Where does your creativity come from? Do you believe in a muse who touches your mind? It’s pretty easy to believe that our best ideas come straight out of the aether, especially the ones that seem to jump into our minds fully formed. The most creative people seem to have original ideas pop into their brains on a regular basis.
But that’s wrong.
I’ll make two very inflammatory remarks, and we’ll see if you stick around to hear the explanation.
#1 – There are no original ideas.
#2 – Every creator has stolen all their ideas.
Still with me?
I know that’s a big accusation, especially considering how much we all hate plagiarism (and have created legislation to prevent it, such as copyright, patent, and trademark law). No one likes a phony. Everyone likes to believe that their ideas are their own.
The truth is that they may be yours, but you cobbled them together from the pieces of other ideas.
Ideas from other people.
This is the concept of combinatorial creativity, and after you get over the shock of realizing that creativity doesn’t work the way we believe it does, it’s pretty liberating. I’ll explain the benefits more in a bit, but first, what is combinatorial creativity?
Start with this video. It’s a Derren Brown trick, but it’s also a quick primer on how the creative process works.
Derren has exploited the creative pattern to make a point, but this is still exactly how our minds work when we form ideas. Every cool new story, or song, or painting, or video, or yarnbombing you think up is inspired by bits and pieces of things you’ve experienced (though obviously not so directly as what Derren Brown did).
I talked about this over at LitReactor when I addressed some accusations that Orson Scott Card stole the idea for Ender’s Game. Whether you read that article or not, there is one concept that I want you to remember from it:
Creativity isn’t about ideas; it’s about execution.
In other words, there are no original ideas because every new “creative” idea is built from the bits and pieces of the creator’s experience. That’s why creators are always consumers, too. They consume the things they love, and it inspires them to create things they love.
So the thing that makes people truly creative isn’t how previously unfathomable an idea was, but how the creator put those inspirations together. For instance, when an author does this right, the book feels fresh and new, even though the technical plot points and character attributes have all been seen before in various combinations in other books.
Say it again: Creativity isn’t about ideas; it’s about execution.
This is what makes parody, homage, mashups, metaphor, and allusions possible, but it’s also what made every piece of art and media possible. The creator’s work is a conglomeration of their experiences, not the manifestation of their wholly new ideas.
It’s pretty easy to take the concept of combinatorial creativity as tacit permission to steal things wholesale. But it’s not an excuse for plagiarism. Taking ideas directly, with the intent to pass someone else’s work off as your own is still wrong. Very wrong. But it also means that every similarity between products isn’t automatically plagiarism. It’s likely that some complete stranger somewhere has had the same idea for a flying timecop TV pilot that you have, and they didn’t steal it. Their brain simply combined some of the same ideas that your brain did.
Austin Kleon is a proponent of combinatorial creativity, and this video tells the story of how he discovered his brain was combining similar ideas that other people had thought of, and there was no plagiarism whatsoever. I highly recommend watching it.
The best part is that combinatorial creativity doesn’t make you or the other person more or less creative. It means that creativity is more egalitarian than we previously thought.
So why do some people still seem more creative? Two reasons: They’ve seeded their mind with more potential combinatorial elements (either by quantity or quality), and they have actually done something about it.
Remember the part about creativity not being about ideas, but about execution?
The creative people aren’t the only ones who have ideas, they’re just the ones who did something about it. How many times have you heard someone claim to have sixteen great novel ideas written down somewhere; they’re just waiting for the right moment to turn one into a book? How many times have you said that?
Let’s get back to the benefits of understanding combinatorial creativity. It’s a truly liberating concept because it helps creators get over the anxiety that they are just copying and regurgitating things they’ve seen.
Of course they are! Everyone does.
With new creators, it’s painfully obvious. That fanfic you wrote is still good, it’s just relying too heavily on one person’s ideas. Once you start creating regularly (execution!) your brain becomes more adept at mixing and matching ideas until you come up with something that feels new.
Understanding combinatorial creativity is essential to overcoming this anxiety. I worried frequently while writing my novel, The Inevitable, because sometimes my main character felt like a copy of Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wasn’t copying, but the part of my brain that’s terrified of plagiarism kept sending up red flags every time my protagonist, who is a robot, acted robotic…
The funny part is that many people have pointed out similarities between my protagonist and Wall-E, from the eponymous Pixar movie (mostly because more people know about Wall-E than Data). The truth is, there’s a little Wall-E in there. There’s also some Data. Not to mention some Legion (Mass Effect), Andrew (Bicentennial Man), a half dozen other Asimov robots, and a few humans, both real and fictional. In other words, my main character is a product of many ideas and ended up becoming his own unique idea.
The other amazing thing about combinatorial creativity is that it helps you realize that everything is potential fuel for the creativity machine. Every show, book, play, painting, photo, tune, movie, website, and more are potential inspirations, future building blocks for characters, settings, images, songs, and ideas. Heck, even everyday objects, too. Take a minute to look at that tree outside your window. Someday it may help you come up with something “new.” This is the same reason why many creators will often branch out into new genres they never tried before. Musicians frequently cite inspirations from bands in a completely different genre than what they perform. This is why! The elements of a new idea are everywhere!
Don’t forget that people are a good source of inspiration and information, too. Surround yourself with people who know lots of things. It will improve you and your creativity.
So go out there and don’t worry about being too derivative. Just pay attention to everything, and then do something. Start mixing and matching until you figure out your style. Execute on the idea. Create. Make. Do. It may be rocky at first; there will still be days when you feel like a hack or a blockhead, but the ideas will come.
If you want more on this topic, the video series Everything Is A Remix is absolutely required reading … er … watching. I’ve embedded the first video below, and you can find the rest on the website.
Another interesting rabbit hole is presented at Kitbashed. It looks at the “ancestry” of the Star Wars universe; in other words, all the media that influenced George Lucas and helped him create Star Wars. There’s a wealth of information there, so if you’ve only got five minutes and are easily distracted, BEWARE!