Standing Upon the Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

I have come to realize that one of the greatest misunderstandings about creativity is the incorrect belief that a creative idea must be totally original. Perfectly good ideas are disposed of because the originator, or individuals the originator expresses the idea to, are familiar with the concepts from which the idea was derived and dismiss it as a likeness.

There is no such thing as a completely original idea. Every novel concept is a patchwork of earlier ideas that have been uniquely merged, and every new discovery, unless it was blind luck that required no thought, is revealed through the application of existing concepts engineered in a novel way.

As time goes on, one of the central themes you will hear from me is that creativity relies heavily on knowledge. You can’t put two and two together until someone teaches you what numbers are. You can’t even express your idea until someone teaches you how to talk. Creative ideas are built upon the bedrock of existing knowledge.

Nearly everything you now know was learned from someone else. Whether that someone else was the author of a book, the artist who created your favorite painting, or simply people who taught you directly, like your parents and teachers, friends and colleagues; your fountain of knowledge springs from very deep wells.

Too often we tend to see the things that are completely new to us as being the most creative ideas. But that is only due to the fact that we have no knowledge of the foundation upon which those things were built.

Creativity is not a measure of our own ignorance. It is wrong to say that one idea is very creative because we knew nothing about the concepts that led to it, and conversely say that something is not very creative simply because we understand all the foundational concepts quite well.

It is easy to perceive a very intelligent person with novel ideas as being very creative because we simply don’t understand how they arrived at their new concepts. But, if we had the time to learn all the same things that person knew that led to their new idea, we would be unlikely to marvel quite so much.

Those new big ideas, the seemingly incredible revelations, spring from vast landscapes of novel ideas that we know nothing about, and the sum of the novelty, due to our own ignorance, makes it all seem that much more fantastic. But to the people who built the foundation that led to the big idea, the final creative connection will seem quite small.

The point to take away from this is that you are doing yourself, or others, a great disservice by dismissing novel ideas simply because you already understand the concepts that the ideas were woven from. In instances like this, the very creativity that is sought is trampled underfoot. You must learn to identify the novelty of that new idea, despite the foundation it was built from, and give credit where and when credit is due.

The true measure of creativity is usefulness, not our own ignorance.

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