A good pair of eyes on the back of your head

I hear a lot about about how creativity is primarily looking forward for purely new, innovative ways of doing things.

I don’t have a lot to say about this.

But I do have a few thoughts on this one-sided thinking:

1. Ingenuity isn’t just creating something from nothing; it’s about seeing the old through a new lens, making new connections and putting things together in powerful new ways. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about the greatest inventions being combinations of already existing technologies.

2. Having eyes in the back of your head does not mean you should put a blindfold on the eyes in front. When you just look backward, you tend to repeat what works without seeking new ways to improve it. When you only look forward, you don’t learn from past successes and failures. This is redundant and I probably am saying nothing useful. But what I think is interesting is the phenomena that takes place in the human mind when we force ourselves to look backward and forwards at the same time.

At first, there’s a sort of confusion or tension. The brain begins to scramble to put together such a complicated representation of time: analyzing the past while stepping into the future. Then the lights come on  It’s like thinking in three dimensions. You feel like Neo transcending the matrix.

Whatever you want to call it, I believe this phenomena can only happen when you are willing to have the tact and discipline to analyze the past while still having the futuristic drive to step into unfamiliar territory.

3. It is easy to mistake novelty for genius. We’ve seen a lot of useless innovations that were novel and popular for a short time, but then fell off the map becuse that’s all they were. I think when we discipline ourselves to ask hard questions like, “what have been some really troubling problems that this invention could help address? In what ways can this creation improve or reinvent something that is already very useful and valuable? Is this technology complete within itself, or do I need to supplement it with another invention?” I don’t think we come across these questions until we learn to use the eyes in the back of our heads.

4. It is possible to fly too high, move too fast and focus too hard on the future. Rhythm shows up in our universe at every turn. Sleep cycles, seasons, tides; light and dark, cool and warm, active and passive, rest and exertion, giving and receiving, etc etc. The balance of nature is a constant reminder that good things come to those who don’t gravitate to one extreme or the other.  We must to be able to move back and forth, into the past and into the future, in order to get anywhere. 

Sometimes, stepping away from the strained fixation on a nebulous problem can be exactly what you need to solve the problem.  Most familiar is the anecdotal advice to “sleep on it”.  But here is a helpful real-life example of this balance from a Time article called “The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind“:

In 1990 a team of NASA scientists was trying to fix the distorted lenses in the Hubble telescope, which was already in orbit. An expert in optics suggested that tiny inversely distorted mirrors could correct the images, but nobody could figure out how to fit them into the hard-to-reach space inside. Then engineer Jim Crocker, taking a shower in a German hotel, noticed the European-style showerhead mounted on adjustable rods. He realized the Hubble’s little mirrors could be extended into the telescope by mounting them on similar folding arms. And this flash was the key to fixing the problem.


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