the name given to a group of things alike in certain ways. “Dog” is a “type.” So is “green” or “wide.” Each of those words refers to a “type” of thing. Within that type there are many different individual objects to which the word could apply. And those particular objects (the grass in my back garden, the midori I drank at the bar last night, the bag I carry my things to work in — each of them is “green”) are what we call “tokens.” The way we normally talk about them is by saying that they are “tokens of the type.”

Back to the way we think, and — for obvious reasons to do with the way mental imagery works — when we hear “type” words, we tend to represent them in our mental imagery as “token” words, which greatly restricts our ability to make useful connections.

Here’s why thinking of “types” is so much more fruitful when it comes to connection-forming. A “type” is, among other things, a collection of properties and associations. A dog, for example, is a four-legged furry mammal, known for its friendship of humans and for giving its Latin name variously to puncturing teeth (canines) and a group of islands (The Canaries), etc. Those properties can also be used of other type words (there are other mammals etc, and whilst nothing else has given its name to the Canary Islands, you can start to think what it would be like if … HAD given its name to some islands). And it is precisely at those overlaps that interesting things can happen creatively.

I like to think that the properties things have are hooks, or the dendrites of neurons, waving around waiting to latch onto another, to form a connection that has never been formed before. The more of those hooks you can set, the more properties of something you can explore, the more fertile the ground is that you are preparing for those remarkable original connections.

How you can learn to think like this is very similar to what Elon Musk calls “the physics approach”, or the method advocated by the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius — constantly break things down, take them apart and see what they’re made of. Not just physically, but culturally, ideologically. Be a photographer finding angles no one has found before, a microscopist looking for ways to slice no one has tried before, a statistician running regression after regression to find the one that will unlock something.

And when you truly understand something from every possible angle, you will star to see the thousands of ways it can link with every other thing you run into.

And yes, by the way, if this seems to contradict some of what I say elsewhere about the importance of sensory thinking, you are right. I will come to that in another post. For the record, it’s a good kind of contradiction, or dissonance, like that between thinking of an object simultaneously