Creativity, monsters, reefs and refactoring.


In this essay I go over two theories of what makes one creative. I use them and a framework for measuring “intangibles” to create a suggested experiment of how one would go about to try to increase their good idea count. I end with the motivation for this essay.


Gabora and Johnston

I have before mentioned Gabora’s theory of creativity. The core idea is that creativity is a by-product. When your worldview is challenged it must change its internal structure and in that change it produces manifestations which may be external artefacts that are what is usually deemed creative. In processing the bombing of Guernica you produce a painting, but the painting is the byproduct of the creative process, not the creative process itself, or even its aim.

There is another view making the rounds, as things do when they appear on TED. Johnson explains that idea formation (i.e. creativity) happens as the result of 7 patterns:

  1. The adjacent possible
    The principle that at any given moment, extraordinary change is possible but that only certain changes can occur (this describes those who create ideas that are ahead of their time and whose ideas reach their ultimate potential years later).
  2. Liquid networks
    The nature of the connections that enable ideas to be born, to be nurtured and to blossom and how these networks are formed and grown.
  3. The slow hunch
    The acceptance that creativity doesn’t guarantee an instant flash of insight but rather, germinates over time before manifesting.
  4. Serendipity
    The notion that while happy accidents help allow creativity to flourish, it is the nature of how our ideas are freely shared, how they connect with other ideas and how we perceive the connection at a specific moment that creates profound results.
  5. Error
    The realization that some of our greatest ideas didn’t come as a result of a flash of insight that followed a number of brilliant successes but rather, that some of those successes come as a result of one or more spectacular failures that produced a brilliant result.
  6. Exaptation
    The principle of seizing existing components or ideas and repurposing them for a completely different use (for example, using a GPS unit to find your way to a reunion with a long-lost friend when GPS technology was originally created to help us accurately bomb another country into oblivion).
  7. Platforms
    Adapting many layers of existing knowledge, components, delivery mechanisms and such that in themselves may not be unique but which can be recombined or leveraged into something new that is unique or novel.”

Further, he has this one main metaphor, he calls the mind a reef, in the sense that a coral reef is a bank of connections, of ecological niches that reinforce each other and live of each other in waters that are otherwise remarkably nutrient poor, but that their mutual preadaptation creates incredibly strong rock formations that can be up to thousands of feet tall.

He uses this as a metaphor for the mind, but I think he got it wrong. I think that Johnston’s coral reef is Gabora’s worldview.




How to measure anything

In the book How to Measure Anything Hubbard takes a lengthy take to show how “intangibles” aren’t and don’t connect. The idea is that if any particular thing happens then it must affect something and that measurement is finding a “something” that the original thing affects that is easy to interact with (and thus measure). Luke has written a very good, albeit lengthy, summary of this book.

The basic template is as follows:




Metrics for innovation

The question is “Do any of these techniques lead to a significant increase in creativity, as measure by more good ideas, after a baseline count?”

  • Johnston hypotheses
    • The adjacent possible
      • “try to connect your idea”
    • Liquid networks
      • “provide many random collisions for your ideas”
    • The slow hunch
      • “write everything down, hold it forever”
    • Serendipity
      • (not actionable)
    • Error
      • “make more errors”
    • Exaptation
      • “try to apply a particular solution to various problems, and a particular problem to various solutions”
    • Platforms
      • (not actionable)
  • Gabora hypotheses




Actually applying the framework

Now let’s try to apply the framework above to our question (“Do any of these techniques lead to a significant increase in creativity, as measure by more good ideas, after a baseline count?”)

  1. We are trying to measure creativity. But the thing we really want is more good ideas.
  2. Why we care about creativity is answered in the next section. The decision to be made is choosing between these methods as tools to creativity.
  3. We don’t know much. Presumably we can spread out the probability mass over all actionable ideas. 5 ideas = 20% chance for each. (Totally neglecting the hypothesis that none of these work.)
  4. Let’s assume that techniques differ by one order of magnitude and that there is one best technique out of the 5. If this is the case, the consequences of being wrong are having only 1/10th of the possible good ideas with a 4/5 likelihood. (Pulling these numbers out of my hat. I always carry a hat.)
  5. One could practice a method per week and measure how much total good ideas they had that week.
  6. (Neglecting this one)


Wrap up

So what would this actually look like?

  • A weekly method
  • A form of measuring good ideas

Here is how those could look like:

  • Possible methods are
    • The adjacent possible
      • Operationalisation: For a week, when coming up with a new idea, write it down on evernote. Look at context or at random notes and for 1 hour try to draw up as many connection as possible.
    • Liquid networks
      • Operationalisation: For a week, write down everything. Every event, surprise, emotion, thought, feeling, routine. Write everything. Proceed to share it. (On twitter, for example.)
    • Error
      • “make more errors”
      • Operationalisation: For a week, keep and error sheet and mark it every time you make an error. On the second week, triple that count.
    • Exaptation
      • Operationalisation: Write down a list of problems you have been bothered by. For a week search for solutions and try to apply them to the whole list.
      • Operationalisation: Write down a list of solutions you use.For a week search for problems and try to apply each list entry to them. (I vaguely remember that Fenyman did something like this)
    • Various ways for destroying your worldview
  • The simplest way of measuring good ideas is carrying a good idea sheet and a pen and marking it every time you have a good idea.



(These are confounded all the way to hell because of the operationalisation method, but presumably you can learn something through these measurement methods, and thus creativity is not so intangible anymore.)

(Also you would need to take a good baseline measure and then do each technique over long periods of time, or keep your life as constant as you can whilst trying each technique )


Why creativity

“To broaden that question into its most compelling form, how can we, both personally and as a society, increase the number of good ideas we have in the arts, in science, in sociology and government, and in technology?”

There is an argument to be made (in a future essay) that a bunch of things we care about are constrained by our ability to have good ideas. Creativity matters.

I admit that I find the term “creativity” icky, but as Thomas Powell has taught me, fuck names, I love “problem reframing” because it reminds be of problem-solving and Simon and not of fake Einstein quotes in every single paper.

Anyways, I’m getting sidelined, here is suggestion of methods for generating more good ideas. For reasons I’m not sure I seem to drift naturally towards collection (without connection, except through writing) and towards monster harvests (I’ve had this hilarious image of some part going through my beliefs structure and setting fire to all that it could set fire to in a very child-like playful way. Fun times were had at a meta-level, and utter crisis at an immediate level.)






– Read main paper on current state of research in creativity

– see wikipedia main theories of creativity

– Good ideas are built from a collection of existing parts.  (I LOVE THIS! (ITS LIKE YOU ARE BUILDING VARIOUS INSTRUMENTS (LIKE A WINDMILL) AND YOU NEED TO FIND ALL THE PARTS; BUT ALSO TO BE IN THE RIGHT TIME FOR THE WINDMILL TO BE USEFUL (youtube at right time, analytical engine not))

– “Einstein quote” about how you want to keep a lot of routine in your life. (So that you can start drawing causal links between events and their repercussions.)

– karnofsky has said that some people naturally build their world models, i think there is a subset that deliberately seek out monsters (meat eaters that find vegetarian arguments and don’t flinch or rationalise away but go straight into it, deeply, obsessively); people that seek out existential crisis

– numbered argument for importance of creativity