Friday, February 23, 2007

A Disciplined Approach to Creativity

Well, not exactly my own original recipe in that there are definitely no "unique" or "special" techniques that I use. In fact, most of the points I'd mention in this post could probably be found in most self-help books on creativity or innovation. In fact, I picked up most of these pointers from a 3-day creativity workshop I attended a few years ago (which is by far the most useful and inspiring "formal education" I've ever had my whole life!). And I'm by no means a great thinker or expert on the subject of creativity, but I'd say I'm definitely a disciplined practitioner of generating ideas. I've actually been asked several times in the past by friends who were curious to know how I dream up so many whacky ideas; and since I've been answering similar questions in my many rounds of interviews recently, I thought it'd be a good time to share how I treat the business of generating ideas.

1. No idea is ever a silly idea
This is possibly the single most important point. It has to become a core belief system that constantly permeates one's state of mind, that every idea is worthy. Indeed, most of my best ideas originate from something that seem utterly silly. How about a 5-year renewable marriage system? A dustbin as a valuable real estate property? A bus with no seats? All these seem pretty silly at first, but if you really sit down and do a thorough PNI (Positive, Negative, Interesting) analysis, you'd often come to a different opinion. What's even more powerful about a silly idea is that it often can lead you to a great idea! I often find that a silly idea might lead to another silly one, and then another silly one, but for some reasons they lead you to a truly out-of-the-box idea. So never treat an idea lightly, regardless of how silly it appears.

2. Always, always record down an idea
Because you treat every idea as worthy and that most ideas can be just a fleeting thought or observation, you have to be really disciplined about recording them down. I have a long list of thoughts from my day-dreaming or interesting observations I make while on the bus or talking to people; and I really make a conscious effort to capture that moment, before it leaves me. Write it down, record a quick voicemail or send yourself a brief email... whatever it is, just don't lose it! You can always revisit these ideas later (and often times you'd only realize their significance much later!), but record them now before they leave you!

3. Creativity almost always equals copying
If you really think about it, almost every ideas are just an interesting combination of laws of nature. It's just how we apply these laws of nature in different scenarios that make them seem "creative". Take the wheels for instance. Long before the invention of bicycles people have realized that wheels make for good transportation. So strictly speaking, you can't really say that the first bicycles are truly original ideas; all they've done is have 2 wheels instead of 3 or 4 wheels, and yet it's such an innovative breakthrough! So don't be shy about copying, I bet almost every "innovative" ideas you could think of come from someone else who's been practicing them in a different setting.

4. Go for breadth, even at the expense of depth
And the previous point lead very well to this one. Because creativity is largely about copying, or more accurately connecting old ideas from a different field and apply it in an interesting way in another setting, it certainly helps for one to be exposed to as many fields as possible. So comes the eternal question of breadth vs depth. Which one's more important? For the case of creativity, I believe that breadth is way more important than depth. You know how the famous chinese proverb go: 旁观者清,当局者迷 (=> outsiders see things clearer than insiders). It's basically talking about breadth, about how ideas from a different field can offer a new perspective, or "breakthrough". So my advice would be, read widely! It's easier than ever to do so now with RSS syndication. I'm currently subscribed to over 200 RSS feeds covering tech news, politics, gadgets, japan, china, india, R&D, investment etc. If I'm not aware of the benefits of breadth, I'd probably spend all my time reading the tech news...but it really helps in generating ideas if you are disciplined in making sure that you're exposed to multiple fields or angles.

5. Never be afraid to day-dream, ALOUD!
This one might be hard for some to do, but it comes quite natural to me, mainly because I'm pretty thick-skinned! hee :) Point is that it's often much more productive if you can day-dream aloud; in other words bounce your ideas with others; and in my case I pretty much share my ideas with anyone who's willing to listen. Some might have hesitation in sharing what they think is the next Big Thing. In my opinion, no one can have a rightful claim to a particular idea, unless they really invest their energy and time to act on it. So to me I have no qualms sharing them with others, and the benefits always outweigh the possible loss of "first-mover advantage". Chances are your ideas are not as new or not as revolutionary as you thought they are (and I always fall into this trap..hee), and your friends will be your best source of research, critic. Again, 旁观者清,当局者迷.

6. Just do it, if not share it!
The last point here isn't really about creativity, but rather about what one does with his/her creativity. An idea remains a thought experiment if it's not implemented. And I always feel this strong sense of indebtedness to my ideas, that if I don't have the time/resources to act on them, I shall share them with as many people as possible so that hopefully someone might be more suitable to fully realize the potential of the idea.

Once again, I ain't no expert. But I'd just like to share how I approach creativity and how I think there's actually a disciplined way of practicing idea-generation (I try my best to have at least one new idea a week). I'd just finish this post with one of my all-time fav quote (since my sec school days):

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the universe." - Albeit Einstein

Dream on folks!

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