In a life where, by default, there’s no meaning at all, I value creating above all. If I’m creating, that’s a meaningful day.

Lately, I’ve been pondering on the phenomenon of creativity and why creative people are so inspiring to be around. They just broaden my perception of the universe profoundly. What really happens?

The Phenomenon

In an interview in the late 1990s[1], Steve Jobs said something that years later would be seen as one of the most simple but accurate definitions of creativity:

“Creativity is just connecting things.”

And he followed with something I couldn’t help but relate: “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. […]”.

In the wake of being called creative, I was used to responding with the most unfair answer ever: "But everything I did was mixing stuff from here and there!?!“. It turns out, however, that “mixing stuff” actually describes precisely the process creative people go through.

And when Steve Jobs said that, he was mixing stuff as well! He most likely got inspired by James Webb Young’s conception of idea, presented in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas, from the 1940s.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

For James to suggest that, well, guess what? He was inspired by Pareto's idea of the "speculator", a personality type characterized by a constant preoccupation with the possibilities of new combinations of old elements. (Which sort of proves his own point on "ideas as a combination of old elements".)

Creatives are just so overloaded with elements to mix that those overflow and flow out of their heads, and they can’t help but inspire everyone around.

They reframe experiences and mix their elements to be synthesised into something valuable and unique. From songs, painting, programming to scientific theories – all of them comes from mixtures. When the mixture feels good, either as a homogeneous or heterogeneous result, it’s then a creation.

The Creation, The Weird

Creativity comics
Creativity, by Alex Norris.

When the creation distances itself too much from its origin elements (which are things people are already aware of, most likely), it’s perceived as weird, rather than authentic. But that’s when we truly innovate! To come up with the weird, though, we have to limit ourselves to certain existing elements – an outstanding habit people like Alan Turing had.

Alan Turing was an inspiring computer scientist. Among other cool stuff, he proposed humans to consider the question "Can computers think?", and also designed cryptanalytical machines, crucial to cracking German encoded communication during the World War II. Cool stuff!

As described by James Wilkinson, who worked closely with him, Turing avoided looking at previous work on a topic just so he could invent something truly original, truly weird.

”Turing had a strong predilection for working things out from first principles, usually in the first instance without consulting any previous work on the subject, and no doubt it was this habit which gave his work that characteristically original flavor." [2]

Finally, the ones who release their creations end up turning into painters, mathematicians, writers, architects, sculptors, programmers, musicians. It’s a process that happens in absolutely every realm of thinking and work.

And you know what?

…It’s Been Shown by Nature

When Young and Steve Jobs pointed out that the creative process wasn’t magic, they, again, didn’t do anything “new” either. That definition has been shown by Nature for a long time, and, as early as 450 B.C, the philosopher Anaxagoras described it:

“Wrongly do the Greeks suppose that something[3] begins or ceases to be; for nothing comes into being or is destroyed; but all is an aggregation or secretion of pre-existing things; so that all becoming might more correctly be called becoming mixed, and all corruption, becoming separate.”

That might remember you of the Law of Conservation of Mass, later defined by the chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

Just like in the creative process, Nature has always found a way out of its problems by coming up with solutions from pre-existing elements. Even the Planet Earth has transformed from a violent, molten rock to a supporter of life by using what the Universe had already provided!

Its process of creation was the same as the human’s creative process for the discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, shitty and useful startup ideas, the Pink Floyd’s Echoes song, and all quotes in this post: mixing, connecting, combining “stuff”. From the Planet Earth to what you’re reading right now, the laws that ruled their creations were, in essence, the same.

  1. Steve Jobs. “Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing”. WIRED. January 1996. ↩︎

  2. James H. Wilkinson, “Some Comments from a Numerical Analyst”, 1970. Turing Award lecture, Journal of the ACM. February 1971. ↩︎

  3. I’ve deliberately changed “aught”, an archaic English word, to “something” for the sake of readability. ↩︎