The nature of creativity | Build walls and make spaghetti

This post originally appeared on the Versett Medium.

I recently finished reading Black Box Thinking, a book about failure and our ability to learn from it. There was a section on James Dyson that got me thinking; how can we increase the quantity and quality of our ideas?

Several years ago I worked at an agency in their new Creative Technology department. The Creative Technology department started as an ad-hoc team, responding to client requests. Soon, at our request, became a standalone department. Our directive was to “think of cool things to do with technology” so that we may sell it to clients. I thought this new freedom was great.

It turns out, this doesn’t work. This wasn’t a helpful direction for us.

When you are working on a creative project, it can feel at times that ideas suddenly pop into your mind. These moments are great, filling you with a creative rush. You seek out more of these opportunities. You enjoy the myth of sitting in a room, “jamming” with peers, stumbling upon genius ideas. It might seem like it, but that’s not how it works.

“People think of creativity as a mystical process… But this could not be more wrong. Creativity is something that has to be worked at, and it has specific characteristics.”

James Dyson

If we understand some of what causes creative breakthroughs, I believe it’s possible to increase their likelihood. I am going to use the analogy of throwing spaghetti at the wall to depict creativity and problem solving. Thinking creatively is a learned skill and an important one to improve.

Let’s go through a few steps to construct this analogy. 

“Throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks” describes an iterative problem-solving approach. You have a problem and you try various solutions until something works. To throw spaghetti, you must first build walls.

Building Walls

“The first is that the creative process started with a problem, what you might even call a failure, in the existing technology…Creativity is, in many respects, a response.” 

Matthew Syed in Black Box Thinking

To have creative breakthroughs, you need to start collecting and considering problems. These are the questions you are always thinking about. The problems you have noticed in everyday life, with existing products, or within your specific domain. These problems will act as the ‘walls’ you can throw ideas against. Without these walls, you are throwing around ideas without a mechanism for feedback.

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.” 

Paul Graham in Startup Ideas

To build walls:

  1. Identify problems by being observant to the world around you.
  2. Think about things you want to exist and why.
  3. Ask why some things are the way they are.
  4. Keep these problems in a document you plan to revisit.
  5. Keep these problems in your mind as you go about your day.

I came across this idea of keeping 12 questions and problem in Tiago Forte’sonline course Building a Second Brain. He mentioned how famed physicist Richard Feynman followed this practice.

“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!” 

Richard Feynman

These problems and questions act as the wall in this analogy, something to test ideas against. I find it helpful to frame these questions as “How might we…?”, a technique used indesignsprints. These shouldn’t be simple yes or no questions, but ones that invite depth and may never be answered.

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

Making Spaghetti

The next part of this analogy, spaghetti, is a bit more complex. You need to find a way to collect mental tools to use as starting points for ideas. If you only have 3 tools, you will struggle to solve a wide range of problems.

These tools can be mental models, new technologies, or even concepts from other fields.

Some of the techniques I have found helpful for collecting tools:

  • Learn about mental models — these are lenses through which you can see the world, and try to make sense of it.
  • Trendwatching — try to understand how your environment is changing and why.
  • Learn how to pull from other disciplines — practice thinking “how might I use this idea in my domain?”
  • Bring in knowledge from your life— everyone has interests that make them unique. What lessons and ideas can you bring from those domains into others?
  • Trying to collect these materials everywhere — even testing a new app can yield ideas.
  • Try new products and technologies — be as curious as possible about new products.

I often think about this as “How might this book apply to the process of building a product?” or “Can this design pattern be applied to an app I’m working on?”.

Throwing Spaghetti at Walls

“Without a problem, without a failure, without a flaw, without a frustration, innovation has nothing to latch on to.”

Matthew Syed in Black Box Thinking

Now that you have collected tools and problems, this is the ‘easy’ part of the process.

There are two ways to approach this part: focused and diffused. These are the methods by which we learn, as covered in an excellent course by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski.

Focused Thinking

The focused approach involves taking your attention and focusing intently on solving the problem. This is the standard approach we take when solving something — brute force.

Go through your mental tools and start framing your problem in different ways. What if you looked at your problem through the lens of biology? What about game theory?

Diffused Thinking

Diffused thinking is more relaxed, taking advantage of neural resting states. Dr. Oakley compares this process to a game of pinball/plinko, with the pins spaced wide. Your brain needs the opportunity to bounce idea (the ball) around freely to create new neural connections. By thinking broadly, your brain is able to make new patterns that you wouldn’t otherwise discover through focus.

Have you ever struggled with a problem all day, and then the next day the solution seems so obvious? The diffused approach takes time to bear fruit. When you spend time away from focusing on a problem, your brain is able to work on it in the background.

Common advice for entering the diffuse mode includes ways of changing your focus:

  • Sleep on it
  • Go for a walk
  • Get some exercise
  • Take a shower

There is even an entire subreddit dedicated to shower thoughts. This is not a process that can be rushed — you must be patient and trust the brain.

I hope that by understanding creativity and the value of multidisciplinary learning a bit better, we can start to solve problems in new ways.

Do you have any big questions or problems that you keep in mind and test new ideas against?

Let me know if you have any of your own tips for thinking creatively.

Thanks to Dylan Mason, Jon Mok, and Vinciane de Pape for edits and inspiration.