Category: Creativity

David Foster Wallace: The Relationship Between Ambition and Perfectionism

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
— David Foster Wallace

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is an essential look into the thinking of one of the great minds. It doesn’t however, offer many thoughts on the relationship between ambition and perfection. For that, we can turn to this beautiful PBS clip.

On perfectionism, Foster Wallace says:

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism — The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.

On learning through teaching:

I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever. All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher, I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.

Still curious? Compliment with conversations with David Foster Wallace and the DT Max Biography on Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

John Holland: The Building Blocks of Innovation

“Most innovation comes from combining well-known, well-established, building blocks in new ways.”



John Holland, a professor of two vastly different fields—psychology and engineering—at the University of Michigan, lectures frequently on innovative thinking.

According to Holland, there are two steps to innovation. The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

Holland is focused on innovation, but many readers of Farnam Street will recognize the first step—acquiring the building blocks—as the process for acquiring worldly wisdom.

Like us, Holland wants to connect well-known and well-established ideas from multiple disciplines in new ways to solve problems.

In our case, the basic building blocks are the big ideas in each major discipline. While this seems daunting, luckily, according to Charlie Munger “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person.”

Domain Dependence and Linking

It’s important that you can link these models together and recognize them outside of the domain they are presented. Many people, for instance, don’t link the supply and demand from economics and equilibrium from physics. Yet in many ways, they are the same thing. If you can’t recognize the forces at play outside of the system in which you learned about them, you are domain dependent.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes:

We are all, in a way, similarly handicapped, unable to recognize the same idea when it is presented in a different context. It is as if we are doomed to be deceived by the most superficial part of things, the packaging, the gift wrapping.

If you don’t have a basic understanding of each of the major models you won’t be able to link them together. And if you can’t link them together, you’re going to go through life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Construction of a Model

According to Holland, “the construction of a mental model … closely resembles the construction of a metaphor:”

  1. There is a source system with an established aura of facts, interpretation and practice.
  2. There is a target system with a collection of observed phenomena that are difficult to interpret or explain.
  3. There is a translation from source to target that suggests a means of transferring inferences for the source into inferences for the target.

Seeing new connections requires models and metaphors. Holland continues:

For most who are heavily engaged in creative activities, be it in literature or the sciences, metaphor and model lie at the center of their activities. In the sciences, both the source and the target are best characterized as systems rather than isolated objects. … In the sciences, decisions about which properties of the source system are central for understanding the target, and which are incidental, are resolved by careful testing against the world. As a result of testing and deduction, a well-established model in the sciences accumulates a complicated aura of technique, interpretation, and consequences, much of it unwritten. One physicist will say to another “this is a conservation of mass problem” and immediately both will have in mind a whole array of knowledge associated with problems modeled in this way.

“The essence of metaphor,” write Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in their book Metaphors We Live By, “is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

Holland posits that metaphors help us translate ideas into models, which form the building blocks of innovative thinking.

“In the same way that a metaphor helps communicate one concept by comparing it to another concept that is widely understood,” Robert Hagstrom writes in Investing: The Last Liberal Art, “using a simple model to describe one idea can help us grasp the complexities of a similar idea. In both cases, we are using one concept (the source) to better understand another (the target). Used this way, metaphors not only express existing ideas, they stimulate new ones.”

Metaphor and Innovation

From the Credit Suisse Thought Leader Forum:

To understand the problems in any discipline, it is necessary to have deep knowledge in that discipline. To resolve those problems, it is often necessary to look at the problem through the filters of a different and often distant discipline. The simplest analogy to the phenomenon is simply perspective. It is very difficult to understand, say, the traffic patterns of a city if you are stuck in your car at rush hour. With the distance provided by a traffic helicopter, however, it is much easier to see the major thoroughfares, the bottlenecks and the overall dynamics of the traffic system. The shift in vantage point offers better understanding and new insights for your strategy. For more abstract challenges, the use of metaphor serves the same purpose as distance in the traffic example. If we are stuck on the challenge of distribution in a global manufacturing company, for example, it may be useful to apply models from other disciplines as metaphors. The model that we have developed and used for our distribution system has been quite effective over the years, but we just cannot seem to resolve some particular challenge. Perhaps we can learn something from other kinds of distribution systems. How does an ant colony collect and distribute its resources? How does the human body manage its circulation and processing of nutrients and wastes?

Three Keys to effectively applying metaphors

There are three keys to effectively applying metaphors to achieve insight and innovation. First, you must develop a deep understanding of the metaphorical system. You will gain no new insights if you look at the human circulatory system and say, “Aha! The brain tells the rest of the body where to send things!” If you draw conclusions too quickly, then more than likely you have only recreated your existing model of distribution systems – you are seeing the human body’s circulation system as if it were the distribution system of a global manufacturing firm. If you invest the time and effort to understand this complex new system on its own merits, then you might discover something interesting about your own discipline. For instance, the human circulatory system is one of several overlapping hierarchical systems that allow the human body to grow, heal, change and yet maintain homeostatic balance. How do those systems overlap? How are the priorities of those different systems balanced? What overlapping systems exist in our global manufacturing firm, and how do they interact? An in-depth study of a new complex system should force you to ask new questions about your own, seemingly familiar system.

The second key to applying metaphors is to recognize the value of the cognitive leap. As you map the models from one system onto another, the fit will never be perfect. Our global manufacturing firm is not a human body. Therefore the solution to our challenge will not lie in our suddenly believing this to be true. Instead, the solution will lie one or two steps away. As we look at the human circulatory system, we will encounter questions and tangential thoughts. “What performs the function of ‘hormones’ in our organization?” We will not, of course, implement a system of complex chemical exchanges in our organization, but this might lead us to think about our communication systems or decision-making metrics in a new way.

The final key is often the most frustrating for managers — only a very few of the ideas that this process produces will be highly valuable. Some of the ideas will be useless. Many of the ideas will be interesting but impractical or irrelevant. Other ideas will serve as useful, incremental improvements to your system. But only a rare few of these ideas will be truly revolutionary. The secret is the same in any game of statistics – you have to try large numbers of these metaphors for the big ideas to hit. These ideas are the outliers, not the norm, and while metaphor can push your thinking towards the innovative, no process can guarantee that your new ideas will be both different and effective. Many managers are willing to try this approach once or twice, and give up when it does not immediately return impressive results. … In order to discover great innovations, you must engage regularly in the search and recognize that most of your discoveries will have either marginal or moderate value. Creative combination is a process that increases your odds of discovering breakthrough innovations, but it cannot guarantee success. This is a tool, not a silver bullet.

Are Cities More Innovative?

Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “The larger a city, the greater the variety of its manufacturing, and also the greater both the number and the proportion of its small manufacturers.”

The benefits that cities offer to smallness are just as marked in retail trade, cultural facilities and entertainment. This is because city populations are large enough to support wide ranges of variety and choices in these things. And again we find that bigness has all the advantage in smaller settlements. Towns and suburbs for instance are natural homes for huge supermarkets, and for little else in the way of groceries, for standard movie houses or drive ins for little else in the way of theatre.

There are simply not enough people to support further variety, although there may be people(too few of them) who would draw upon it were it there. Cities, however, are the natural homes of supermarkets, and standard movie houses, plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small. Wherever lively and popular parts of the cities are found, the small much outnumber the large.

“Cities, then,” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, “Cities, then, are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways. This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters.”

And Samuel Arbesman, in The Half-life of Facts, adds: “Larger groups of interacting people can maintain skills and innovations, and in turn develop new ones. A small group doesn’t have the benefit of specialization and idea exchange necessary for any of this to happen.”

Still curious? If you want a deeper understanding, read Growth in Cities.

An Introduction to Creativity

Professor Sanjay Bakshi teaches MBA students “Behavioral Finance & Business Valuation (BFBV)” and “Financial Shenanigans & Governance” at MDI, Gurgaon. He was kind enough to put together a list of reference material for Farnam Street readers (books/videos) that he uses on the subject of creativity.

Creative Whack Pack (see some hand-picked examples)

An illustrated deck of 64 creative thinking strategies that will whack you out of habitual thought patterns and enable you to look at your life and actions in a fresh way. Use the cards alone or with others to seek innovative solutions to issues.

Innovative Whack Pack (see some hand-picked examples)

Each card in the deck packs a two-sided creative punch. One side has a provocative insight about innovation from Heraclitus, the world’s first creativity teacher. These 2,500 year old ideas – such as “You can’t step into the same river twice,” “Everything flows,” “That which opposes produces a benefit,” and “Dogs bark at what they don’t understand” -will give you a fresh perspective. The other side contains a creativity strategy inspired by each insight.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

The printing press, the pencil, the flush toilet, the battery—these are all great ideas. But where do they come from? What kind of environment breeds them? What sparks the flash of brilliance? How do we generate the groundbreaking ideas that push forward our lives, our society, our culture? Steven Johnson’s answers are revelatory as he identifies the seven key patterns behind genuine innovation, and traces them across time and disciplines. From Darwin and Freud to the halls of Google and Apple, Johnson investigates the innovation hubs throughout modern time and pulls out applicable approaches and commonalities that seem to appear at moments of originality. What he finds gives us both an important new understanding of the roots of innovation and a set of useful strategies for cultivating our own creative breakthroughs.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic “right-brain” thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.

Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity

Linkner distills his years of experience in business and jazz — as well as hundreds of interviews with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and artists — into a 5-step process that will make creativity easy for you and your organization. The methodology is simple, backed by proven results.

I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History’s Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes

Describing something by relating it to another thing is the essence of metaphorical thought. It is one of the oldest activities of humankind—and one of the most impressive when done skillfully. Throughout history, many masters of metaphor have crafted observations that are so spectacular they have taken up a permanent residence in our minds.

Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently

Though indispensable, true iconoclasts are few and far between. In Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns explains why. He explores the constraints the human brain places on innovative thinking, including fear of failure, the urge to conform, and the tendency to interpret sensory information in familiar ways.

Steve Jobs

At a time when America is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. He knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology. He built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering.

Einstein: His Life and Universe (by Walter Isaacson)

How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson’s biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.


Ted talks by Hans Rosling

Stats that reshape your worldview (2006)
New insights on poverty(2007)
New facts and stunning data visuals (2009)
Let my dataset change your mindset (2009)
Asia’s rise — how and when (2009)
Global population growth, box by box (2010)
The good news of the decade? (2010)
The magic washing machine (2011)
Religions and babies (2012)

Steve Jobs Presentations (some examples below)

Apple Keynote — The “1984” Ad Introduction (1983)
Stanford Commencement Speech (2005)
iPhone Presentation (2007)
iPad Presentation (2010)
Steve Jobs Presents to the Cupertino City Council (2011)

Steven Johnson’s Ted Talk

People often credit their ideas to individual “Eureka!” moments. But Steven Johnson shows how history tells a different story. His fascinating tour takes us from the “liquid networks” of London’s coffee houses to Charles Darwin’s long, slow hunch to today’s high-velocity web.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted talk on “A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius”

The author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Tim Brown’s Ted talk on “The powerful link between creativity and play”

Tim Brown is the CEO of the “innovation and design” firm IDEO — taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface.

TEDTalks : Creativity, fulfillment and flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2004)

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

Ken Robinson’s TED talks

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.
schools kill creativity (2006)
Bring on the learning revolution! (2010)
Changing education paradigms 2010

Roger Von Oech: Creative Whack Pack

A nice follow up to the Innovative Whack Pack is the Creative Whack Pack.

Professor Sanjay Bakshi was kind enough to share some of his favorites with Farnam Street readers.

Ask What If?
Creative Whack Pack

Beware the Unintended
Creative Whack Pack

Change Viewpoints
Creative Whack Pack

Check your Timing
Creative Whack Pack: Check Your Timing

Dig Deeper
Creative Whack Pack: Dig Deeper

Make a Metaphor
Creative Whack Pack: Make a Metaphor

Still curious?
I’ve shared six of the cards with you but the Creative Whack Pack has 64 in all, so don’t miss out.

Roger Von Oech: Innovative Whack Pack

You want to be more innovative right?

Professor Sanjay Bakshi shares with Farnam Street readers some of his favorite cards from Roger Von Oech’s Innovative Whack Pack.

Spot the Opportunity

A leading business school did a study that showed that its graduates did well at first, but in ten years, they were overtaken by a more streetwise, pragmatic group. The reason according to the professor who ran the study: “We taught them how to solve problems, not to recognize opportunities.”

Getting Away from the Problem

Archimedes, the third-century BC Greek mathematician, was asked to determine the purity of a gold crown suspected of being adulterated with silver by the crown’s goldsmith. Archimedes knew the weight per volume unit of gold, but since the crown was a holy object, he ruled out solutions such as melting it or hammering it into a measurable cube. After several frustrating weeks of not finding an answer, Archimedes decided to get away from the problem altogether by going to the public baths. There he watched absentmindedly while the water rose with the immersion of his body in the tub. Suddenly inspiration dawned: why not use the same immersion process with the crown? Because gold is denser than silver, he realized that the water would not rise as high for a solid gold crown as for one containing silver.

Update: Part of this is incorrect. A solid gold crown and one containing silver will displace the same amount of water. Because he knew the density of gold, Archimedes was able to compare the density of the crown to that of gold. This allowed him to determine if it was gold, silver, or some combination of the two. For more, see this explanation of calculating density using Archimedes’ water displacement here.

Back Off

In other words, sometimes delaying action can be the best course of action. That’s because while you are waiting, you can gather more information about the most fruitful way to proceed.

For example, designer Christopher Williams tells a story about an architect who built a cluster of large office buildings that were set on a central green. When construction was completed, the landscape crew asked him where he wanted the pathways between the buildings.

“Not yet,” the architect said. “Just plant the grass solidly between the buildings.”

This was done, and by late summer pedestrians had worn paths across the lawn, connecting building to building. The paths turned in easy curves rather than right angles, and were sized according to traffic.

In the fall, the architect simply paved the pathways. Not only did the new pathways have a design beauty, they responded directly to user needs.

Moral: pause for a bit and let the important things catch up with you.

Disrupt Success
Innovative Whack Pack

See the opposite viewpoint
Innovative Whack Pack


(images posted with the permission of Roger Von Oech)