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Unlocking Combinatorial Creativity: A new look at creativity and what ignites it.

An artist, neuroscientist, and hacker are on my balcony drinking wine and eating an assortment of cheese. The punchline?

Plot twist — there isn’t one. This actually just happened last week.

It’s common for us to believe that anything that sounds like a random group of individuals coming together is the beginning of a bad joke. In such a siloed world (where we only interact with those in our discipline, specific classes, immediate workplace, etc.), seldom do we have the chance to stray away from our echo chambers of the same-old same-old same-old same-o…oh.

This is where our minds go stale and we flatline on our thinking — nothing funny about that.

However, if you bring random, eccentric individuals together, you get a ticking bomb. The explosion of creativity, critical thinking, and intellectual discourse to follow only really needs a few minutes to ignite.

This was exactly the mission in creating “Geek Night Out.”

Geek Night Out

Friends now think of me as an orchestrator. This was after selectively inviting very uniquely geeky friends for get togethers that resulted in new heights of social stimulation. Little did my friends know, I was very purposefully orchestrating these meetings of minds so I can engage in incredibly intellectual and creative conversations that I felt I was lacking.

In actuality, I just wanted to spark the type of conversation you would think geniuses have and introduce my friends nonchalantly to others that they would have never otherwise interacted with. I wanted to create a new dynamic, one that our normal routine doesn’t satisfy us with.

Basically, to create an antidote for the societal sickness of overwhelming daily exchanges on very underwhelming topics. A safe place for unreserved, unhindered intellectual discourse that takes a life of its own.

Cross-Pollination Of Disciplines & Engines of Creativity

In 2010 Steven Johnson reveals the significance of the benefits of these cross disciplinary conversations best in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From:

“The great driver of scientific and technological innovation was the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”

Different parts of our brain are being triggered by different perspectives and ways of thinking — our own “hunches” colliding with other’s “hunches” give way to the emergence of breakthroughs.

Throughout the night, I witnessed this interdisciplinary cross-pollination starting with my neuroscience friend chatting up my spiritual friend within the first 10 minutes of arriving only for me to overhear him say “Well you see, at the molecular level, physics…”

Jumping to another exchange between an entrepreneur and a computer scientist, I got a glimpse of “capitalism is a failed system, we need philosopher kings as Plato has insisted.”

Another conversation took off with my friend in finance talking about jail occupancy and the industry of making money off of students loans, only to be followed by discussions on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Imagine that. It was probably their first time discussing such topics at such depth with complete different walks of life…and it wasn’t because of the wine.

Say what?

These conversations would have never taken place under normal circumstance. Essentially, our “Geek Night Outs” became our version of coffee houses in the age of Enlightenment or Parisian salons of Modernism — an engine of creativity. This video explains this concept wonderfully:

No Geeky Friends? No Worries!

The benefits of cross-pollinated thinking does not necessarily require a gathering of eccentric minds to create, but rather, we can trigger this by ourselves as well. By picking up various hobbies, learning about a new subject, reading the material you would never have read, you essentially engage your brain in new ways and get new gears turning. Maria Popova explains this concisely in her piece in The Smithsonian Magazine:

“We can optimize our minds for combinatorial creativity — by enriching our mental pool of resources with diverse, eclectic, cross-disciplinary pieces which to fuse together into new combinations. For creativity, after all, is a lot like LEGO — if we only have a few bricks of one shape, size, and color, what we build would end up dreadfully drab and uniform; but if we equip ourselves with a bag of colorful bricks of various shapes and sizes, the imaginative temples we build might appear to an onlooker to have been inspired by “a ray of grace,” yet we need only look to our bag of LEGOs to be reminded from whence they came.”

Even Einstein famously attributed some of his most renowned physics breakthroughs to his violin practice, which he was sure connected different parts of his brain in new and novel ways.

Mind at work.

Let’s Picture It

Of course, in one of my favorite blogs called Brainpickings, they already broke this whole concept down beautifully in 3 graphics:

I like to think of it this way: We take information, from it synthesize insight, which in turn germinates ideas.

And then we take these ideas, ours and those of others, we toss them into our mental reservoir…

…where they sit and sort of just float around until one day they float into just the right alignment to click into a new idea.


Combinatorial Creativity in Play

Almost every invention we see today has been prompted by some interdisciplinary collaboration and creativity.

The airplane was the result of combining the internal combustion engine with nascent knowledge of fluid dynamics and good sewing skills. The CDMA technology in your cell phone was the result of some physicists applying their knowledge of thermodynamics into a new field of information theory, and then combining that again with the help of some electrical engineers into a device.

Maybe the interesting thing is the converse: how rarely an isolated group of people, all of whose backgrounds and educations are identical, come up with anything interesting and new. Self-reinforcing habits and dogmas are not a good recipe for revolution (Frank Mot).

Looking to the future, most of the opportunities will come from being able to utilize combinatorial creativity to seek out solutions. In science alone, “cross-disciplinary collaborations are seen as key if we are to find solutions to pressing, global-scale societal challenges, including green technologies, sustainable food production, and drug development” (PLOS Journal).

It all could start with a “Geek Night” of your own — removing yourself from your echo chamber and embracing interdisciplinary thinking and learning.

Concluding Thoughts

I want to leave everyone with this saying by Eleanor Roosevelt I have always appreciated:

Small minds discuss people.
Average minds discuss events.
Great minds discuss ideas.

During last week’s Geek Night Out, ideas electrified the air and we had colliding hunches igniting creativity all around. The ideas that emerge from such sustained interactions are the kinds of ideas that could change the world. Needless to say, it was indeed a very good kind of intoxication.

Takeaway: interact with all walks of life, be receptive to new ideas, challenge old ideas, and drink responsibly. Cheers.

Tara Demren is a social entrepreneur, poet & insight capturer who is fascinated about startup culture and why we are the way we are. She is the host of Tea Time with Tara, which curates high quality content & shares life takeaways for all.