The Dots of Creativity and Velcro

Steve Jobs said that creative people aren’t smarter than other people; they just have more dots to connect. Jobs believed that creativity came when someone connected two seemingly unrelated things to create something new that had value. But what is a dot exactly?

A dot is a fact or piece of knowledge that someone has. People who are trained in baking have a lot of dots about cooking times, what ingredients work well together, what ingredients do when they are heated up, how long dough should rise, and everything else about baking. If that’s their specialty, they will be knowledgeable about baking because they have learned about it. They may have memorized the recipe for a perfect wedding cake, but if it’s no their own recipe, they can’t be said to be creative, yet (even though baking does create something).

It’s not just the dot that has value for creativity. If someone has two dots and that person doesn’t connect them, no creativity has taken place. It’s the line between the two dots that is important. This is, what I call, the “thinking deeply” part of creativity. It takes a thought process to connect the parts together into something that makes something new. Sometimes, this thought process is conscious; sometimes, it’s in the subconscious and shows up as an “AHA!” moment. Either way, the person has a problem that he or she has been presented with, and the solution comes because of the thinking not only about the problem but also about everything he or she has learned before.

One of my favorite connect-the-dots moments comes from the story of Velcro. Invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who loved hiking in the woods, Velcro came after a hike when de Mestral found burrs on his clothes. He was curious if the burrs could have a commercial application. He studied the burrs under a microscope, did eight years of research and product development and created the hook and loops to make Velcro work.

This story has the dots – hiking and engineering, the curiosity to ask the question, and the thinking deeply – studying a burr and working to create something like it. Velcro was patented in 1955, the same year that Disneyland was opened. De Mestral was ridiculed, suffered his fair share of failures, but thanks to his stick-to-it-iveness, the company sold 60 million yards of Velcro during his lifetime. When you learn something new and think deeply about how it can be applied to a problem, you’re opening up your imagination and opening the door to creativity.

For more about creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity” and “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.”