Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity

Keith Sawyer

Created on Tuesday, July 30, 2013.
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This book stresses creativity as a learned set of behaviours centred around both play and perseverance.


Here are the eight steps, with short descriptions so you can see how they fit together:

  1. Ask. Creativity starts with a penetrating research question, a startling vision for a new work of art, an urgent business challenge, a predicament in your personal life. Mastering the discipline of asking means you’re always looking for good problems, always seeking new inspiration. You know where you’re going, and yet you’re receptive to questions that emerge unexpectedly.
  2. Learn. In a creative life, you’re constantly learning, practicing, mastering, becoming an expert. You seek out knowledge not only in formal classrooms but also from mentors, experts, books, magazines, film, Web sites, nature, music, art, philosophy, science
  3. Look. You are constantly, quietly aware. You don’t just see what you expect to see. You see the new, the unusual, the surprising. You see what others take for granted, and what they incorrectly assume. You expose yourself to new experiences eagerly, without hesitation; you regularly seek out new stimuli, new situations, and new information.
  4. Play. The creative life is filled with play — the kind of unstructured activity that children engage in for the sheer joy of it. You free your mind for imagination and fantasy, letting your unconscious lead you into uncharted territory. You envision how things might be; you create alternate worlds in your mind. The debt we owe to the play of imagination, Carl Jung wrote, is incalculable.
  5. Think. The creative life is filled with new ideas. Your mind tirelessly generates possibilities. You don’t clamp down, because you realize most of these ideas won’t pan out — at least not for the current project. But successful creativity is a numbers game: when you have tons of ideas, some of them are sure to be great.
  6. Fuse. Creative minds are always bouncing ideas together, looking for unexpected combinations. Successful creativity never comes from a single idea. It always comes from many ideas in combination, whether we recognize them or not. The creative life doesn’t box its concepts into separate compartments; it fuses and re-fuses them.
  7. Choose. A creative life is lived in balance, held steady by the constant tension between uncritical, wide-open idea generation (brainstorming, done right) and critical examination and editing. Choosing is essential, because not all ideas and combinations are ideal for your purposes. The key is to use the right criteria to critique them, so you can cull the best and discard any that would prove inferior, awkward, or a waste of your time.
  8. Make. In the creative life, it’s not enough to just have ideas. You need to make good ideas a reality. You continually externalize your thoughts — and not just the polished, finished ones. You get even your rough-draft, raw ideas out into the world in some physical form, as quickly as possible. Making — a draft, a drawing, a prototype, a plan — helps you fuse your ideas, choose among them, and build on what you like.


Back in the 1970s many psychologists argued that creativity was just another name for problem solving. We now know they were wrong, because most successful creativity comes through the process that led to Instagram and Starbucks: you begin without yet knowing what the real problem is. The parameters aren’t clearly specified, the goal isn’t clear, and you don’t even know what it would look like if you did solve the problem. It’s not obvious how to apply your past experience solving other problems. And there are likely to be many different ways to approach a solution. These grope-in-the-dark situations are the times you need creativity the most. And that’s why successful creativity always starts with asking.


The pioneering creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chik-sent-mee-hi), who was one of my mentors at the University of Chicago, decided to answer that question. He and a team of fellow psychologists from the University of Chicago spent a year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the top art schools in the United States. How do creative works come into being? they wanted to know. They set up an experimental studio in which they positioned two tables. One was empty, the other laden with a variety of objects, including a bunch of grapes, a steel gearshift, a velvet hat, a brass horn, an antique book, and a glass prism. They then recruited thirty-one student artists and instructed them to choose several items, position them any way they liked on the empty table, and draw the arrangement. After observing the artists, Csikszentmihalyi was able to identify two distinct artistic approaches. One group took only a few minutes to select and pose the objects. They spent another couple of minutes sketching an overall composition and the rest of their time refining, shading, and adding details to the composition. Their approach was to formulate a visual problem quickly and then invest their effort in solving that problem. The second group could not have been more different. These artists spent five or ten minutes examining the objects, turning them around to view them from all angles. After they made their choices, they often changed their mind, went back to the table, and replaced one object with another. They drew the arrangement for twenty or thirty minutes and then changed their mind again, rearranged the objects, and erased and completely redrew their sketch. After up to an hour like this, students in this group settled on an idea and finished the drawing in five or ten minutes. Unlike the first group — which spent most of the time solving a visual problem — this group was searching for a visual problem. The research team called this a problem-finding creative style. Which artists’ work was more creative: that of the problem solvers or that of the problem finders? Csikszentmihalyi asked a team of five Art Institute professors to rate the creativity of each drawing. With few exceptions, the problem finders’ drawings were judged far more creative than the problem solvers’ — even though their exploratory process left them much less time to devote to the final image, which was all the judges (who knew nothing of the process involved) were evaluating. The most creative artists were those who focused on asking the right question.


The CIA developed a checklist of good questions that they call Phoenix. Here is my condensed (and paraphrased) version of the CIA list:

  1. Why does this problem need to be solved?
  2. What benefits come from solving the problem?
  3. What don’t you understand yet?
  4. What information do you have? Is it sufficient? Is it contradictory?
  5. Put a boundary around the problem be clear about what is not the problem.
  6. What are the various parts of the problem? Identify and describe the relationships among the parts.
  7. What cannot be changed about this problem? (Don’t assume something can’t be changed when in fact it can.)
  8. Think of another case of this same problem, but perhaps in a slightly different form, or in a different area altogether. Can you use the same solution, analogically? If not, can you use a component of the solution, or the method that led to that solution?

The original Phoenix list features more than forty questions, including How will you know when you have succeeded? and Can you use this problem to solve some other problems?


Paradoxically, bad ideas, even the world’s worst, can lead you to good ones. Start by listing the absolute worst ideas you can think of. Then try to identify potentially good features of these terrible concepts. The marketing consultant Andy Stefanovich describes two true cases. At a toy company, he and his team came up with the idea of a hooker doll. Truly the worst! But when the group talked about it a bit more, they realized that this doll drew on make-believe play that little girls love: dressing up, dancing, and going out on the town. When the laughter settled down, this appalling idea actually gave rise to a doll that was successful. She was given a backstory — the life of a sophisticated woman, with limos, nightclubs, and dance parties. (You can no doubt understand why the toy company wants to remain anonymous!)


Transform your problem by stretching it, to make it a broader, more universal question, or squeezing it, to create a narrower, more tightly focused question. These two exercises work because when you’re stumped, it’s often because you’re pondering your problem at the wrong level of abstraction. Stretching makes it more abstract; squeezing makes it more concrete. Stretch by using the Five Whys technique keep asking why, up to five times, until you get to a powerful new formulation of the problem:

  1. Why don’t I have a girlfriend? (because I don’t meet any women)
  2. Why don’t I meet any women? (because I have a demanding job and I have no spare time)
  3. Why is my job so demanding? (because I enjoy it and I’m committed to the work)
  4. Why am I so committed to my job? (because my work is making a real difference in the world) You know you’re on the right track when the whys get you to a new how question:
  5. How can I stay committed to my job and still have time to socialize more?

Now you’ve arrived back at a concrete question, but an entirely new one that could actually yield a creative solution. The secret is that the new question, informed by a broadened look at your life and your values, actually gets at the root cause of your dilemma. The first question turns out to be a symptom, and most likely a temporary one now that you know how to treat it.


Experts’ brains are filled with important domain-related concepts and approaches. And because of that, when they face a creative challenge, they can quickly access the knowledge they need for a creative solution. People who are less creative are still sitting there looking puzzled and blank, because they think in terms of specific facts and methods. Their brains may be stuffed, but it’s hard for them to retrieve any meaningful knowledge.


And nearly any creative genius who’s honest will admit that a creative block isn’t some psychic fugue state; it comes because he or she hasn’t learned enough, hasn’t gathered enough information or inspiration, hasn’t worked through the logic of what he or she is trying to do.


Here’s a clear signal that you need to spend time on learning: you find yourself asking questions that have already been answered. If this happens more than once, stop — you’re wasting time going down these well-worn paths. Step back, and focus on learning. Another signal that you need more learning is that it’s pretty easy to answer your question. That sounds wonderful, right? But what usually happens when it’s too easy is that the answer turns out to be unimportant.


Remember, unlucky people focus narrowly on their goal; lucky people work toward their goal but stay open to the unexpected. It’s important to avoid making an overly specific, rigid plan ahead of time. If you’re too fixed on where you think you’re going, then you’ll perceive an accident as an annoyance, and your first instinct will be to work around it. Start your work without too detailed a plan; expect valuable accidents to happen. There’s a tension here with the first step, ask, which is all about the importance of having a good question and a clear goal. Your goal must be clear, but it must stay general, because the greatest creativity happens when the goal isn’t too detailed and specific. The most creative problems provide a general guide forward, yet leave room for improvisations in response to mistakes and surprises.


Trust in the creative process; ideas will come soon enough. The key is what you do while you’re relaxing. Don’t just snack and watch TV. Do something that engages your mind and body in a way that’s totally different from your focused work time. Physical activity is particularly effective: your conscious mind focuses on the movement, freeing up the space your subconscious needs to sneak new ideas into awareness. Go out for coffee; take a walk; exercise; work in the garden; wash your car; repair an appliance. Seymour Cray, the legendary designer of supercomputers, had an odd hobby: he spent countless hours digging an underground tunnel leading from the basement of his house in Chippewa Falls. Why? I work for three hours and then get stumped, he explained. So I quit and go to work in the tunnel. It takes me an hour or so to dig four inches and put in boards Then I go up [to my lab] and work some more.


Successful creators are playful and inquisitive. When you live your life with a playful attitude, you develop an instinct to spend five minutes here and there mastering tiny boxes — just like children at play learn everything about how marbles roll on different carpet textures, or how a Slinky travels down the stairs. Before you know it, you’re an expert in hundreds of tiny boxes. And that’s when good things start to happen unexpectedly because good ideas come from blending lots of different tiny boxes.


When you’re forced to keep generating ideas to reach a quota, you typically go through the same process:

  1. At first, the ideas are predictable and ordinary.
  2. Then, you enter a phase of fatigue, where the ideas are uninspired.
  3. Finally, you start to surprise yourself with unexpected new ideas.
That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.