Creativity’s Recipe

January 21, 2013



Oliver Burkman has a lovely short essay on the best practices for fostering innovation. It just rings true to me. The crux:

The key to a solution lies in how you state the problem. You need to strip it of context and colour; more technically, McCaffrey argues, you need to reduce it to a specific form: “verb, noun-phrase, prepositional-phrases”. What the ski firm really needed to do was to “reduce vibrations over 1,800 hertz”. From there, it’s an easier leap from one domain to another: similar vibrations, it turns out, play havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. Violin designers address this by using a metal grid; the ski designers, finding the analogy, adapted it: problem solved.

So the recipe for doing something creative is as simple as 


1) State the problem in its most basic, explicit terms.

2) Stare at that statement and looking for analogies to problems in other fields. Apply the solution logic in those other fields to your problem.

Rinse, repeat. 

Note that 1 and 2 call on different skill sets. The first is that of the logician who also knows her system well enough to grok its essential parts. It’s *really* essential parts.  Barbara McClintock captured this in the dictum “Know your organism.” The second is that of the broadly read, intensely curious, generalist. Focus on one to the exclusion of the other, and you risk becoming the 1) drudge who only publishes in specialty journals (where you are a *star* of your niche group), or 2) the flighty person with a thousand ideas but no publications. 

It’s hard, often frustrating work trying to balance the intense understanding of one system while keeping up with issues of Science and Nature. But when you discover that the template of one field of inquiry overlays your problem in an eerily satisfying way, you can almost feel ole’ Leonardo looking over your shoulder and smiling. 

5 tips from Leonardo on fostering your creativity

November 27, 2011

Robert Krulwich (co-host of the Greatest Science Podcast Ever: RadioLab) writes in his NPR blog of a new book by Toby Lester on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. It never hurts to study the live’s of the great thinkers. All it takes is one good idea, one new habit, to change your life, incrementally, for the better. Here are a few things to think about.


Read the rest of this entry »

Know your brain: right vs. left in the academic life

November 13, 2011




The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rationale mind is a faithful servant.



I had a colleague for a while, a neuroscientist, who, while normally very pleasant, would occasionally turn red, her eyes would grow wide, and a frown would race over her face. The cause of this transformation was usually some version of the phrase “the right brain” or the “the left brain”. Indeed a fair bit of pseudoscience rose from early studies of patients who suffered injuries to one hemisphere or the other: conclusions that revolved around the left brain as the seat of logic, and the right brain as the seat of creativity, science vs. art, yada yada yada. Yet differences exist in the morphology and behavior of both hemispheres, differences found among vertebrate brains.

In this wonderfully animated lecture, psychologist Ian McGilchrist, gives an updated overview of what we know about the functions of the hemispheres. In this evolving view, the left brain specializes in giving narrowly focused attention on what is already known to be important; while the right is broadly interested in watching out for the novel and making connections between disparate parts. The left brain abstracts away exceptions and sees the world as simplified verbal models or pictorial maps; the right brain is always looking for the new, and interpreting the new as metaphors of what is already known.  The left is about categories and generalizations; the right is about individuals and exceptions.

As we struggle to be creative, it is worth keeping in mind the wonderful balancing act embodied in our hemispheric brain. Scientific creativity is about collecting data and building simple mind models to explain the data; about using both our intuition and logic to see which of these models works best; in the words of Alfred North Whitehead. seeking simplicity and distrusting it.

While McGilchrist’s short lecture does not provide an easy roadmap for success in academia, it does add interest to the journey.

Farewell Steve Jobs

October 5, 2011

It is with a heavy heart that I say farewell to Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and a role model for all those who strive to do something new, create something important and vital, and do so by acknowledging that quality=style*content.

Grad school is hard. Crazy hard. Long hours, low pay, steep learning curve. But the following famous video, from Job’s commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, remains one of the best pieces of advice for those desperate to be heard, hungry to make a difference, and longing to see and touch and experience something unique. To explore the unknown.

ht to alex at

The anxiety of influence

September 25, 2008

In all creative endeavors there is a phenomenon called the anxiety of influence–the angst arising from the suspicion that your ideas are supposed to be your own, but that they are in fact related to, or derivative of, those that have gone before.

Among grad students in the sciences, this can set up a tension between advisor and graduate student.

Now tension is not necessarily a bad thing. In measured doses, the anxiety of influence pushes you forward to do something new. And one hallmark of good science is novelty.

Don’t let it worry you too much. It is expected that a grad student, at least in their first year or so, will be doing something closely related to your advisor. Hopefully, you two will be discussing lots of ideas. The last thing you want to do is constantly dwell on ownership of ideas.

It is your advisor’s job to recognize and nurture your insights. In most cases, those insights will constitute a “rediscovery” (the nature of 99% of all insights). In other words, you will have made a cool and valid connection that someone has made before.

Some small proportion of the time, you will make a connection that is the genesis of a new, truly cool idea.

Both represent progress, in that you are learning to think creatively.

After a time, you will even begin to recognize which is which by the way your advisor reacts. A “rediscovery” will illicit a warm smile (“progress!”, your advisor thinks); the genuine, new, cool idea will involve more expressive body language.

At some point, the anxiety of influence magically disappears. This event is often associated with your first paper, or the corpus of your dissertation.

QoTD: Solitude and creativity

August 14, 2008

…remember that solitude has always been, in all the history of mental achievement, a requisite for great work. (…) The great poems written in lonely garrets—the masterpiece paintings conceived by the artist amid the fields—the divine harmonies first heard by the musician communing with the stars—the sublime oration which first stirred the soul of the orator as he tramped in the forest—all attest that the best comes to man when he is alone.

Note, solitude does not mean you, your computer, and your internet connection. And the whole “man” thing is sooo 19th century.

h/t Academic Productivity

E. B. White and the glory of a piece of paper

August 9, 2008

“Even now, this late in the day, a blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement there is for me — more promising than a silver cloud, and prettier than a red wagon.”

There are few ways to better spend time than with a good pen and your notebook, sitting at a tiny table in busy coffee shop or a park bench.

I think this applies to most folks whose job it is to be creative. My wife Debby is a compulsive sketcher, which is a good thing, as she does stuff like this for a living. Growing up in the San Francisco area, she would occasionally run into one of her heroes, R. Crumb, who once told her “Always have your notebook, and draw everything and anything.”

One pleasant consequence is that wherever we are, wherever there is a place to sit, we can comfortably spend an hour or so with our respective notebooks propped open, scribbling away.

This leads to some interesting situations. Once in a Firenze Museum, we both took up precious bench space in front of Michelangelo’s David, intending to spend some time scribbling. We couldn’t help but catch the eye of some older citizens. They first shadowed Debby, standing behind her at her end of the bench. They clucked appreciatively. (I mean, how could they not? Her drawing of David looked just like him!). They then sidled over behind me. Instead of another sketch in my open notebook, they found gridded paper covered with chicken scratch, boxes, and arrows. Their comments stretched my rudimentary Italian, but the tone was clear enough.

Here’s wishing you a half-empty notebook, a good pen, a nice spot, and some free time.

quote from Hannah Hinchman’s A life in hand: creating the illuminated journal