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The ABCs of Creativity: Knowledge

Professor Penguin studies for greater knowledge.

Creativity is often defined as the generation of something new and valuable. In order to be creative, you have to know what came before; otherwise, what you create may have already been invented.  You don’t necessarily need to be an expert in your field or domain. Some studies show that expertise at a certain level inhibits creativity. You do need to have enough knowledge to understand if what you have is truly new.

However, knowledge in a single field isn’t enough. Creativity requires the combining of two or more ideas to come up with a new idea. Steve Jobs likened it to connecting the dots. A person has as many dots as he has knowledge about different subjects. Creative people weren’t more intelligent, he said, they just had more dots.

Velcro’s inventor George de Mestral was an engineer and avid hiker. When he noticed burrs on his clothing, he wondered how they could attach themselves and looked at them closer. Under a microscope he saw the tiny hooks. The idea from Velcro sprung up from there. It took the knowledge of engineering and hiking as well as curiosity and a new way of seeing for de Mestral to innovate the zipperless zipper.

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

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The Dots of Creativity and Velcro

Penguinate creativity book

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.”