Tag: Creativity

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

If you were to make a list of the best commencement addresses ever, you’d find this one from Steve Jobs up there with the likes of David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman, and Naval Adm. William H. McRaven.

[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Seneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity

“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Ruminating on the necessity of both reading and writing, so as not to confine ourselves to either, Seneca in one of his Epistles, advised that we engage in Combinatorial Creativity — that is, gather ideas, sift them, and combine them into a new creation.

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says,

Pack close the flowing honey,
And swell their cells with nectar sweet.

It is not certain whether the juice which they obtain from the flowers forms at once into honey, or whether they change that which they have gathered into this delicious object by blending something therewith and by a certain property of their breath. For some authorities believe that bees do not possess the art of making honey, but only of gathering it … Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation,— whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

But I must not be led astray into another subject than that which we are discussing. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Montaigne, perhaps echoing Seneca, reasoned that we must take knowledge from others and make it our own, Seneca comments:

We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power. Let us loyally welcome such foods and make them our own, so that something that is one may be formed out of many elements, just as one number is formed of several elements whenever, by our reckoning, lesser sums, each different from the others, are brought together. This is what our mind should do: it should hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them. Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

The Loeb Classic Library collection of Seneca’s Epistles in three volumes (1-65, 66-92, and 92-124), should be read by all in its entirety. Of course, if you don’t have time to read them all, you can read a heavily curated version of them.


Einstein on The Essential Feature of Productive Thought

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”


There is a view, to which we subscribe that a lot of innovation and creativity comes from the combination of worldly wisdom, perspective, accumulating existing ideas, failures from multiple disciplines, amongst other things. These ideas — sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously tossed around in our head — combine into something new. This is part of the reason that creativity and innovation are hard. You can’t just pick up a single book or thread of knowledge and have it deliver results.

This beautiful Steve Jobs quote sums it up nicely.

“Creativity is just connecting things. 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 1945 Jacques S. Hadamard surveyed mathematicians to determine their mental processes at work by posing a series of questions to them and later published his results in An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.

It would be very helpful for the purpose of psychological investigation to know what internal or mental images, what kind of “internal words” mathematicians make use of; whether they are motor, auditory, visual, or mixed, depending on the subject which they are studying.

Especially in research thought, do the mental pictures or internal words present themselves in the full consciousness or in the fringe-consciousness …?

Einstein’s response to the French mathematician, found in his Ideas and Opinions, shows the physicist’s mind at work and the value of “combinatory play.”

My Dear Colleague:

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

Remark: Professor Max Wertheimer has tried to investigate the distinction between mere associating or combining of reproducible elements and between understanding (organisches Begreifen); I cannot judge how far his psychological analysis catches the essential point.


Still curious? Combinatory play is a technique we use widely at Farnam Street. It’s so important we’ve incorporated it into our workshops.

the WAR of ART and the Unlived Life

A voracious reader and best-selling author emailed me shortly after my post Anne Lamott: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. He proceeded to tell me the book was full of terrible advice, the self-help equivalent of “follow your passion.” In its place ,he offered up Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which not only describes the experience of writing but deals with the broader subject of overcoming obstacles to success.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.

Here is a telling passage, next to which I wrote, in the margin, “The writer who doesn’t write, the person who doesn’t live.” Talking about the unlived life and resistance Pressfield writes:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write , a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: We don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.

Have you heard this story: Woman learns she has cancer, six months to live. Within days she quits her job, resumes the dream of writing Tex-Mex songs she gave up to raise a family (or starts studying classical Greek, or moves to the inner city and devotes herself to tending babies with AIDS). Woman’s friends think she’s crazy; she herself has never been happier. There’s a postscript. Woman’s cancer goes into remission.

Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we wake up to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts , our inner genius, is calling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food , cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.

Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still, small voice is piping up , telling you as it has ten thousand times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you.

The War of Art has been added to my growing list of the best books on writing.

Why We Miss Creative Ideas That Are Right Under Our Noses

Here is an interesting excerpt from an interview with Jennifer Mueller and Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

While this is an argument for distance, it’s also an argument for the incubation phase of innovation.

[T]he research seems to suggest that part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose. There’s this new research that looks at how people evaluate creativity. Jennifer Mueller at the University of San Diego and her colleagues … find that where the idea comes from appears to influence whether people think it’s creative.

We found that when we told people the idea was generated far away, they rated the idea as significantly more creative than when the idea was generated nearby.

We’re talking about how a manager, a boss, would evaluate an idea that’s brought to them.

So it seems to happen … because our minds are prone to mixing these two things up. When things are nearby, they’re concrete and you can see the details of the things. On the other hand, when things are far away, they’re much more abstract. So thinking about things that are near and far puts us in different mental states. When you think about things nearby, you see the details, and so when a creative idea comes along, the first thing you ask is, can it work?

Now, most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details, so when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to shoot the idea down. On the other hand, when you’re thinking about things that are far away, you’re in a more abstract frame of mind and so the first question you ask is not will this work; you’re more open to seeing the creative possibilities.

So it’s not just that as a manager, that the manager disrespects the employees. The manager is just familiar with the employees, he or she works with the employees every day, and they’re thinking about the details of it. Whereas somebody comes from the outside, they can think big.

So obviously it has to be said that some ideas are not creative and they deserve to be shot down, but the reason managers often are shooting down ideas that might be creative that come from subordinates is not because they’re necessarily bad managers, but they might be in this different mindset.

Creativity and innovation in organizations are inherently difficult. In part, because the people who make decisions tend to be the people with the most experience. That experience helps you spot big mistakes, but it also makes it harder for you to “recognize out of the box possibilities” or do something that might go against how your organization makes money today. Also, in part, because the skills generally associated with innovators overlap with one’s organizations don’t like (such as questioning and experimentation).

The key to building an innovative organization is developing a culture of open-mindedness: a sense of shared curiosity.

Anne Lamott: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

A tweet from Kathryn Schulz set off my quest to find Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

“There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

— Anne Lamott

And what a find this turned out to be. Lamott’s advice is down to earth, real, and void of any pretentiousness. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across on writing.

Getting started is often the hardest part of writing.

The very first thing I tell my new students … is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out. Year after year my students are bursting with stories to tell, and they start writing projects with excitement and maybe even joy— finally their voices will be heard, and they are going to get to devote themselves to this one thing they’ve longed to do since childhood. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.

Everyone wants to know how to write. Routines are common. Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. Hemingway wrote standing up. But more to the point perhaps is the advice of Philip Roth, who said every writer needs “the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business,” a comment that Lamott echoes:

You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind— a scene, a locale, a character, whatever— and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched– like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk.


Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.

To be a good writer you need reverence and awe.

In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?

Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.


There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness.

Drama is how the writer holds the attention of the reader through an arc.

The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff—just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.

You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections— such as rhythm, tone, or mood.

Commenting on Alice Adams’ short story formula of ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending, Lammott writes:

You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot— the drama, the actions, the tension— will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

A formula can be a great way to get started. And it feels so great finally to dive into the water; maybe you splash around and flail for a while, but at least you’re in. Then you start doing whatever stroke you can remember how to do, and you get this scared feeling inside you— of how hard it is and how far there is to go— but still you’re in, and you’re afloat, and you’re moving.

The act of writing is its own reward.

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do— the actual act of writing— turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.


I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

Lamott uses index cards to not only help her remember things in an otherwise busy world but as an aid to creativity.

I like to think that Henry James said his classic line, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” while looking for his glasses, and that they were on top of his head. We have so much to remember these days. So we make all these lists, filled with hope that they will remind us of all the important things to do and buy and mail, all the important calls we need to make, all the ideas we have for short stories or articles. And yet by the time you get around to everything on any one list, you’re already behind on another. Still, I believe in lists and I believe in taking notes, and I believe in index cards for doing both.


Now, I have a number of writer friends who do not take notes out there in the world, who say it’s like not taking notes in class but listening instead. I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you. I actually have one writer friend— whom I think I will probably be getting rid of soon— who said to me recently that if you don’t remember it when you get home, it probably wasn’t that important. And I felt eight years old again, with something important to say that had suddenly hopped down one of the rabbit holes in my mind, while an adult nearby was saying priggishly, “Well ! It must not have been very important then.”

So you have to decide how you feel about this. You may have a perfectly good memory and be able to remember three hours later what you came up with while walking on the mountain or waiting at the dentist’s. And then again, you may not.

My index-card life is not efficient or well organized. Hostile, aggressive students insist on asking what I do with all my index cards. And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory. If I’m working on a book or an article, and I’ve taken some notes on index cards, I keep them with that material, paperclip them to a page of rough draft where that idea or image might bring things to life. Or I stack them on my desk along with the pages for the particular chapter or article I’m working on, so I can look at them. When I get stuck or lost or the jungle drums start beating in my head, proclaiming that the jig is about to be up and I don’t know what I’m doing and the well has run dry, I’ll look through my index cards. I try to see if there’s a short assignment on any of them that will get me writing again, give me a small sense of confidence, help me put down one damn word after another, which is, let’s face it, what writing finally boils down to.

She cautions that perfectionism is not only counter-productive but blocks playfulness and thus creativity.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping -stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground— you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

Writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on”

Now, if you ask me, what’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another. Otherwise we’d all just be barking away like Pekingese: “Ah! Stuck in the shit! And it’s your fault, you did this …” Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong.

And, in the end, writing makes you a better reader.

One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original. You notice how a writer paints in a mesmerizing character or era for you, without your having the sense of being given a whole lot of information, and when you realize how artfully this has happened, you may actually put the book down for a moment and savor it, just taste it.

She concludes that “writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.”

They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life : they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a must read.