A great idea or invention is usually a combination of other different ideas or inventions. Things don’t happen in a vacuum and as the old saying goes, you stand upon the shoulders of giants.
One of the greatest skills that you can have is to be able to combine ideas from different sources. And this is something that expert-generalists, or Renaissance Men, excel at. Their greatest assets are their combinatorial and associative skills.
However, how do you develop and cultivate these types of skills?
Step 1: Collect pieces of information
The first thing you need to do is to know the information and have it available. So the first step is the collection phase.
This has been described in different ways, as collecting pieces of a puzzle or different building blocks. If you want to glue together a picture out of a puzzle or build a house, you need to have the pieces ready in order to do that.
Each piece of knowledge is a like a building block, you can use it in different ways and combine it with other building blocks. The combinations are endless and every resulting structure can look different, even if you use the same building blocks (or it can look the same, up to you really).
How do you go about collecting these building blocks? One thing is by reading a lot. That’s why I wrote a short article on the reading habits of guys like Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger. It is kind of obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it.
Another way is to collect different experiences, like Steve Jobs says. Go to different places, expose yourself to different ideas, try different things. All of this will enrich you, and give you some building blocks which you can use later.
Once you have a good selection of building blocks (information) ready, you can go on to creating a few useful mental models to guide you. These are basically representations of real, or imaginary situations or things that you create in your head.
Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik proposed the idea (although similar ideas were proposed earlier by others as well) that the mind works by constructing small-scale models of reality in order to reason and to offer explanations for events. Modern research so far seems to prove this assertion.
You can actively use these workings of your brain by building a latticework of mental models, something that comes from Charlie Munger, one of the greatest financial investors of all time.
From all the studying he does, Munger selects a handful of big ideas and stores them for later. These can come from things like physics, chemistry, economics, humanities, or any other type of discipline. As long as you think it will be useful later.
To quote Charlie Munger:
“You have to learn all the big ideas in the key disciplines in a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life. If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look to your right and left and you’ll think “my heavenly days, I’m now one of the few competent people in my whole age cohort.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.“
The sources of mental models can come from anywhere. When you are reading books or collecting experiences, try to summarize some of the big lessons that you get out of them. These can then serve as your own personal mental models.
Step 2: Things start clicking automatically
You might not believe me, but collecting the information is the most important step. By collecting more and more information, things will start clicking automatically. Trust me! 🙂
You might have had the experience of you not understanding a problem, trying to go at it through different ways and failing. Then you forgot about the problem, but were walking one day and suddenly things clicked.
This is often called the “Eureka” moment, just like Archimedes had his “Eureka” moment when he was entering the bathtub.
Maria Popova, in an article for “Smithsonian Magazine” writes:
“There is a curious cultural disconnect between our mythology of spontaneous ideation – the Eureka! moment, the stroke of genius, the proverbial light bulb – and how “new” ideas actually take shape, amalgamated into existence by the combinatorial nature of creativity. To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.“
These sudden flashes of the lightbulb are quite common. This doesn’t mean that something appears out of nothing. The building blocks of your idea are already there in the brain. It is that your brain is just playing around with them subconsciously.