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.
Later in her article, Maria Popova also has this interesting quote from neuroscientist David Eagleman who wrote the book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of Our Brain”. The quote describes what is going on behind the scenes in your brain:
“When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you merely take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden political machinery behind the scenes.“
There are many stories of scientists having moments of discovery. For example, Isaac Newton (in a probably apocryphical story) is sitting under a tree, when an apple falls on his head. At that exact moment, he comes up with the theory of gravity.
No, it didn’t happen because the apple hit some part of the brain that magically uncovered the secrets of the universe, but he was probably working on the problem for a long time already. He had built up a vast store of different mental models that he was connecting and at one moment, all things connected and became clear.
Step 3: Consciously connect the dots
All this subconscious Eureka stuff might be nice, but we also want to be able to control the process. What can we do?
The essence of human existence is coming up with patterns and then interpreting them. The human brain evolved to be better able to take disparate pieces of information, piece them together and get meaning out of them.
The most creative thinkers however have a very advanced ability for pattern recognition. They can see meaningful (and real) patterns, where others don’t. They can take very disparate and at first glance unrelated subjects and combine them together to create something new and unique.
How can you develop this ability as well? Well, there are all kinds of different techniques (for example things from Edward de Bono’s “Lateral Thinking”), but I think the best way to do this is by developing your humor skills.
If you think about it, humor works with many disparate, at first glance unrelated subjects, and manages to piece them together into a coherent story. The essence of humor is association and combination.
The same techniques I wrote about that you can use to develop your humor skills, you can use to improve your combinatorial and associative skills. For example, the Hadron Joke Collider technique in essence creates a series of mind-maps to try to find associations and create combinations. You can use it not only to create jokes, but also to create combinations for more serious topics.
However, you also have to watch out and not get too carried away. Sometimes, people see patterns where in reality no patterns exist. This is when cognitive biases come into play.
You always have to be aware of the fact that your mind could be playing tricks on you. I created a nice little framework that you can use in order to try to diminish the effects of these types of biases.
There are two major types of biases: ones arising from your ego, and ones arising from information.
Biases arising from your ego are things like confirmation bias, where you tend to look for information to confirm your own preconceived notions and discard any other contradicting information. You need to keep this in check.
Other biases arise from the presence or lack of information in your environment. Sometimes there is too much information present and you need to pick out what is relevant, and sometimes there isn’t enough information. And in some cases there is just no information present. Oftentimes, these states are present at the same time!
When you are trying to associate and combine information, you need to keep the potential for these cognitive biases in mind. Go read the articles on my cognitive biases framework.
This is also the key to any type of reasoning activities that you do. Being aware of your assumptions, and always questioning them, can open up your mind for new possibilities. For example, in certain cases, you can even use the first principles thinking approach that Elon Musk uses to come up with some of his most innovative ideas.
Step 4: Move to action
Once you have collected the building blocks, created a few useful mental models, and started seeing associations by connecting the dots, you need to move into action. You need to do something, even if it is just writing your ideas down.
Don’t worry if most of these things aren’t original. As Austin Kleon writes in his book “Steal like an Artist”, all great artists and thinkers “steal”. In essence what they do is borrow ideas from others, rehash them, combine them, and then use them as the basis of their own work.
What is incredibly important is that you start doing. Benjamin Franklin started off by copying word for word different articles. Then he started to work on consciously improving those articles. And at the end, when he had learned enough, he had all the tools necessary to become a man of many skills.
Here is the introductory text on combinatorial knowledge and examples on how it was used:
Combinatorial knowledge is the key to many innovations
Combining and associating knowledge and information is one of the essential steps to becoming an expert generalist:
Return of the Renaissance Man: The future belongs to expert-generalists