You are what you let in
We live in an age where barriers are falling. Luck and skill are the only real impediments to my tweets, posts, updates or snaps setting the internet ablaze. The same can be said across industries and professions, as technology demolishes gatekeepers, shirks distance and weakens the moat of expertise.
It’s not quite right that all you need is a good idea. But almost. It definitely helps. The thing is, where do you get the idea? Where do they come from?
I’ve been taking a look at writing on creativity in the past week, reading Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, and devouring Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. Actually, I’ve well and truly fallen down the Kleon rabbit hole. I’m halfway through his second book, Show Your Work, and have spent far too much time on his blog.
It was an idea from early in Steal Like An Artist that really captured my imagination. Kleon is rather insistent on the concept that everything new is inherently informed by what has come before. There are no new ideas, but plays on old ones. Borrowings, remixes and mashups. As a result, it is vitally important to watch what you allow in. What you consume is directly tied to what you create.
“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”
A similar idea runs through Johnson’s book, which is full of beautiful examples of inventors “borrowing” from other fields. My favourite is Gutenberg, whose printing press repurposed a bunch of pre-existing technologies – movable type, ink, paper, and the wine press – a tool ubiquitous in his homeland. The Gutenberg press wasn’t the result of a stroke of brilliance, a revolution or technological leap forward, but of remixing things that already existed.
Of course, it’s not enough to just open your mind and let all the good stuff in. After all, I have far more access to ideas and information than any of my 17th century heroes. So Johnson introduces another, related idea, the commonplace book:
“Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters – just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. The great minds of the period – Milton, Bacon, Locke – were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book.”
“In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.”
Imbibing good stuff is the first step. From there, you need to do something with it. Write it down. Try and draw some connections. Read and re read it. Apparently this was something Darwin was wont to do, as he not only took down new ideas, but reasoned them out on paper.
“Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”