What A Seemingly Silly Question Can Teach Us About Creative Success



Unlikely as it may seem, an absurd question about monkeys and
typewriters has a lot to teach us about creativity.

There’s an old brainteaser that muses the following: If you
gathered an infinite number of monkeys together and gave each a
typewriter, would they eventually produce the complete works of
Shakespeare? Before answering that question, ponder this one:
Why do we even ask such questions?

True enough, anyone seemingly silly pondering like this can
spur entertaining happy hour chatter. But taken together they
represent something more. They remind us of who we are as
creative beings and more importantly, how when it comes to
creativity we too often veer towards monkey versus mastery.

At the simplest level, the monkeys and typewriters puzzle
reflects two powerful and uniquely human capacities (at least
as far as we know): our capacity for inquiry, and our ability
to think about the future. Inquiry reveals our aptitudes for
curiosity and investigation. But taken alone, such abilities
don’t stand out. The proof is ample that other species pursue
these things in their own ways. As human beings, it is our
distinct ability to think about the future and things yet
unknown that sets us apart as truly creative beings. Each of us
has the capacity, even the inclination to wonder about “what
could be”, and therefore the power not to be bound by “what
is”. Thinking about monkeys typing? Why not? Wondering if they
could produce 37 classic plays and 154 beautiful sonnets? Even
if we have trouble seeing just how that would happen, it is in
our nature to imagine and to inquire.

But the infinite monkey theorem, as it is sometimes called,
reflects more than simply who we are. In 3 ways it helps
humanize our tendency to hold back our creative selves.

The Fiction of Formula. When someone
asks the typing monkeys question, the odds are solid that
someone else will want to know the odds of it being possible
precisely. Proving the point, mathematicians have actually
worked out that the answer to the monkey mystery is yes – not
theoretically, not in principal, just plain, simple, and
unequivocally, yes. Because their answer comes with proofs,
probabilities, and a mathematical seal of approval, for many
this initially appears an infinitely satisfying answer. As much
as we like to wonder, we like certainty too – so much so that
even when it comes to creativity we hope for and want to
believe there’s a formula. But there are no formulas for that
which is truly new. So even when we can ‘do the numbers’, it is
not the same as engaging in the unpredictable, often messy
journey that has the highest odds of producing a truly creative

The Limits of the Lab. Though it alone
won’t carry us into a bright, new, and creative future, the
side of us that seeks a formula is valuable. We cannot ideate
eternally. Inevitably we need to mine our imagination for the
tangible. Beyond logical thought, we must also take action –
even when it comes to “out there” questions about monkeys and
human tools and tales. In 2003, a group of scientists at the
University of Plymouth left a computer keyboard and six monkeys
together in an enclosure for a month. The monkeys did
produce – 5 pages to be exact, and mostly consisting of the
letter ‘s’, not quite Shakespeare, or even Act I, line one, or
word one of Romeo and Juliet. The lead male monkey also
channeled the group to achieve what it did by modeling for the
others beating the keyboard with a stone and occasionally to
relieving themselves on it as well. Contrary to the
mathematicians, the scientists concluded that the answer to the
primate posit was, no. Either way, they pursued the question no
further and in doing so, unintentionally revealed another
limiting factor we humans too often impose on our creative
selves: If we don’t get what we expect, we too quickly move on.
As with seeking a formula, in certain circumstances moving on
is not only acceptable but also wise. But creativity is
different. When creating, a hunch is one thing. A hard and fast
expectation of the outcome is something else. Creativity is an
ongoing experimentation, one that must most often be entered
into without a clear sense of where our questions, thoughts,
and explorations will end up. The key is less the immediate
result, and more the willingness to have come to our edges to
see what might yet be.

What We’re Really After. Like many such
posits, the typing monkeys one reflects larger themes and
patterns – ones we’d be wise to stay tuned into when it comes
to creativity and seeking to realize our fullest creative
potential. And one of those themes matters most of all: To
raise your odds of a truly creative outcome you have to know
what you’re really after. Ultimately, the ape aptitude question
is really about challenging one’s mind to consider something
beyond the obvious. We don’t really need to know the precise
answer. We ask it as a means of “going there”, that is
somewhere beyond our realm to see what may lie there. It’s in
our nature, and it’s key to creativity too. Creativity is less
about the specific end result (something we simply cannot know
in advance), and far more about the practice that leads us to
what we really want –not to a single creative output, but many
creative outputs, in countless applications, stretched over
time. Trying to reduce creativity to something less than that
is, well, just monkeying around.


Article Featured Image @Florian Klauter

is the author of two award-winning books:
Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity
’ and
Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human
. He’s the founder of two ventures, one for-profit
and one non, and a highly respected thought leader in
creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, advising
individuals and organizations across a broad spectrum. Larry is
a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s
Kellogg School of Management and a former Adjunct Professor of
Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of

Tags: creative
, creativity, ideas, larry
, robertson, value

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