To discover a good idea you have to generate many ideas. Out of quantity comes quality. It took Thomas Edison 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9,000 to perfect the light bulb. For every brilliant idea he had, there were countless duds. For instance, the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant. Another dud was his perpetual cigar, which consisted of a hollow metal tube with a spring clip that moved the tobacco forward as it burned.

An important aspect of this Darwinian theory for creativity is that, in addition to quantity, you need some means of producing variation in your ideas. For this variation to be truly effective, it must be “blind.” To count as “blind,” the variations are shaped by random, chance, or unrelated factors. In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences that would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness. A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking. These patterns follow a route ingrained in our youth as we were being taught to think. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages.

Typically, we think reproductively, that is, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in the past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education, or work on how to solve the problem?” Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches. Then we work, within a clearly defined direction, toward the solution of the problem. In contrast, geniuses are willing to explore as many approaches as possible, including the least and most obvious. Geniuses delight in looking at problems in many different ways and in inventing unconventional approaches.

Last summer, I visited an old friend who served with me in the military. He’s now an engineer with a power company in the northwest and he described a problem that he and the other engineers in his company were trying to solve. Essentially, the problem was how to de-ice power lines during ice storms so they don’t collapse from the weight of the ice. The conventional approaches to the problem were proving to be very expensive and inefficient. I asked my friend to open a dictionary, close his eyes and point to a word. He pointed to the word “honey.” I then asked him to think of the attributes of “honey” and to force a connection between each attribute and the problem. One attribute he mentioned was that honey attracts bears. My friend laughed and said, “I got it. We can put a pot of honey on top the poles. The honey will attract bears and the bears will climb the poles to get the honey, causing the poles to vibrate and shake off the ice.” Suddenly, he stopped laughing and said, “By God, that’s it! The answer is vibration. Remember the downwash from helicopters in the service? The answer is to hover choppers over the lines and the downwash will vibrate the ice off the lines.” This proved to be the most efficient and economical solution to the problem.

The point is, that by introducing something “random” into his thinking, the engineer disturbed his conventional thinking patterns and he came up with an unconventional approach. In nature, a genetic mutation is a variation that’s created by a random or chance event which ignores the conventional wisdom contained in parental chromosomes. Nature then lets the process of natural selection decide which variations survive and thrive. An analogous process operates within geniuses. Creative geniuses produce a rich variety of original ideas and solutions because in addition to their conventional way of thinking, they’ll look for different ways to think about problems. They deliberately change the way they think by provoking different patterns which incorporate random, chance and unrelated factors into their thinking process. These different thinking patterns enable them to look at the same information as everyone else, but the genius will find something different.

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