How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery
Have you ever heard people say ‘I haven’t got a creative bone in my body’ and believed them?
Ashton, the pioneering technology entrepreneur who created the idea of the ‘internet of things’ is convinced that we are all creative, whether we have a particularly high IQ or not.
Using research and illuminating stories, Ashton sets out to convince us that magical ‘aha’ or ‘eureka’ moments do not simply come from geniuses out of the blue, but are based on hard slog, failure and perseverance – even Einstein’s. In Ashton’s view, creating is about taking small steps, not giant leaps. He believes that most, if not all, inventions and discoveries have come from a process of refinement or inheritance. After all, James Dyson built 5,126 prototypes over five years before creating a cyclone-based vacuum cleaner that actually worked.
There are no tricks, shortcuts, or get-creative-quick schemes. The process is ordinary even if the outcome is not – Kevin Ashton
Ashton builds his case by highlighting:
- Our creations are too great and too numerous to come from a few steps by a few people – from our early ancestors who started improving basic stone tools, to the estimated six million Americans who have patented an invention, we must all be capable of creation
- Creative thinking is simply problem-solving behaviour – the scientist Alan Newell’s research in the 1950s showed that there was no different process involved in creative and non-creative thinking. The psychologist Robert Weisberg also came to the same conclusion, finding that the mechanism through which an innovation comes about is very ordinary, even if the final outcome is profound
- Being a genius does not mean you are more creative – Controversial long term studies, based on eugenics, failed to prove that children who were identified as having high IQs were any more likely to achieve creative success than others
- To create is to work – if we want to create, we must, in the words of the novelist Paul Gallico, open our veins and bleed. Woody Allen says writing doesn’t come easily, despite his prolific output. He calls it agonising work and says he writes, re-writes, tears up his work and starts again. If he feels he is getting stuck, he takes a break – moves to another room, goes outside or takes a shower to get a fresh burst of mental energy
If you are now convinced that we are all capable of creating, what can we learn about how to do it?
As a starting point, it’s worth avoiding over-relying on people’s judgement of your work – you should be creating for your own pleasure rather than others. If you accept awards for your work when others have deemed it award-worthy, what happens when they don’t? The poet Sylvia Plath admitted that craving praise from others caused her own creative work to freeze. Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile studies motivation and creation and found that when people are told their work will be appraised, evaluated or even just observed, they produce much poorer quality results than people who are not told what will happen.
Ashton also proposes that the more creative an organisation is, the fewer internal meetings it is likely to have and the fewer people it will have attending those meetings. This leaves more people spending more time actually creating rather than talking. If you think you need meetings to plan, Ashton argues that planning is of limited value, because in general, things do not go according to plan.
If we shouldn’t leave creations down to the mythical lone genius, how many people working together is best? Some of the greatest creative work comes from people working in twos, which could form a model for creative teams. Some are married – like Pierre and Marie Curie – and others are family – like Orville and Wilbur Wright, but most are neither, and may not even be friends – think of Abbot and Costello, Hanna and Barbera, or Wozniak and Jobs.
Interestingly, Ashton also highlights research which shows that the now well established business practice of group brainstorming produces fewer and worse ideas than individuals, with productivity decreasing as group size increases. The best results can come from working alone and evaluating solutions as they occur, rather than suspending critical judgement as is usual practice.
Ashton believes that everyone is equally capable of creativity. Could the creator of the internet of things inspire you to invent the next big idea, even if it will involve hard slog rather than a dazzling lightbulb moment?
** About the author Following an early career with Wagamama and Procter & Gamble, British born Kevin Ashton became Executive Director and visiting engineer at MIT, where he led pioneering work on the next generation of computing (radio frequency identification networks). He named these developments as “the Internet of Things,” now a widely used term, and has since run three successful technology start-ups. Ashton speaks on innovation and technology to audiences worldwide and has been featured in many publications including The New York Times and The Economist. He now lives in Los Angeles, California.
** Reviews “Ashton is persuasive … His well chosen examples reinforce the idea that there is no magic or myth to creation or discovery, making this an approachable, thought-provoking book that encourages everyone to be as good as they can be.” Observer
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Author: Kevin Ashton