We need to kill old ideas all the time to make space for creativity. Yet, we need to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. I truly believe that lifelong learning, self-awareness, and moderation can help with this process. In this article, I will try to explain how. We have a good selection of reading materials here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Quite often we procrastinate before we get creative. There can be many reasons. Sometimes we are prejudiced against what we should do. Often we simply do not see good role models to follow their lead and adapt their attitudes. Many people do not feel empowered to try something before they have enough knowledge or leverage to ensure success. It is important simply to get started. It is even more important to be empowered when we start.
Nothing we know, nothing we can create, nothing we can do, will be sufficiently good if we keep doubting ourselves. Every time we learn something new, we will get more questions, more ideas and more areas for improvement. Eventually, we will need to act, otherwise, our creation will become irrelevant. Some people act naively without making the most basic preparations. Others look for some elusive knowledge that will provide a competitive edge.
Knowledge is power
The idea that knowledge equals power is one of the most compelling human insights. In the ancient times, the knowledge meant the ability to make tools and understanding of hunting techniques. Throughout the middle ages, it was a combination of literacy, martial arts, and politics. In twentieth-century knowledge has to do with the information. Nowadays, knowledge probably means understanding and influencing trends and ability to learn. While the idea remains valid, different kinds of knowledge are valued in a very different way. We have a limited amount of time and energy, and we cannot pursue all kinds of knowledge. But how do we focus on the right kind?
Timing is everything
The knowledge is valuable when it is relevant. We can know everything about events that happened a thousand years ago, but this will hardly help us today. Unless you are working on Ph.D. in history, or write a novel inspired by historical events, the role of history in your life is quite limited. If we know something that is very relevant, and important for our life, yet we can do nothing about it, the knowledge is tragically depressing. For example, if we know that we are sick and will soon die, without having any cure, is not something empowering and motivational. Learning a new language might be a great idea, but if you will never use the language, the knowledge is of very little value. Having an actionable piece of knowledge is still not enough to make it really valuable. If we act too early, we will need too many resources and fail. If we act too late, we will be hard-pressed by more experienced competition. It is best to have the relevant actionable information just in time.
We all try to acquire the relevant and actionable information and are constantly competing with each other for the access to the best information sources. Once we acquire the information, we need to act quickly before it becomes irrelevant. More often then not we miss the timing. After a while, we start looking for knowledge of less transient nature.
Self-awareness, including cognitive biases, strengths and weaknesses, and what gets us motivated can be useful as long as we live. Moreover, if we learn good techniques to improve ourselves and various ways to deal with common challenges, we become better companions for our friends and loved ones. Knowing ourselves may provide a competitive edge in career path and facilitate acquiring new skills.
Can we change?
Quite often we learn about ourselves for a short while and then understand that we have horrible prejudices and cognitive biases, maybe even addictions and negative tendencies. We see how these traits influence our behavior in very important situations and we want to change that, yet we do not know whether or not the change is possible and how it can be made.
Research shows that changing is hard. Simply knowing about some counterproductive tendencies changes nothing. Complex treatment like exposure therapy or reframing may modify or reduce the negative tendencies, but will rarely fully remove them. Children who are bullied by others can learn to become stronger and defend themselves, yet they will often be more prone to bully others when they get the chance. Treating prejudice may often result in corrective prejudice or unwillingness to talk about the subject openly – which means a different and closely related prejudice.
People who go to therapy sessions, usually continue to go to therapy sessions for as long as they have time and money. Once they treat one problem, they notice several other lesser issues hiding behind it, and the search is endless.
Persuation does not substitute knowledge
Since the real and relevant knowledge is hard to acquire, people often tend to substitute it with pure belief and persuasion. Any belief can be contagious, especially when people holding the belief are willing to risk everything to protect it. In this sense, the story of two medieval scientists is inspiring. Giordano Bruno died for his belief that the earth is not the center of the universe, after a public trial by the Inquisition. Galileo Galilei was also tried by inquisition because he held similar ideas. Only he opted to announce and to live because he did not need to believe: he had enough evidence to actually know. Knowing something we are much more flexible about it than we are when believing, and we do not have the burning desire to prove anything. We can be calm and reassuring and accurate because we know.
Handing our ideas over
Truly creative people do not just generate new ideas and look for evidence that proves them, they build new things. Charles Darwin spent twenty years collecting pieces of evidence before he dared to publish ” On the Origin of Species”. This behavior was justified in 1859 when the scientific and technological development was relatively slow. Today, anyone holding the same ideas for twenty years would be hopelessly outdated. We need to publish as soon as we understand that our ideas make sense. And if we cannot act upon our ideas, we need to find others who can.
Creative by a proxy
Not always we get to implement our ideas and enjoy the fruits of our work. Quite often we are left with a hard choice. Either we teach someone all the details of our creation and see that person getting all the credit or we let our idea die. Both choices are not very pleasant, yet it is better to give up our creations. Not everyone is so rich that can painlessly present a Hyperloop idea to the public. Vincent Van Gogh died penniless in an asylum, but at least he got to paint his masterpieces. Some people come up with a great idea, yet it is implemented by others. Ray Kroc bought the McDonald‘s chain from the Richard and Maurice McDonald brothers for a small amount, implementing their ideas as a franchise. I had a hard time coming up with famous examples: the original inventors simply do not get credit and we do not know about it. Yet, it is still probably better than letting a great idea die.
As we implement our ideas, pass our old ideas to others, or forget that we had them to begin with, we open up to new ideas. Oliver Lodge was a great scientist and inventor. Yet, he was beaten more than once by other inventors, most notably Marconi, by mear months in the race for lifechanging patents. Four of his twelve children went into business using his inventions. He was a great person, yet we almost forgot his name. What I find exceptional about inventors like Tesla or Edison, is their ability to let go of the previous invention and focus on inventing something new.
Why is giving up so hard?
It is very hard to give up the old idea and focus on something new because of several cognitive biases that served us well through history. First, once we have something we really have to let go. Something we already have is valued by us on average twice as high as something we don’t. Then, we are looking for a confirmation that our original idea was a good one. We would very much hate if anyone finds us wrong, and we are sometimes even willing to die for the things we believe in. Additionally, most of us are optimists. We truly believe that everything will work out just fine in the last moment, even when the evidence point otherwise.
Do not rush killing the old ideas
Quite often we see the revival of old trends. Something which was thought to be wrong could eventually become true. Tomas Edison succeeded with his electric lamp after thousands of failures. We always hear stories about remarkable recoveries. People whos timing was off and who arrived at the idea too early often fail to admit that timing was their only problem, and do not want to believe that the idea can actually succeed.
My personal position
You might have noticed that I am somewhat personal and emotional about some of the subjects discussed. I have been being some of the positions mentioned occasionally, and I am not willing to get into details. If there is anything I learned from the experience, is humility. Anything can happen and we need to be open to new things, otherwise, we will feel regrets for missed opportunities. If something does not succeed, it should be delayed for better opportunity or timing. If the better opportunity comes we need to use it, even when we failed miserably a couple of years before that. And if there is someone more suitable to implement our ideas, we should probably assist that person and hope to get the credits we deserved. Success is a matter of luck, but real life creativity is something anyone can learn.