Rather than looking for a formula for creativity (which doesn’t exist), we ought to turn our attention and our creative energy to the real source of creative ideas: the Purposeful Accident.
It’s a hard belief to shake. Yet every day we are barraged with countless messages reinforcing this belief. What is it? That somehow, somewhere there exists a formula – a recipe – for creativity.
The reinforcing messages all around us are both explicit and implicit. A few examples help.
- Best practices. Whenever we look to do something, we are increasingly trained to look to what others have already done. Want to start a business? There’s a Himalaya of guides out there to walk you step by step through how. How about brainstorming? Just do a search for “top ten” lists brimming with precisely how. Is it a bad thing to tap these resources? No. That is until it’s implied, by the source or by our own brains, that following these tips is sufficient to produce the desired result.
- “My story” tales. Pick any sector – science, the arts, business, government, you name it. No matter what human undertaking you’re interested in, chances are you’ll be able to quickly put your hands on a story of someone’s success in that field. These stories are often entertaining. They are capable of informing, in the historical sense at least, about what approaches others have taken to what they do. But they’re not you. And even though it is often popularized that ‘their’ way is ‘the’ way, there is ‘no’ way it can define a step-by-step path to creating something new. Inevitably, creativity is about the ‘new’.
- The schizophrenic mandate. As our world becomes more complex and crowded, one last example increasingly hits home for many. Stop and take a quick look around and you’ll note that everywhere people want new, different, and better. In the workplace, it’s the CEO who demands that her employees be more innovative. In the ether of social media it’s the expectation of a more attractive, inspiring, or entertaining update. In academia it’s the desire of a student’s teacher, thesis advisor, or department head for groundbreaking research. But no matter where the request for new, different, and better is made, too often it’s paired with this schizophrenic, counterproductive instruction: “Make it resemble what I already know.” It’s the proverbial definition of insanity – keep doing whatever it is you’re doing the same way while expecting a different result.
Creativity isn’t the result of a formula. Without a doubt, there are patterns and practices that permeate all forms of creativity – the importance of openness; the power of inquiry; the willingness to come to the edge of what you know and cross over, to name a few. But these patterns, while incredibly valuable to understand, still require you to engage with them, experiment, and make them your own. There is no getting around it.
So if not by formula, how then does creativity materialize? The answer is by ‘Purposeful Accident’. (More on this in a moment.)
Creativity is a capacity each and every one of us possesses. The only distinction between those who appear more creative and the rest of us is that those so-called geniuses a) know we are each creative, and b) practice using their capacity for it. As they do, they sharpen their individual capacity to create – what can often appear to an observer as their ‘formula’ or way of creating. Take Pablo Picasso as an oft-used example of creative genius. When we talk about Picasso and creativity, it doesn’t take long before we are talking about Cubism, a style of painting for which Picasso came to be known. When we talk about Cubism, invariably we talk about its identifying characteristics, the elements of that style, and even the techniques for achieving it. Less often are references made to how Picasso ‘came up’ with Cubism. The truth is, he and his friend and fellow painter Georges Braque were playing around. As Picasso described, he and Braque were experimenting. They were challenging one another. At times they were even looking for ways to ruffle the sensibilities of the art community. It was fun, energizing, and it was ‘purposeful’.
But the purpose wasn’t as we often articulate purpose. It wasn’t to reach a predetermined or definitive outcome by way of a preset path. Their purpose was to paint. Within that purpose, the goal was to press the borders of what they knew, to try new things, to have some fun, and to learn from it all. The meaning was in that purposeful doing, not the paintings that resulted. The ‘larger’ meaning – Cubism and the many things it influenced – came later and by the accidental result of their purposeful play. Picasso and Braque’s creative outputs bloomed from purposeful accidents.
The bottom line is this: What appears to be a creative formula is individual, situational, and temporal. Each of us develops our own way. Our way shifts and shapes to the circumstances in which we create. And with time, our creative capacity is added to, informed by what we use it for, and evolves. It is never fixed into a recipe, even if from time to time we’d think we’d like it to be. Creativity is purposefully accidental and that is precisely why it’s so wonderfully attractive.