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‘How To Fly a Horse’ Debunks Creativity Myths

Kevin Ashton’s “How to Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery” delves into and debunks the myths of creativity. By using existing scientific research and deftly chosen examples comb from history, Ashton creates an exciting and surprising read for anyone who has ever doubted their own creative abilities. The creative beliefs challenged by Ashton include:

The Creative Leap

Creative thinking is just thinking. There’s no leap, it’s just that creative people take more steps to get to a solution. Less creative people stop when they have something they think works, even if it’s not the best, or even a very good solution.

People and Organizations Want Creativity

People and organizations say they want creativity, but creativity is seldom rewarded. Ignaz Semmelweis lost his job and his life when he challenged the medical field to wash its hands, even though he could show that washing hands saved the lives of women and children during childbirth. The others who came before him to suggest the same thing were ignored or ridiculed.

Robert Galambos lost his job at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research for suggesting the Glia cells in the brain were important, and idea commonly accepted now. Galambos was a famous neuroscientist, who with Donald Griffin, proved bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark and had worked at the institute with his boss, David Rioch for 10 years. None of that mattered; he and his new idea were kicked to the curb.

The Eureka! Moment

The actual “Eureka!” moment that the story comes from is based on a falsehood. The displacement of water would be too small for Archimedes to determine whether gold had been combined with another metal to make the king’s crown. (Its buoyancy is what matters.) Sitting in the tub would probably not have mattered. Even if it did, the story says that Archimedes got into the tub while thinking about the problem. He hadn’t relaxed; he was actively pursuing a solution. The “Eureka!” didn’t come like a bolt of lightning; it came from a series of thoughts.

The Incubation Period

Tied to the “Eureka!” moment, incubation is also something that scientists haven’t been able to see in research the phenomenon. It’s a commonly accepted step in the process of creativity, but it may not be real. While incubation hasn’t been disproved, it has fallen out of favor. Some scientists are changing the name to “implicit cognition.”

Ashton address other issues like brainstorming, the role of rejection, what credit for an idea has to do with anything and why people get credit, and how people fear new ideas. Not only is Ashton’s books one of the best I’ve read on the subject, but it also uses clear stories told in an entertaining way and offers up lessons, hope and encouragement for people who want to be more creative. If you want to be more creative, get “How to Fly a Horse.”

For more on creativity, follow my blog. Purchase “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Archimedes, Creativity and the Power of Ordinary Thought Process

baby inside white bathtub with water

In “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Kevin Ashton attempts to debunk the “Eureka” moment that has become synonymous with creation. Ashton goes back to the original “Eureka” moment when Archimedes immersed himself into a bath tub while trying to figure out a way to learn if the gold crown the king had received had been cut with silver or was pure. Archimedes’ displacement of water gave him the idea of how to measure a gold or silver object. The solution struck him with such force that he jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets naked shouting “EUREKA!” When he put the king’s crown in the water, it displaced more water than gold of the same weight, which meant the king had been cheated.

Ashton says the problem with this story is that the proposed method doesn’t work. Galileo disproved it, and Ashton speculates that Archimedes would’ve surely know that it didn’t work. Buoyancy is the key not displacement. Still, the apocryphal story is told and retold to show the “Aha!” moment of creation.

Ashton’s problem with this is that it puts creativity in the hands of a few, and it’s not supported by scientific experiments. The “Aha!” moment isn’t even supported by this story. Archimedes went into the bath thinking about the problem. He was actively engaged in thinking about the problem. Ashton points to several studies that show creative thinking is no different than regular thinking. People get to creative solutions step-by-step, one step at a time.

In the retelling, it might seem like an intuitive leap, but when people are asked to describe their thought process, they generally follow the same pattern of going through possible solutions:

  • State the problem.
  • Suggest a solution.
  • Suggest why it wouldn’t it work.
  • Suggest another solution.
  • Suggest why it wouldn’t work.
  • Suggest another solution.
  • Ad infinitum

The more creative solutions come with more steps. Some people stop as soon as they have a solution that’s good enough. Others keep going to find better solutions. As Ashton says, the one who makes the most steps wins, but creativity is the result of ordinary thought processes.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Using Creativity for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”