The story of how to turn other people’s junk into your own treasure.
“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.“- Rumi
My grandfather was one of the most creative people I know. He would be able to see other people’s junk, take it, and turn it into his treasure.
For he saw things not for what they were, but instead for their potential.
I remember once walking into town with him, and passing something lying on the side of the road. He stopped, picked it up, examined it, and then put it back on the ground.
On the way back from town, we passed by the same spot. Instead of continuing on walking, my grandfather stopped once again.
Remembering where he lay down his discovery, he picked it up, and put it in his bag.
I am not sure what he later used it for, but I am sure that it found a place in one of his projects.
All throughout his life, my grandfather used to collect things, and then give them a second lease on life by incorporating them into many of his creations.
Whether it was an ingenious fixer-upper somewhere around the house, a spare part to be reused in a new contraption, or something to put in the yard, my grandfather always found a use.
When he passed away, my grandmother had to call a truck in order to haul away all the things that he had stored in the garage. For other people this was junk, for him it was treasure.
Creativity is about transformation
“The way of the Creative works through change and transformation, so that each thing receives its true nature and destiny.“ - Alexander Pope
While no one can exactly define what creativity really is and how it happens, there are several thinkers who have tried to illuminate the process and give us a sneak peak at what goes into it.
One of the most profound theories of creativity is the one outlined by the social psychologist Graham Wallas. He divided the process of creativity into 4 stages:
The first stage is preparation. Here you incorporate inspiration, together with a conscious effort of researching the subject. You start getting the material ready, and outlining some initial ideas.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, however it usually begins with wonder and curiosity. As human beings we are curious creatures, and want to know how the world works. We search for meaning, and when we don’t find it, we try to create it.
Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived the Holocaust, put the “will to meaning” at the center of all human activity. This wanting to make sense of our existence drives individuals to explore and to create.
Both of my grandfathers were extremely curious. The grandfather who I described above, channeled this into creation, while the other one focused more on physical and mental exploration.
While the results of these activities were often different, the process was usually the same. It was the process of creativity. Both of them used this intense energy in order to give back to the community by becoming teachers, and showing future generations how to go from ideas to reality.
I benefited greatly from their wisdom. It made me who I am today, and gave me the mental tools necessary to overcome any type of challenge that comes at me. I have been able to take these utensils and apply them creatively in many different disciplines.
Creativity is about transformation, going from the initial stages of inspiration, all the way to your final piece of genius. This could be a painting, a piece of writing, a scientific theory, an invention, or just something way more simple. There are no limits here.
In this process, you use all the different senses that you have, your sight, your hearing, your touch, in order to conceive a final product.
You give the world your own masterpiece.
Creativity starts with curiosity, and wonder
“Philosophy begins in wonder.“ - Plato
The creative process is a lot like philosophy. Philosophy is about combining different ideas, and coming out with answers to some of the toughest existential questions.
Creativity is wider. It can be used not only to give answers to the problems of existence, but also to create ingenious solutions to the little annoyances of everyday life. These answers can take many different forms.
However, first in order to come out with an answer, you need to have a question. This question can arise in many ways, but two parts are hugely important.
Several researchers have put wonder as the starting point of creativity. It is at the core of “experiencing what is present (the here and now) through the lenses of what is absent (the not‐yet‐here).”
This perception of the gap between what exists now and what is possible sparks the process of imagining a novel reality. This then leads to originality, which is one of the defining characteristics of creativity.
Wonder is the emotion that people feel when they are faced with something unknown and magnificent. When perceiving something new, your mind immediately races for answers.
You can start staring at the night sky, and wonder. You can look at the wide expanse of a grassy plain, and wonder. You can see all of life moving around you, and wonder.
Wonder awakens your curiosity. With curiosity, you start zooming in, focusing on certain aspects of the things that you are wondering about.
You see little critters scattering away, and start being curious about what they are doing. On a walk in the forest you find a strange rock, and become curious about how it got there.
All these create questions that beg for answers. And the way to get these answers is through creativity.
Inspiration for creativity can be both external, but also internal
“The painter has the Universe in his mind and hands.“ - Leonardo da Vinci
The inspiration for creativity need not be the world around you, but can also be inside of your brain. Creativity is both about discovery, but also about the conception of something new.
Seeing the beauty of nature can inspire you to formulate a theory on how certain processes in nature work. Or, it can stimulate you to draw a magnificent painting of a landscape.
Creativity can come out of the processes deep inside your brain. This is how you can project something that doesn’t exist. You create it in your mind.
This is what is behind the creation of works of art.
According to former university professor and educational scientist Mel Rhodes, art is about the portrayal of abstract ideas, “Objects which portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects, may be classified as art.”
With art, you free yourself from the conventional, and create something that tickles the senses. Art is all about the emotions, and the special breed of creativity that plays with a person’s feelings.
With art, your emotions themselves are your sources of inspiration. The final product then stirs the emotions of the people who come into contact with these works of art.
You often become creative in the diffuse mode of thinking
“The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises.“ - Sigmund Freud
The old view of the brain made a distinction between a rational, logical left-brain, where thinking unfolded in a linear fashion, and a messy, non-linear, creative right-brain.
However, modern research paints a much more complex picture. In fact, different processes recruit regions that are spread out across the whole area of the brain. These structures then work together.
“Many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.“
Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor and creator of a popular course on learning, stated that the mind has two main modes of thinking, a focused mode and a diffused mode.
With the focused mode, you concentrate on your task at hand, and do deep work. However with the diffuse mode you take a step back, and instead let your thoughts ruminate in the background.
While you can be creative in the focused mode as well, research shows that creative cognition has many traits that work well in the diffuse mode.
“Converging research findings do suggest that creative cognition recruits brain regions that are critical for daydreaming, imagining the future, remembering deeply personal memories,constructive internal reflection, meaning making, and social cognition.“
Creativity in many ways is an unconscious process. While you can will creativity into being in the focused mode, this always has its limits.
When you are in the diffused head-space, creativity loses its boundaries, and has no limits.
Creativity is a journey that happens deep inside your brain
“Perhaps the journey towards epiphany is an unseen, steady process towards understanding. Likened to a combination safe, as you scroll the dial towards the inevitable correct combination you cannot tangibly see your progress.“ - Chris Matakas
With the diffuse mode of thinking you enter the incubation period, which is the second stage of the creativity process. Wallas saw that there were two ways of doing this.
“Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work.“
The incubation process is incredibly mysterious and no one really knows how it happens. How do you go from wonder and curiosity, all the way to producing something?
One thing is to collect enough building blocks in the preparation phase. So that once you take a step back from actively thinking, your subconscious can take over and connect the dots.
Researcher Steven Smith hypothesized that a diffuse incubation works by freeing your mind from being fixated by one way of doing things.
Basically, the diffuse state liberates you from the straight-jacket of cognitive biases like the Einstellung effect (to a hammer every problem is a nail), and instead allows you a freer range of possibilities.
I have noticed this quite often in my writing. When I write something in one day, I commit to a certain structure and certain ideas. In this way I then adopt a fixed state of mind, which prevents me from seeing any defects in my approach or in what I wrote.
However, if I come back to the same piece of writing a few months later, I can see where it can be improved, and reorganized.
Smith posited that creative thinking involves the same processes as memory retrieval, learning, and problem solving. All four are thereby linked.
When learning a subject, the most effective strategies include distributed practice and interleaved practice. What both of these have in common is that you spread your study over time, and leave empty periods between sessions.
These empty periods is when your diffuse thinking mode gets to work, solidifying the retention of what you learn. Similar principles are in play with creativity.
By getting inspired, preparing some building blocks based on that initial inspiration, and then letting them ruminate in your mind during the incubation stage, you pave the way to illumination, the third stage in the process of creativity.
Creativity is as wide as your imagination
“Imagination is everything.“ - Albert Einstein
This is how that famous “eureka” moment happens. It’s not that suddenly you get a spark of genius, and an idea pops into your head instantaneously as if by magic.
Instead, that idea has been ruminating on the inside of your brain for a while, deep in the unconscious. Hidden processes were stirring, flowing, connecting, examining different possibilities, until it became clear.
Once this lighting strikes, then you move again into the conscious, focused stage, and start refining the idea, putting it into practice. This is when you really create, when you refine your idea and make a final product.
According to Wallas, this is when inspiration turns to perspiration.
“All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations.“
Your inspiration gives you an idea of where the answer to your problem lies, but it is the conscious effort that comes after that really crafts that idea into reality.
“As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced.“
This work often goes in many different directions. For creativity is as wide as your imagination. Creativity can happen in many different forms and in many different ways.
Inventing a new device is creativity. Painting a picture is creativity. Coming out with a scientific theory is creative. Writing an article involves creativity.
In all these different areas of life, whether technical, or more artsy, you need a certain amount of creativity.
You need to have the building blocks ready for when inspiration strikes
A creative person has the ability to come up with unconventional solutions to a wide range of problems. They can see the extra-ordinary in the mere ordinary, or to create a masterpiece just through the use of their imagination.
However, creativity doesn’t happen in the vacuum. For creativity to happen, you need to have the resources ready beforehand.
It is all about collecting pieces of disparate building blocks, and then combining them at the appropriate time to produce a final product.
This is what was behind my grandfather’s creative process. He would go around collecting things he deemed might be useful one day. His mind wouldn’t always race to fit them into categories, instead my grandfather saw potential.
Seeing something, he would think to himself: this could be useful, don’t know for what yet. He would then take it.
Then one day, he would be working on a problem, whether in the back yard, at home, or in terms of one of his many projects, and suddenly he would get an idea.
Wait, I have this one thing in the garage, this other thing in the shed, and if I combine with this and that, I have the solution to my problem.
Yet, many of these pieces of the final puzzle started off as someone’s junk. My grandfather turned them into genius.
That is the epitome of creativity. That is how you can be incredibly creative.
Just start collecting disparate building blocks, wonder, be curious about things, and at some point all these things will click together.
As if by magic…
This story was originally published on “Medium” here.