In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson posits that “the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are” in reference to the results of a neuroscience experiment by Robert Thatcher.
Across the board, in Johnson’s book and other sources it seems pretty clear that creativity is messy.
Ideas need to be sloshing around or crashing in to one another to produce breakthroughs:
- Johnson cites research showing that the volume of ideas bouncing about make large cities disproportionately more creative than smaller towns.
- Having multiple hobbies allows your brain to subconsciously compare and contrast problems and solutions, forming new connections at the margins of each.
- Similarly, reading multiple books at the same time vs serially lets your brain juxtapose new ideas and develop new connections.
- Wandering minds are more creative.
- Studying a field “too much” doesn’t limit creativity — it does the opposite. More ideas banging about just produces even more ideas.
- The “accept everything” mantra of brainstorming doesn’t work. Debate is far more effective. Let those ideas fight.
- Even with teams, it’s better to mix up experience levels, familiarity with one another and other factors to keep things rough around the edges.
At the end of his book Johnson recommends:
You may not be able to turn your government into a coral reef, but you can create comparable environments on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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