The future belongs to the combinatorial creatives

Article recovered from archives of my old blog originally written on the 18th of June 2019. This article captures what the old me called a ‘journal entry’ and it is a fascinating time capsule of who I was at the time and what I was grappling with in my mind.

Recently, I have taken an interest in the field of combinatorial creativity, which has led me to the thoughts and work of Maria Popova and Albert Einstein. Let’s dive into it…

All about combinatorial creativity

Maria Popova is a Bulgarian-born writer, blogger, literary and cultural critic living in Brooklyn, New York. She is known for her speeches and her blog

Maria Popova is one of the greatest curators of our time. She’s an advocate for ‘information discovery’, ‘dot-connecting’ and more importantly ‘combinatorial creativity.’

Here’s how Popova describes the curatorial process and combinatorial creativity in her own words.

In an age of information overload, information discovery — the service of bringing to the public’s attention that which is interesting, meaningful, important, and otherwise worthy of our time and thought — is a form of creative and intellectual labour, and one of increasing importance and urgency.

– Maria Popova on information discovery

First things first — ‘curation’ is a terrible term. It has been used so frivolously and applied so indiscriminately that it’s become vacant of meaning. But I firmly believe that the ethos at its core — a drive to find the interesting, meaningful, and relevant amidst the vast maze of overabundant information, creating a framework for what matters in the world and why — is an increasingly valuable form of creative and intellectual labour, a form of authorship that warrants thought.

– Maria Popova on curativity

The role of information curators: They are our curiosity sherpas, who lead us to things we didn’t know we were interested in until we, well, until we are. Until we pay attention to them — because someone whose taste and opinion we trust points us to them, and we integrate them with our existing pool of resources, and they become a part of our networked knowledge.

– Maria Popova on interest networks

To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.

– Maria Popova on creativity

Here’s to filling our mental petri dishes with the best, most diverse and cross-disciplinary ideas possible, so we can be our best combinatorial mashup-selves.

– Maria Popova on combinatorial creativity

In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces.

– Maria Popova on combinatorial creativity

Something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.

– Maria Popova on combinatorial creativity

Want even more inspiration from modern combinatorial creators?

Creativity is simply the ability to connect the dots that others might never think to connect.

– Carolyn Gregoire

In the course of creative endeavours, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.

– Vera John-Steiner

Since we’ve established that nothing is “new,” what can we learn from the great combinatorial creators of the past?

We must understand that eventually everything connects:

Eventually everything connects–people, ideas, objects…the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.

– Charles Eames

We need to learn how to see:

Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.

– Leonardo da Vinci

Thinking must lead to productive thought:

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.

– Albert Einstein

Want to start? Find where the last person left off:

I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off.

– Thomas Edison

A good idea is never lost. Even though its originator or possessor may die without publicising it, it will someday be reborn in the mind of another… — Thomas Edison

To end this article, here is a letter that Mark Twain penned to Helen Keller after she was accused of plagiarism:

As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify…It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

– Mark Twain, letter to Helen Keller