On The 7 Building Blocks Of Creativity

0. Intro

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you have ever wondered what the building blocks of creativity might look like—the greatest hits, as seen by a practitioner—then you are in the right place. These are the seven elemental themes that I see pop up over and over again, the themes I’ve seen power creative pursuits:

  1. On Beginnings
  2. On Curiosity
  3. On Priming The (Knowledge) Pump
  4. On Involvement (And Community)
  5. On Inspiration, Or, Finding The Spark
  6. On Blending (Across Disciplines)
  7. On Courage And Grit

By no means comprehensive, the above-mentioned building blocks will serve you well—therein lies my hope—by serving as signposts for you in charting your own course, and for you to eventually come up with an atlas of your own. Several of these, I should add, have been inspired by working alongside some of the smartest people on the planet, and they come on the heels of some of my earlier work in this area:

With that, let’s begin our journey, one building block at a time.

1. On Beginnings

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Beginnings can be notoriously difficult: Ask, for example, (1) the software technologist on the verge of moving from the analysis of a problem to writing the very first line of code to implement the solution, or (2) a writer staring at a blank page, trying to wrench a felicitous word or two onto the seemingly intractable expanse of that first page.

If that describes you—and I’ll be the first one to fess up that both of the above-mentioned scenarios have described me down to a tee—rest assured that you (and I) are in good company. At this time, let’s throw perfection out the window; there will be plenty of time later for perfecting your product.

Beginnings are special, so take a page from Goethe—”Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it”—and go with the flow. There you go: The first building block of creativity.

Wait, what? Cat ahoy!

2. On Curiosity

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
— Albert Einstein

My feline pal, as you’ll note in the pic above, is looking half approvingly—and half disapprovingly, to be sure—at the unfolding scene from the comfort of his cushy perch, master of all he surveys. He can be forgiven, wouldn’t you agree, for being on the fence, given the intensity of the situation: A math-heavy on machine learning, flung wide open to a multicolor illustration of what seems to be a Pythagorean perspective on the steepest gradient descent algorithm.

What I’m trying to get at here is that if cats can be curious, so can we, amirite?

As a child, you have likely experienced curiosity as a driving force, one organizing your waking hours. What happens, though, when we grow up? Why does this elemental force—curiosity—slip through our fingers as we age, scarcely to heard from again, much less inform our waking hours?

And here, what I’m trying to get at is taking inspiration from the illustrious and inimitable Einstein when, in all his modesty, he opined, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

If it’s good enough for Einstein, I say it’s good enough for you (and I.) And there you have the second building block of creativity.


3. On Priming The (Knowledge) Pump

Chance favors the prepared mind.
— Louis Pasteur

Imagination will take you places, but first you have to prepare the soil for it to take root. In other words, there’s a lot going for the popular saying that you have  to generate a lot of ideas in order to get a good idea (or two, or three.) But where does one get a hold of this ability to generate ideas?

Enter “The Idea Factory.”

Okay, Akram, so how do we get a hold of your fabled Idea Factory?“, you ask, and not all that demurely either. Why, glad you did. The short answer is: “Diversify.” (Hey, I told you it was going to be a short answer, amirite?) A good place to start is by simply reading outside your immediate area of interest. I urge you to stay with this one, our third building block (of creativity.)

Here’s the thing. We all need some kind of generative “source” on our side, a source with which to power our generation of ideas; while creativity is not automatically renewable, it does have elements of renewability if you tend to it. (I invite you to recall our running metaphor, the one positing that imagination will take you places, but first you have to prepare the soil for it to take root.)

In other words, there’s a lot also going for another popular saying, the one about how a nation of readers is a nation of leaders.

(And as you grapple with making the fabled idea factory—that vaunted generative “source” of ideas—your own, may the force be with you.)

4. On Involvement (And Community)

None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.
— Mother Teresa

It’s time to let you in on a secret…

Creativity, at least as I’ve come to understand it over the years, is far from a spectator sport. It’s not something that you read about; it’s something that you do.

So once you’ve primed the pump—something we tackled but a minute ago, in the guise of generating ideas—it’s time to put that knowledge to maximum effect, to truly make it your own. All those wonderful ideas need execution for them to unfold unto fruition, amirite?

Imagine for a moment—and here I invite you to simultaneously peek at the picture above—that you are strolling through a courtyard lined with idea-rich stuff,  evocative paintings perhaps. Not to go too meta, but you have just engaged in extra-cranial activity: You have extended your mind’s processing heft by latching on to external objects—in the style of Andy Clark—all in the service of extending your involvement within the community. In a way, this is artists and patrons shaking hands. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Great things—”wonderful things,” as Mother Teresa lovingly put it in her quote above—are but an outgrowth of small things that have been tended with love.

Now, for a whole lot more on exactly how engaging with similar extra-cranial resources—the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the minds of those around us—can help us create more imaginatively, I invite you to check out a fine new book by Annie Murphy Paulo. It is titled The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. So far I’ve skimmed through (large portions of) it, and the verdict: It sure merits a close look.

Wrapping up the fourth building block now. (We are on a roll, one building block at a time.)

Okay, having done my bit to engage you with looking outward, it’s only fair that we touch the other end of the spectrum: Turning your focus inward. Observe the pic coming right up…

Goodness, this poor soul finds himself trapped in… a lightbulb, amirite?

5. On Inspiration, Or, Finding The Spark

You can’t start a fire without a spark
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
— Bruce Springsteen (lyrics from Dancing In The Dark)

Since the brave soul doesn’t appear to be bothered much by the predicament he’s in—I wouldn’t envy being sealed inside an oversized lightbulb, that’s for sure—we’ll hold off from sending up SOS flares, heh.

But the idea here, if you’ll forgive my analogy to the “sparky” aspects we normally associate with lightbulbs, is simply this: If ever you find yourself doing stuff you don’t enjoy, please stop. (This is the most subjective of the seven building blocks I lay out for you, so please bear with me.)

Your intuition is—or at least it can be if you let it do its thing—a remarkably powerful critter. Look for stuff with which you resonate. Or perhaps reimagine the mundane in a new light, thereby elevating stuff above the quotidian.

Our story would get much too long, so should you wish to explore some more, my (personal) take on this can be found at these coordinates.

Now, taking a final look over the shoulder, at the brave soul above—you know the one still sealed inside that humongous lightbulb—I have to wonder whether the idea (of such an, um, glassy enclosure) his idea, or did it all take place unbeknownst to him, such was the intensity of his  enviable concentration to the task at hand? Talk about conquering complexity, because

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.
– Ernst Friedrich Schumacher

(And yes, we’re still holding off from sending up SOS flares for our lightbulb chap.)

That wraps up the fifth building block of creativity.

6. On Blending (Across Disciplines)

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
– Jelaluddin Rumi

Going out on a limb here, I invite you to check the oil painting above, one by yours truly from an evening when he found himself inspired by visions of Fallingwater—ethereally beautiful architecture designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright—and decided to put paintbrush to paper. (Oops, now my writing staff tells me! Fallingwater was supposed to be one word, not two as my painting would have you believe. Heh.)

My point here is: You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it.

So don’t let anything stand in your way when it comes to experimenting across disciplines. In my worldview, all boundaries—borders drawn between the arts and engineering and even the sciences, for example—are utterly arbitrary.

Yes, specializing is all well and good, but a pursuit best served when leavened by the mindset of avoiding tunnel vision. This sentiment was memorably underscored by Edward Ashford Lee in his remarkable book, published by The MIT Press, and titled Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology when he noted how

…specialists know more and more about less and less, until they eventually know everything about nothing. Then they become professors, and the courses they teach become barriers, weeding out unsuspecting undergraduates who simply aren’t prepared for the sophistication of the specialty.

Should you wish for more insight into this building block of creativity which we’ve betokened “blending”—this time as seen from the eyes of a software practitioner—I have this to offer.

And with that, we have just one more building block to go. Like LEGO, these blocks can be extended in (countably) infinite ways.

7. On Courage And Grit

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.
— Albert Einstein

No guts, no glory. We’ve all heard it, amirite? But what does that have to do with this seventh (and final) building block of creativity?

Good question, because the relationship between the two is anything but obvious. And it’s Einstein to the rescue again: If grit were the theme, then his memorable quote above—his oh so modestly opining that “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer“—would be the rallying cry which would echo forth from this particular building block.

Here’s why… Facing failure is an inevitable part of any pursuit worth, well, pursuing. Creativity is not different in this regard: The courage to pick oneself up after falling, the grit to stay in the game even when your hands are bruised and your knees smarting. Courage is worth its weight in gold; it’s the difference between half-done and well done.

I can’t think of anything to add, really, other than to add my affirmation to do my bit to practice what I’m preaching, amirite?

We’re gathered our building blocks. Now it’s for you to assemble them, and for you to leave your unique mark on the world. The picture we were painting is now complete.

Speaking of paintings—and taking a sneak peak into the goings on captured in the pic coming right up—all I can say is…

Wait, what?

It sure looks like somebody’s been wanting to take you behind the scenes so you can see for yourself how to make a “mess”—excuse me, that’s my “painting” we’re talking about, and I’m standing by my story, paintbrush and oil paints in my hands—if only to underscore the tenet of creativity that it isn’t something you read about; it’s something you do. (That, you’ll recall, also happened to be our fourth building block, the one where we got to learn a thing or two about involvement and community as first-class citizens of the creative world.)

The takeaway: Take courage to heart. (That, in fact, is the unstated message in Einstein quote atop this section… Stay with problems longer. That’s what separates the wheat from the chaff.)

We are ready for a cooling-down lap. (Our runner, pictured above, with grit written large across his face, needs some rest, too, amirite?)

8. Afterword

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.
— Rabindranath Tagore

Going out on a limb here, I invite you to check the oil painting above, one by yours truly from an evening when he found himself inspired by visions of Fallingwater—ethereally beautiful architecture designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright—and decided to put paintbrush to paper. (Oops, now my writing staff tells me! Fallingwater was supposed to be one word, not two as my painting would have you believe. Heh.)

Finally, here’s the cooling-down lap I had promised a minute ago.

Yes, beginnings are essential, that’s why (1) I chose them as our very first building block. And to get the ball really rolling, we saw (2) that cultivating curiosity is well nigh indispensable, which is why it became our second building block. Then there was (3) the primal building block, that of priming the (knowledge) pump, serving as our third building block. Next up (4) was involvement (and community), and on its heels followed (5) our fifth building block, inspiration, or, finding the spark. The last two building blocks—(6) blending (across disciplines) and (7) cultivating courage and grit—rounded out our blocks of all things creative.

Our journey draws to a close…

In the ineffably beautiful words of Tagore—”Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.“—words which emblazon the beginning of this section, we’ve come full circle.

Nothing left to do but take one last, wistful look at the bricks of gold?

I say, contrariwise, this is but the beginning. I know, I know: There are beginnings and  then there are endings. Speaking of which—c’mon, you’ve got to cut us some slack and let us digress now and then—let’s harken back to the following intriguing observation to bring real closure:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
~ Sir Winston Churchill (“The End of the Beginning”)

I think you’re beginning to see what I have been trying to get at over the span of this essay: The seemingly enigmatic Churchillian observation above, serving as a bookend of sorts, is but to underscore the message for you to go forth and chart your own journey.

And when you do, please be sure to come back and share your insights with us.

Meanwhile, you’ll be the best judge of whether my quoting Saint-Exupéry up atop this essay—”Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away“—was on the mark. How you go about assembling the building blocks (of creativity) will have the hallmarks that are uniquely yours. But I’m sure you’ll use these blocks, LEGO-like, extending them in infinite directions, Jenga-style.

Good luck!


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