Opening up my oversized Chicagoland map, Andy and I looked worse than a couple of tourists. Picture two Asian dudes in a pretty white bread part of town - with not a scrap of rye in sight!
My travel buddy took a look. “Guess we're hoofing it from here.” We had taken the “L” train as far as it went. This was before I had the luxury of having a car on campus, so we relied on public transportation to get anywhere.
Even though Andy and I planned on different engineering tracks - aerospace for me, civil for him, we took a lot of the same core courses starting out. But while I expected a lot of what came with these demanding majors, I didn’t anticipate how much creativity was needed. Engineering is supposed to be a left-brained logical field, or so I thought.
Question: “If a thousand angels can dance on a pinhead, what is the average angle of inflection if their energy was released from a train going 70 mph?” Err.. let me get back to you on that.
Human Hearts, Paper Cranes and Space Telescopes
If you haven’t heard of Robert Lang, you’re probably benefiting from his work without realizing it. This NASA engineer grew up obsessed with origami, shared Jeremy Gutsche in Better and Faster, and this fascination didn’t slow down with age.
In fact, Lang took the work of “dead people” as he puts it and applied it to this ancient art. He found ways to use math to find ways to fold creatures and objects never before imagined. While this earned him recognition in the underworld of competitive origami (yeah, I didn’t know there was such a thing either..) Lang didn’t stop there.
When NASA needed a way to fold telescopes, they sought him out. Then doctors asked him to solve ways to create stents that could pass through the narrowest arteries and blockages before deploying. Even car manufacturers consulted with him to figure out ways to design better airbags.
Lang observed, “almost all innovation happens by making connections between fields that other people don’t realize.” Indeed what started out as his hobby became much more than fun and games - it turned out to be just the formula for creative innovation.
Creativity and Connecting the Dots
In his now famous speech to the 1985 Stanford graduating class Steve Jobs shared his journey from college dropout to discovering a passion for calligraphy.
“Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on..” Jobs said. Indeed would Apple have been a leader in personal computing without his insights into the use of fonts?
Jobs said in his interview for Wired magazine in 1995, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
We Can't Connect the Dots Looking Forward - We Can Only Connect Them Looking Back - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires
This is why I tell entrepreneurs that Paulo’s Cuelho’s The Alchemist is required reading for any business library.
Thinking Like Leonardo
Maybe the best example of how curious minds have benefited the world is a 16th century Renaissance man. Inventor, architect, artist are just a few simple labels for this complex man who achieved more in one lifetime than others have in multiple lives.
Perhaps the key to his genius was Leonardo’s curiosity. Michael Gelb shares in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci how the maestro wrote -
“I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand... Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel... These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”
Unfortunately, most of his ideas and inventions were never realized. Today we are only able to have a glimpse of this creative genius because of the many notebooks that surfaced after his death.
So, how can we be more like these creative minds?
First, be curious - willingness to ask questions involve a mix of childlike wonder and a bit of courage. Shedding the fixed mindsets of “adults” isn’t easy, but it’s also not fatal. We’ve talked about how fear gets in the way of creativity.
Be observant - of course, with this curiosity there is little chance of noticing the clues to new connections. But even simply paying attention isn’t enough. Taking notes, reflecting and processing our observations allows our creative juices to ferment.
..and that leads to having the real fun - allowing yourself to roam opens up all the possibilities around us. When you give yourself permission to explore, you’re seeing the world with fresh eyes. It may just be the reset button you needed.
Recently, I revived the weekly ritual that Julia Cameron calls the Artist's Date. Another friend has officially declared it Creative Friday. Whether you take a few hours or all day, the point is to allow yourself the space and freedom to explore. You creativity is waiting.
Where will your creativity take you this week?