Good news: You don't have to be a sorcerer or even a genius to come up with brilliant ideas or inventions. According to Professor R. Keith Sawyer at Washington University in St. Louis, the latest research shows that you have a much better chance of being creative than previously thought.
I decided to examine how well Sawyer's theory (described in his fascinating book, Explaining Creativity: the Science of Human Innovation) applies to three great, early pioneers of telecom: Samuel Morse (of telegraph fame), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone) and Guglielmo Marconi (the father of wireless).
Sawyer says the study of creativity is plagued by a number of myths. These include "creativity is spontaneous inspiration" and "creativity is the same thing as originality." He debunks the notions that creativity is an inherited trait, is often associated with mental illness or is most frequently exhibited by a genius working alone. In a lecture, he boiled it all down to two key conclusions: creative people are ordinary people using ordinary thought processes; and people are most creative when collaborating with others.
Sawyer makes many good points, and supports them with solid examples and references. But I'm not convinced his conclusions follow.
Are creative people actually ordinary people using ordinary thought processes? Morse was an unusually ambitious, versatile and inquisitive individual. He was an artist, inventor and (admittedly not very successful) politician. Bell's family distinguished itself educating the deaf and treating people with speech impairments. He pursued inventions ranging from the telephone to precursors of the iron lung and helicopter. Marconi believed there were practical applications for wireless communications when European scientists were virtually unanimous in the opinion there were not.
No doubt Morse, Bell and Marconi used ordinary thought processes in the sense that they did not possess supernatural powers. But like other great inventors and thinkers, they spent much of their lives swimming against the current, and possessed the uncommon intestinal fortitude needed to fend off frequent attacks.
Are people most creative when collaborating with others? That's a tough question. Certainly Morse, Bell and Marconi enlisted partners. But I believe the record shows that in the process of inventing, each acted more or less alone. Their partners were lab assistants and business managers -- not co-inventors.
What, if anything, does this mean for IT professionals? Sawyer's book is carefully researched and well written. However, he mistakenly lumps together Creativity with a big "C" and everyday problem solving. If you want to be more effective at your job, there is a good chance you will draw inspiration from Sawyer's book. We could all use more creativity with a small "c" in our daily lives.
But if you want to leave your mark on this world like Morse, Bell and Marconi, you need to be driven, obsessed with an idea and prepared to hunker down by yourself for as long as it takes to develop and promote your idea -- and you have to do it at precisely the right moment in history.
Brodsky is president of Datacomm Research Co. of St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.